On Saturday, April 8, students, faculty, former prisoners and their families and members of the larger community congregated in the Aula for the 18th annual Green Haven Reunion.
Hanna Stasiuk ’20 did not know what to expect walking into the event. Commenting on the warm reunion, she remarked, “People were hugging and chatting, happy to be reunited with one another. I overheard many say that they attend the lecture every year. The atmosphere was very empathetic. People were nodding and grunting as the women spoke. Clearly, they related to their experiences. I got a real sense of community and understanding. I’ve also never seen a lecture where so many people were eager to participate.”
Vassar has had a partnership with Green Haven Correctional Facility in Stormville, NY, since 1979, when former Professor of Sociology Lawrence Mamiya began bringing students to the prison to take part in discussions facilitated by inmates. Professor Mamiya took students participating in the prison program to Green Haven, which is a maximum security prison, for 32 years, and then Otisville, a medium security prison, for eight years after that.
“The programs included student-inmate dialogue groups and college courses which I taught,” commented Mamiya. “I created the Reunion to bring together the men who had been released, the Vassar alums who worked with them and current students.” Starting in 1999, Vassar has held an annual reunion that brings together community activists and alumnae/i of both Vassar and Green Haven. The 2017 reunion featured four distinct keynote speakers, a screening of the film “Out in the Night” and two workshops.
The purpose of the Vassar-Green Haven alliance is to catalyze meaningful discussions and promote mutual learning, while paying attention to issues of mass incarceration and the criminal justice system. An article in the Vassar Quarterly elaborated, “The purpose of the dialogues is for students to provide information about what is happening in the outside world, and for prisoners to share their experiences of life in prison. Discussion groups initially focused on current events, but have since taken on topics ranging from domestic violence to fatherhood” (Vassar Quarterly, “The Classroom Inside: Green Haven Prison,” 2002). The discussion groups are organized by the Think Tank, which is an inmate-led program that also runs Green Haven’s Pre-Release Center. Beyond collaborating with Vassar students, “The Think Tank’s philosophy was that inmates could and should provide peer counseling to other inmates in order to help them face the parole board and, ultimately, to transition back into society.”
Opportunities for students at Vassar who are interested in tackling the issues surrounding the prison industrial complex have come a long way since 1979. The Africana Studies program now offers a prison studies correlate, which incorporates an experiential learning project, such as taking a course taught within a prison.
Director of Africana Studies and Professor of History Quincy Mills elaborated, “I hope to connect some of our students with community organizations and community activists to get students actively involved in the work that is absolutely needed in Poughkeepsie and around the country.”
Featured this year at the Green Haven Reunion were Venice Brown, Terrain Dandridge, Renata Hill and Patreese Johnson, a group of women known collectively as The New Jersey Four. In 2006, seven women were approached by an aggressive man on the street and reacted in self-defense.
This event and the following trial incited raucous media coverage and defamation of the women’s character, with three of the women pleading guilty and the others–the New Jersey Four–asserting their innocence, but instead receiving sentences that ranged from three and a half to 11 years long. The tabloids aggressively responded to the event, calling the women a gang of “killer lesbians” and a “wolf pack.” Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology Jasmine Syedullah noted, “It makes their story very unique, but also incredibly exemplary of the times of systemic violence that we are encountering in all kinds of ways.”
Filmmaker and producer Blair Dorosh-Walther was inspired to create a cinematic retelling of the story through “Out in the Night.” Regarding the film, Johnson remarked, “I thought it would be neat if I did [the movie] for women who can’t speak or tell their stories…our voices were quieted in times of trial.” Likewise, Brown commented, “When you’re behind bars, you don’t have access to the basic things you need to be telling your story, nobody wants to be reading your story, nobody cares about your story… people think that if you’re in prison, you’re automatically guilty.”
Brown continued, “I felt like it would be a good idea to get my friend’s story out so everybody could find the truth and also, like [Johnson] said, tell this story [on behalf of] me and many of the other women incarcerated who couldn’t speak for themselves or didn’t have a voice or didn’t have an outlet, because we were fortunate enough to have someone care enough about us to tell our story for us.”