On Saturday, Apr. 4, Vassar hosted the 16th Annual Green Haven Reunion, at which keynote speaker Jeffrey Smith addressed dozens of formerly incarcerated people, students and other community members.
Smith was the first formerly incarcerated person to graduate from Vassar College, receiving his undergraduate degree in the Class of 1974. Years later, after graduating from a joint-degree program in policy at Princeton and law at Yale, Smith became the first formerly incarcerated person to gain admission to the New York State Bar, after which he quickly became an accredited lawyer.
He is currently a partner in a midtown Manhattan law firm– Wolf, Haldenstein, Adler, Freeman & Herz LLP– where he represents investors in class-action lawsuits to “sue corporate America.” Additionally, Smith sits as Chairman of the Board of Directors for the Osborne Association.
Smith had been arrested in 1969 for selling marijuana to undercover agents and was sentenced to seven to 15 years in prison. Because of community support, however, he was granted early parole after four years at Green Haven.
He was the first person to graduate with a college degree from a New York State prison, an associate degree from Dutchess Community College in 1972. He had applied to Vassar earlier and was admitted because of his stellar record. He left Green Haven on a Friday afternoon and moved into a dorm at Vassar on a Sunday morning in late August 1972. He graduated in 1974 and also met his wife there.
The Green Haven Prison Program, around which Saturday’s event was organized and focused, began in 1979 at the Pre-Release Center at Green Haven in New York. Then-Professor of Religion and Africana Studies at Vassar Lawrence Mamiya taught courses that dealt with the concept of institutional racism in the United States and began to bring his classes each semester to Green Haven Correctional Facility, a New York State prison.
After meeting with a group of men from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) at Green Haven, the director of the Pre-Release Center invited Mamiya and other students to plan a formal program with the men at the Center. These dialogues between Vassar students and those incarcerated at Green Haven began and ended up continuing to be a thriving program at Vassar.
According to Mamiya, during these visits it was obvious to students that the prisons were highly segregated. He commented, “Most of the incarcerated persons are Black or Latino and the officers and administrators are white. I usually didn’t have to say much since the students were able to see and experience institutional racism for themselves.”
The reunion events first began in 1999, once the Green Haven Prison Program had been in existence for 20 years; some of the men who had been released were invited to Vassar to meet and spend time with students. These reunions continued as a tradition ever since.
The Vassar Prison Initiative (VPI) has been integral in the planning process of the event through fundraising, contracting speakers, sending out invitations, and catering. VPI President Sean Larner ’15, spoke of the importance of the reunion not only for the formerly incarcerated people who attend, but for the Vassar community as well.
He remarked, “The Green Haven Reunion is a powerful platform, where student and community activism blends in real tangible ways. In a lot of cases students are faced with a glaring disconnect between lofty ideals talked about in class and, simultaneously, an inability to recognize and reckon with oppression occurring in real time.”
At this year’s reunion, Smith talked about the Osborne Association and their dedication to helping people readjust to society after release. Smith talked much about his own experience with reentry after release and remarked on the simplicity of transferring into an institution like Vassar.
He commented, “College was a lot like prison. It provided you with a place to sleep, a schedule, and grownups telling you what to do and when to do it.”
“It made the transition much easier because it’s the lack of those things that trip people up when they come out of prison. Of course there was a lot more freedom at Vassar,” he went on to say.
Smith stressed that, if formal schooling is unavailable, the importance of the original 24/7 institution, family, not be neglected. He claimed that the biggest priority today when dealing with the criminal justice system would be to decrease the reliance on punishment and to educate people on crime and how to move on after incarceration.
Smith also touched on issues that are very sensitive to many today, including institutional racism and police brutality in America. He noted that the United States currently has the highest percentage of people in prison and that, on average, one in four black men in America between the ages of 16 and 40 will at some point be confronted with the reality of being subjected in some way to the American justice system.
He asserted, “America has a problem with cops, they think they are heroes not just people.” Furthermore, he went on to speak to the popular debate as to whether or not police officers should be required by law to wear body cameras while on duty.
Smith explained, “The average person out there wants to believe that the police are keeping them safe and they want to believe it so badly that they disregard evidence until it hits them in the face. Body cameras can provide this evidence.”
Attendants were overall pleased with the event and its implications. Current Chairperson of the National Action Network NYC Chapter Second Chance Committee Victor Pate, also a formerly incarcerated person, has been attending the reunion for seven years said that he thought the reunion was particularly valuable for its ability to unite formerly incarcerated persons around common goals and give them a space in which to discuss them as a group.
“[The annual reunion] allowed the community to have continuum in strategies and to measure, compare and share what is working and what is not in efforts for reform. It is also a great opportunity to establish new networks,” Pate said.
The annual event bears significant meaning to many of those who participate as a chance to meet, talk to and engage with individuals with similar experiences. Larner remarked, “The Green Haven Reunion is, essentially, a brain trust. Some of the most dedicated, brilliant formerly incarcerated activists—doing the groundwork for a larger movement—attend and participate every year. This is Larry Mamiya’s legacy. A lifetime of hard, oftentimes unrewarded work. Now we, as the next generation of changemakers, have an opportunity to step up and continue this legacy.”