Yale students usually hear about prison life in dispassionate lectures and lifeless statistics. But on Monday, some Yalies got to learn about life behind bars from someone who experienced it firsthand.
Yale’s Student Legal Action Movement, or SLAM, held its monthly informational meeting on Monday night at Dwight Hall. Members discussed prisoners’ rights and discrimination in the criminal justice system and also got to hear about police brutality from New Haven resident and activist Shelton Tucker.
A member of People Against Injustice, Tucker kicked off the meeting by sharing his experiences with what he considers prevalent police brutality.
“I witnessed a lot of misconduct — whether it’s judges or prosecutors or others,” he said.
He said he saw widespread misconduct among corrections officers when he was in prison. For example, some prison sentences were lengthened substantially by officers who distributed disciplinary tickets to inmates seemingly without reason, Tucker said.
“When I was in prison, as anybody should know, the conditions were horrible,” said Tucker. “It’s just a bad place to be, even without [the stereotypes]. They treat you like an animal, you get 23 and a half-hour lockdown. It’s a terrible place to be.”
He added: “It’s not about rehabilitation anymore; it just matters that you sit there so they can get that money for the state.”
After these passionate words, Tucker’s mother, Barbara Fair, criticized the criminal justice system.
“I see it a lot as vigilante justice; it’s not so much about crime,” she said. “Ninety percent of the reason people plea bargain is because they fear that the justice system won’t be fair.”
The existence of groups like SLAM reflects a popular opinion that the ideals of prison reform are no longer being upheld. And with the current annual cost of housing an inmate at just over $27,000 in Connecticut, some residents are concerned that some of those funds are not being used in the most appropriate way.
“We spend $30,000 a year to send largely nonviolent offenders to prison while we could send them somewhere like Yale,” SLAM member Chesa Boudin ’03 said. “We’re not paying them welfare; we’re not paying for their education.”
Steven Osserman MUS ’03, another member of SLAM, presented a review of the group’s upcoming activities, which include a community-organized film screening scheduled for mid-November. In addition, Boudin and Anita Seth GRD ’05 are organizing a free van pickup system to help prisoners’ loved ones visit the two Connecticut prisons which currently do not provide transportation.
The project is to serve as the foundation for a lobbying group aimed at the state Department of Corrections, Boudin said.
At the same time, Julian Perez ’03 said he was organizing an investigation into whether Yale has a partnership with the Cheshire Correctional Institution. The prison’s inmates have been producing Yale University bumper stickers, Perez said.
Tucker closed the meeting by drawing parallels between police brutality and the possible attack on Iraq.
“They’re carrying on their own agenda in the name of the American people — just as the Yale Police act in the name of Yale students,” he said. “Driving by, it was like driving past this fortress of people who don’t care.”