Southern Center for Human Rights Director Stephen Bright spoke Tuesday about the severe suffering of the HIV-positive inmates in Limestone, Ala., where he said rats ran rampant, prisoners were not given medication, and some died drowning in their own respiratory fluids while many more died from starvation after having to beg for food.

About 20 people at the Davenport Master’s Tea listened in silence as Bright discussed his work in representing death penalty defendants and advocating prison reform in the South.

Bright recounted stories of what he referred to as “degrading” conditions that he said leave prisoners “profoundly destroyed.” He described cases where prisoners were starved, beaten and raped.

He said often the poorest and most powerless people are those targeted by the criminal system. These people include African Americans — a group of citizens that, in Georgia, according to Bright, is six times more likely to be sent to prison on a first offense than whites.

“Their powerlessness is just staggering,” Bright said.

Bright said there are many other more cost-effective ways of helping criminals outside the prison setting. Keeping people in prison for extensive periods of time is not the way to help them, he said.

But allowing prisoners to go to college, he said, would greatly decrease their likelihood of returning to prison later on in their lives.

Bright said offenders are not beyond redemption.

“It is a mistake to give up on people at any point in their lives,” he said.

Bright ended his talk with a call for students to come forward to help and support these death penalty defendants and prisoners.

“There is a tremendous need for people in prison just to have some people who have the intelligence, the organizational skills, and everything that they have to take care of them,” Bright said. “It’s not hopeless. It can be done.”

During the question and answer session, students were eager to raise questions about the reasons behind the failure of the nation’s criminal system and what could be done to resolve the situation. Many said they were pleased to learn about the role students could play.

“I especially appreciated the emphasis [Bright] put on anyone being able to help [the prisoners],” Paige Austin ’06 said.

Laura Jacobson ’07 said she gained awareness of injustice in the criminal system after the talk.

“I tend to think that the most serious problems are in the Third World countries, and I still think that they are, but we need to be reminded that this is happening in the United States and we should not get complacent about this [issue],” Jacobson said.

Bright has represented death penalty defendants since 1979 and has testified before the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. He has also taught at the law schools at Yale, Harvard, Emory, Georgetown, Northeastern and Florida State universities.