Tim Tai, Photo Editor

According to 2020 data by The Sentencing Project, more than 700 people are currently serving effective life sentences in Connecticut. 

The Yale Law School’s Law and Racial Justice Center and The Visiting Room Project will present the Facing Life Symposium on March 30 and 31, discussing the ramifications of a life sentence without the possibility of parole, how advocates are working for change in Connecticut and Louisiana and what attendees can do for their incarcerated neighbors.

The two-day event will feature the voices of formerly and currently incarcerated people who were interviewed as part of The Visiting Project’s digital archive — the world’s largest collection of first-person testimonials from people serving a life sentence. The organization’s slogan reads, “each of us has the power to disrupt mass incarceration,” reflecting the core role of advocacy in the organization’s mission. 

“Long sentences are pretty common today, but public conversations about what, if anything, they accomplish, are not,” Kayla Vinson ’11, executive director of the Law and Racial Justice Center, told the News. 

She emphasized the importance of contemplating and analyzing the impact mass incarceration has on an individual and their family, in hopes of finding a way to “collectively chart our way to a different world.” 

Before returning to New Haven, Vinson worked as a staff attorney in Montgomery, Alabama, where the majority of her clients served lengthy sentences with very minimal avenues of relief. 

“The disconnect between what I knew about our clients as people and the conditions of their lives in prison was jarring,” Vinson wrote. “It is important to have conversations about the sheer scale of the carceral system, how many people get ensnared, and the percentage of our public resources devoted to the criminal legal system.”

Annie Nisenson, director of public programming of The Visiting Room Project, shared similar sentiments as she described the reasons for bringing the project to New Haven. 

One of the project’s contributors, Jimmy Robinson, is a New Haven resident who finally made it home after 42 years of incarceration at Angola, a maximum-security prison in Louisiana. The organization continues to screen their testimonial videos and hold conversations in the hometown communities of the project’s contributors.

Ariane Lewis, program manager for storytelling at the Law and Racial Justice Center, commented on the need to integrate such discussions into the New Haven community, bringing  “the stories of the incarcerated out from the shadows.”

“It is virtually impossible to hear the voices of people locked away for the rest of their lives,” Nisenson wrote. “This calculated erasure robs the public of the opportunity to grasp the human toll of this historical and present-day catastrophe.” 

As such, the goal of the symposium is to provide an opportunity for open and transparent dialogue surrounding incarceration and the criminal justice system at large. 

However, the organization also stresses the scale of this endemic issue, utilizing quantitative data to reinforce their mission. According to statistics provided by The Visiting Room Project, the ‘life without parole’ population in the United States has more than quadrupled in the past three decades, totalling 55,000 people. Of this number, two-thirds are Black, Indigenous or other people of color. 

“Life without parole is distinguished from other punishments by its sheer hopelessness,” states The Visiting Room Project’s website. “It is a sentence to die in prison; yet, despite its extreme nature, life without parole has been imposed with increasing frequency in the United States over the last four decades.” 

Conversations on the reality of life sentences will be led by The Visiting Room Project’s co-creators Marcus Kondkar and Calvin Duncan at the symposium. Kondkar currently serves as the chair of the sociology department at Loyola University New Orleans, where he researches incarceration and sentencing patterns. Duncan is an expert in post-conviction law — after being wrongly convicted and sentenced to life without parole, he served 28 and a half years in Louisiana prisons before winning his freedom in 2011.

Additionally, many other contributors are scheduled to join the event, including Arthur Carter, Daryl Waters, Everett Offray and Jimmy Robinson. All four men were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, and have since unexpectedly come home due to changes in their legal circumstances. Taken together, these panelists served more than 130 years in prison in total. 

“Despite declining incarceration rates in the U.S.—still the highest in the world—the proportion of incarcerated people sentenced to die in prison has continued to grow and shows no sign of retreat,” Nisenson wrote.

Co-sponsors of the symposium include Freedom Reads, the Liman Center and the Afro-American Cultural Center.

Brooklyn Brauner serves as a staff reporter for the City desk, covering Nonprofits and Social Services throughout New Haven, in addition to serving as the Thursday Newsletter Editor. Originally from Wisconsin, she is currently a sophomore in Grace Hopper College studying Political Science.