Phillip Roberts had been incarcerated twice, spending two years away from his family, friends, and society. While serving those sentences, he also put pen to paper as part of the Indiana Prison Writers Workshop. The program provides those serving time with a positive and creative outlet during one of the most challenging times of their lives.
The 29-year-old tattoo artist and father is now using his writing and experiences behind bars to help a group of strangers better understand mass incarceration. They had gathered as part of a community discussion planned by SPEA graduate students in the Public Policy Process course.
Roberts opened the event by reading a poem he wrote while incarcerated.
“It was really powerful and set the mood for the evening,” says Madison Alton, a SPEA graduate student pursing an MPA in Nonprofit Management.
She and other students spent the entire fall semester researching mass incarceration, planning this event, and searching for ways to help their audience connect with the issue.
Roberts provided that first connection point by sharing his personal and emotional story. Yet the group didn’t rely on emotion alone.
To provide a look at the full scope of the issue, the team brought in SPEA Executive Associate Dean Tom Stucky; Brad Ray, an associate professor with SPEA and the director of the Center for Health and Justice Research at the IU Public Policy Institute; and Judge David Shaheed, a SPEA adjunct faculty member and retired Marion County Superior Court drug treatment and reentry court judge.
The goal was to combine academic research and first-hand experience from those involved in the criminal justice system so attendees were better equipped to continue the conversation long after the event ended.
Each expert traveled from table to table, providing different perspectives based on the lens through which they view the system. Dean Stucky discussed risk factors associated with incarceration. Ray spoke about incarceration alternatives for those facing substance use disorders and mental health issues. Judge Shaheed provided insight from his 20 years of experiences on the bench, and Roberts gave an inside look into life in prison.
“This was an opportunity to connect the dots for people,” says Samantha Buran, a SPEA grad student focused on policy analysis.
Buran says many people had questions about why governments tend to focus on building new jails rather than exploring alternatives to incarceration. But she says some attendees weren’t prepared for the honest answer.
“It’s just a matter of whether there is the political will to change the system,” she says. “That realization always takes people aback. They see we have the solutions, yet people in power aren’t listening.”
Buran added that while many people were surprised by what they heard during the event, they also found comfort in the conversation.
“They learned there was research to back up what they were thinking,” she says. “They saw they weren’t the only ones who felt change was needed. Now they know there are people who study these topics who agree that something needs to be done.”
The group had successfully accomplished their goal. They had empowered the community with research and opened a data-driven dialogue about mass incarceration. They created connections and conversations outside their own comfort zones.
“We had some people in the audience who were previously incarcerated,” Alton says. “They told us they were happy to see that people cared about the topic, especially a group of students who weren’t representative of the incarcerated population.”
A demographic disconnect was also bridged for people who attended the event. Alton says she saw a change in her own mother who was initially focused only on why Roberts was serving time. But after she heard him read his poem and talked to him at her table, that focus changed.
“She realized it didn’t really matter and didn’t know why she had even cared in the beginning,” Alton recalls.
That shift in thinking came about all because of a research-based discussion and a person-to-person connection. Roberts had set the stage for that connection at the beginning of the night by setting the tone with a clear message for the masses about mass incarceration: “redemption is possible and my worst deeds don’t define who I am.”