Guilford Church Hosts Criminal Justice Conference

2/14/2019
By Grace O'Connor

On Saturday, February 5th, First Congregational Church of Guilford, CT hosted a program entitled “Just Mercy: Community Resettlement After Prison”.  Several different organizations involved in bringing about justice for current and former inmates gave presentations regarding their work.  The event was well-attended by a mixture of parishioners from First Congregational, others involved in criminal justice work, and members of the general public. 

The Judy Dworin Performance Project uses various forms of performance art to give women affected by incarceration a voice to share their stories and make connections with the audience.  A group of five women performed “Finding Stillness” on Saturday, which involved a combination of singing and spoken word.  Judy Dworin, the project’s founder, described this piece’s aim as turning sadness, difficulty, and pain into hope.   

Judge Jeff Meyer and several of his colleagues, next spoke about the Reentry Court.  The Court’s goal is to invite individuals at the end of their sentences to return to court in order to receive support as they reintegrate into society.  This includes help with decision-making, building a support network, reconnecting with family, navigating the court system, making connections to find jobs, and assistance with obtaining health care, driver’s licenses, and other needs.  Individuals in this program additionally receive assistance and support from their probation officers regarding support and connections to resources. 

Smart Justice, led by Anderson Curtis, is a group of volunteers with goals to end mass incarceration and change society’s perception of people in prison and returning home from prison.  Many of the volunteers at the event had themselves been incarcerated and knew first-hand the challenges of resettlement.  They shared their personal stories with the intention of relating to people and undoing misinformed assumptions that are often made about them to assert that they are just as much humans as anyone else, speaking to Smart Justice’s slogan “people not prisons”. 

During lunch, members of the Phoenix Association had the opportunity to speak.  Phoenix’s goal is to change the organizational structure of US prisons.  The hope is that a prison environment that is safe, secure, restorative, respectful, and helpful will increase productivity during a sentence.  Members who spoke brought up socioeconomic factors, such as poverty during childhood, that may have an influence on landing a person in jail, inviting listeners to consider where resources may be needed outside of prisons in the fight for true criminal justice. 

Members of the Connecticut Women’s Consortium, including coordinator Kathleen Callahan, spoke after lunchtime about Beyond Trauma, a six-week program focused on gender-specific issues designed to address the trauma many women deal with before, during, and after their sentences.  Prisons often do not offer programs that address this trauma, hindering individuals from building healthy relationships, reintegrating to the community, and recovering from mental health problems upon release from prison.  

A section of Just Mercy entitled “Reentry Round Table Visions” gave representatives from several organizations a platform to speak about their initiatives, including Amy Smoyer of Women’s Resettlement Working Group and Welcome Home Project, Deb Rogala of Hartford’s Reentry Center, and Earl Bloodworth of New Haven’s Reentry Project.  All these programs offer support and resources for individuals returning to their respective communities after a sentence. 

The Prison Arts Program’s manager, Jeff Greene, explained this Community Partners in Action program focused on using art to encourage inmates to transcend prison and the identity it gives them.  Doing art gives individuals a sense of control and responsibility that is helpful in preparing them for decision-making upon release. He showed a video in which many incarcerated individuals gave testimony to the benefits they received of being involved in the Arts Program. 

Lastly, Beatrice Codianni, founder of Sex Worker and Allies Network, was joined by a volunteer and a recipient to speak. SWAN’s goal is to keep people safer and healthier within the situations they are already in, which they accomplish with initiatives such as free Narcan training and kits in case of accidental overdoses, distribution of free syringes and collection of used ones to prevent spreading of disease, self-defense classes for people living on the streets, and temporary housing for sex workers.   

Just Mercy addressed many issues faced by individuals during and following incarceration.  “I never really thought about the mental well-being of some prisoners after prison” says event attendee Sean Rodriguez, “they were definitely bringing awareness.”  Yet the event made clear there is still much work to be done in the community to achieve justice in this realm.   

Grace O’Connor is a UConn student assisting the Conference with ministry program support as an intern through the Urban Semester program.