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Erin Corbett ’99 stands in front of a prison

Unbarring Progress

Being a Swarthmorean means being part of a long line of forward-looking social-justice workers, stretching back to the early years of the United States, Quakerism, and the movement for the abolition of slavery. But even as much of the 19th-century Philadelphia Quaker community was agitating for an end to one “peculiar institution” that put human beings in chains, destroyed families, and enforced unpaid labor, those same Philadelphians were experimenting with another: the modern prison. Eastern State Penitentiary, built in 1829, is seen as an important early model for a U.S. prison system that has exploded in size since the civil rights movement.

Over the years, many members of the greater Swarthmore community have led efforts to fight this disturbing trend—to shrink the prison system, make it more humane, and offer those currently or ever incarcerated greater opportunities for advancement and rehabilitation. Partly at the suggestion of a Swarthmore professor, the late H. Haines Turner ’30 refused his family inheritance and spent decades devoted to improving prison conditions. More recently, the Bulletin has highlighted the work of reformers such as Ellen Barry ’75, Julie Biddle Zimmerman ’68, and Keith Reeves ’88.

The problem of prisons remains unsolved … for now. But no matter how challenging the political climate may prove, Swarthmorean lawyers, writers, educators, and activists continue to dedicate themselves to the complex challenge of prison reform, one of the key civil rights issues of our time.


The Educator

For Erin Corbett ’99, prison education is more than just one job—it’s many. In 2017 alone, Corbett has taken action to broaden educational opportunities for incarcerated people through at least four professional roles: as a doctoral candidate with the University of Pennsylvania, studying the relationship between prisoners’ educational attainment and postrelease employment outcomes; as an employee of the New Jersey-based Petey Greene Program, training volunteers to tutor inside prisons; as a business entrepreneurship instructor in a women’s facility with College Unbound, which offers academic, for-credit programming in the Rhode Island Department of Corrections; and as CEO of her own Connecticut-based Second Chance Educational Alliance, helping incarcerated men prepare for postsecondary educational opportunities.

“I do a lot of driving,” chuckles Corbett, whose commitments often take her across state lines and in and out of some of America’s most elite—and most subjugated—institutional environments.

Though she earned her doctorate from Penn’s Graduate School of Education in May, Corbett plans to keep at least one foot outside academia for the long term.

“I’ve always been a hands-on person,” she says. “Practical application of research has always been where I’ve found the greatest fulfillment. I definitely want to continue research, but so that what I actually do inside facilities has a data-driven basis.”

Her work focuses on one overarching problem: too many young people—disproportionately men of color—locked up during the early-adulthood years that would normally be devoted to schooling. If and when they’re released, it’s into a job market already hostile to anyone with a criminal record, let alone someone with an incomplete education.

Federal guidelines require all state corrections departments to provide high school equivalency-level educational opportunities. After that, depending on the facility, the opportunities often dry up, Corbett says, even though research indicates participation in and completion of these educational programs reduces recidivism.

Corbett focuses on acting locally. Her Second Chance program, co-founded with Erwin T. Hurst, partners with a prerelease facility in Connecticut, helping men with a high school diploma or GED refresh their knowledge and skills so they can pursue higher education upon release.

“These are guys who have a credential but may not feel like they’re ready for traditional postsecondary,” Corbett says. “Second Chance is that buffer to help them build their study skills and confidence. I would love to see it at more facilities.”

Looking forward, Corbett expects her next research project to focus on determining the best methods of preparing teachers to work with incarcerated people, which means reckoning with a discomfiting paradox at the heart of prison education.

“The prison classroom is such a unique space from an educator’s point of view,” Corbett says. “You are trying to stimulate critical thinking in the context of a total institution that does not encourage it.”


The Exonerators

At a basketball tournament, a 12-year-old Seth Steed ’01 witnessed his first know-your-rights workshop … and discovered what he wanted to devote his life to doing.

“Learning about every citizen’s constitutional rights blew my mind,” Steed says. “I’m passionate about criminal justice reform today from growing up in East Harlem. During the ’80s and ’90s, I saw the negative effects of overpolicing on my community.”

That passion eventually brought Steed from a law firm in Washington, D.C., to the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, an organization known for its innovative, community-based public defense practice. Steed later joined the Legal Aid Society of New York City, where, as appellate counsel, he reinvestigated 23 questionable homicide convictions.

His proudest moment so far has been the February 2016 exoneration of Vanessa Gathers, a Brooklyn woman wrongly imprisoned for manslaughter for 10 years after being induced into confessing to a crime she did not commit.

“I was there at the right time, and I had trial skills,” says Steed, who reinvestigated her case for three years with Legal Aid colleagues and pro bono counsel from a New York firm.

On the Gathers case and others, Steed worked with another Legal Aid appellate counsel, David Crow ’80, who had helped develop the playbook for modern public-defender exoneration cases.

But for two years, Steed never stepped all the way inside his mentor’s office. When he did, he was greeted with a familiar sight.

“In the far corner, he had a diploma I recognized,” says Steed. “Without knowing that he was also an alum, David’s Swarthmore-ness had come through, and we were drawn to each other. It means to me that you have a commitment to social justice, and you want to make the world a better place.”

(Steed also worked alongside Ursula Bentele ’65, who directed the Capital Defender and Federal Habeas Clinic at Brooklyn Law School for many years until her 2015 retirement, when she joined Legal Aid as a part-time volunteer attorney.)

It was Crow’s turn to be happily surprised when, in 2016, Steed was offered a job in the Bronx DA’s Conviction Integrity Unit; well-intentioned conviction-review units are rare enough in DA offices, but hires with résumés like Steed’s are even rarer.

“It’s really the prosecutor who has the most power in these situations,” Crow says. “We think one of the keys is to bring people with a variety of backgrounds into the conviction-review unit. Seth being a defense lawyer, it was almost without precedent.

“It is a significant step in getting conviction-review units to play the role they should play,” Crow adds. “Ultimately, it’s up to the elected DA. It’s something for every citizen to be concerned about: Is the DA concerned with justice, or with defending their own office?”

For Steed, who had come to his appellate work expecting to take an oppositional role to prosecutors and police, the new job was a significant shift.

As a public defender, he had “been fighting against what I perceived as the systemic subjugation of people of color for almost a decade. The fight against mass incarceration is the civil rights issue of my generation. Could I now be part of the government and continue to do this important work?”

In the end, he was convinced by the character of his new boss, Bronx DA Darcel Clark, who was elected on a campaign of racial justice and reform, and who became the first black female DA in New York state history.

“I decided it was worth a shot, if DA Clark was willing to take a chance on a career public defender like me, and she’s shown me nothing but institutional support,” Steed says. “She is a person of substance and conviction, dedicated to justice, fairness, and restoring the public’s faith in the criminal justice system. I am tremendously proud to be a part of this groundbreaking and vitally important work in the Bronx.”

In fact, in Clark’s first year in office, based upon the work of her Conviction Integrity Unit, she agreed to vacate two homicide convictions.

Steed is optimistic about the future, given the changes that he’s witnessed so far.

“Since 1989, almost 2,000 people have been exonerated, by DNA or other evidence,” he says. “That’s about 70 people a year. That’s a lot of lives.”

Crow, for his part, stresses the immensity of the task ahead, even if things are slowly getting better.

“We’ve spent the past 30 years throwing money at the criminal justice system to get them to deal with every problem we’ve had,” he says. “We’re going to spend the next 30 trying to ratchet down that approach and rescue people who are survivors of that system.”


The Muckraker

Before a high school classmate was arrested and eventually deported, Maya Schenwar ’05 had never seen the inside of a correctional institution.

During winter break of her senior year at Swarthmore, Schenwar visited the friend at the jail where he was being detained before deportation. A Phoenix columnist at the time, she thought she might write something about immigration policy based on the experience. The visit changed everything.

“It was shocking,” Schenwar says. “This is a system where this person who is about to be sent away for at least the next 10 years and split from his family can’t even hug his mother—he’s sitting behind glass and talking to her on the telephone.”

When Schenwar returned to Swarthmore, she authored her first column on prisons. It would not be her last. As editor-in-chief of Truthout, an independent social-justice publication backed by a board of advisers that includes Bill Ayers, Dean Baker ’80, and Mark Ruffalo, Schenwar has zeroed in on the topic of prisons, penning several New York Times op-eds, including “Too Many People in Jail? Abolish Bail” and “A Virtual Visit to a Relative in Jail.”

“Unless there’s some presence in the media, this issue is going to stay invisible, because the people who are locked inside the system are made invisible,” Schenwar says. “That’s the point of the system. I never would have been to a jail if someone I knew hadn’t been incarcerated.”

Unfortunately, mass incarceration has hit even closer to home for Schenwar: Her sister has struggled with opioid addiction and repeated imprisonment.

“If you have a criminal record, you’re more likely to be sentenced to prison again,” she explains. “My sister got stuck in that cycle. She’s always been arrested for very minor offenses, but she is continually getting stuck in jail or prison, because she’s seen as a person who’s gone to prison.”

As Schenwar began considering a book on her prison reporting and essays, it became obvious that she had a specific story to tell through her family’s experiences.

“One of the main problems with media coverage of prisons is that it focuses on politics or statistics or third-person stories, but it doesn’t actually provide a way for readers to understand the humanity of people in prison,” she says. “Until we do that, there isn’t going to be significant progress.”

Her 2014 book, Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better, is an attempt to address that empathy gap by intertwining a policy-level indictment of the modern prison industry with the intimate story of her sister’s—and her family’s—struggle.

Convicted of stealing a bottle of perfume, Schenwar’s pregnant sister was sent to prison. Family members were not allowed into the hospital room while she gave birth; immediately after the baby arrived, the mother was shackled to the bedpost in a way that made it hard for her to hold her child. She was forced to return to prison 24 hours after giving birth, while Schenwar and her family took charge of the baby. And, for several days after returning to prison, Schenwar’s sister was unreachable.

“The warden wasn’t around to authorize a phone call,” Schenwar says. “We had no idea what was going on. Meanwhile, she was put through this torture, separated from her baby. Some mothers go through this and never see their child again.”

Experiences like this have clarified Schenwar’s belief that mass incarceration is a key driver of inequality, racial and social injustice, and economic insecurity.

“We have to understand,” she says, “that prisons affect families, communities, and, ultimately, all of us.”


The Challenges Ahead

There is reason to be optimistic: For much of the past decade, shrinking the prison population has seemed like a genuinely bipartisan priority.

“Conservatives and liberals agree that the criminal justice system is fiscally irresponsible,” Steed says. “We spend a lot of time warehousing a lot of people at a very high cost. With 45 years of the war on drugs to look back on, we realize: This is a public health issue. Opioid use and addiction should not be treated criminally. My hope is that the prison population should decrease greatly.”

Unfortunately, that consensus may be receding.

“With recent decisions by the attorney general to reinstate mandatory minimums and truth in sentencing,” Corbett warns, “we are starting to see the clock turn back to 1994, ’95, ’96, where incarceration rates skyrocketed overnight.”

Whether or not the reformists or reactionaries win out in the current moment, mass incarceration remains a reminder of a deep-rooted contradiction in core American values. To really address it requires an idealism both enduring and constantly refreshed with study and exposure to new ideas. Schenwar, for one, associates that type of idealism with Swarthmore, where she developed her own values in the context of the campus antiwar community of the early 2000s, and in the shadow of the institution’s long-held commitment to peace and social justice.

“Immersed in those circles, my understanding of prisons emerged differently than it would have otherwise,” Schenwar says. “Not, ‘We need fewer people in prison’ or ‘Our policies have to be better.’ This is true. But I also saw, and now see more clearly, a larger vision: This oppressive structure should not exist.”

‘Friends’ in the Fight

The Quaker and Swarthmore tradition of campaigning for prison reform is rich and deep, as evidenced by these activists whose work continues to inspire. Explore the Friends Historical Library archives online or in person for more!

William Penn (1644–1718) is known as the first great Quaker prison reformer. He wrote his spiritual classic No Cross, No Crown while locked in the Tower of London. FHL has 70 copies, in three languages, dating from 1669 to 2001, including the first edition.

Isaac T. Hopper (1771–1852) and his daughter Abigail Hopper Gibbons (1801–1893) were ardent abolitionists dedicated to prison reform. His portrait hangs in Parrish; they founded the Women’s Prison Association, still active today.

Anna Wharton Morris (1868–1957) became deeply interested in prison reform over newspaper reports of cruelty to young inmates. Her papers at FHL include cartoons depicting prison life at Eastern State Penitentiary in the 1920s, drawn by an insider.

Elizabeth Gurney Fry (1780–1845) was a British Quaker famous for advocating for incarcerated women and children. Until last year, she was featured on the Bank of England’s 5-pound note. FHL has a number of images of her, many books and articles about her, and a few of her original documents.

Edward Townsend (1806–1896) served as Eastern State Penitentiary’s warden from 1870 to 1881. He ensured prisoners received compensation for their work and was instrumental in passing legislation to reduce sentences for good behavior.