DWOJ conversation focuses on prison advocates

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February 21, 2017

12:11 AM

The third and final Daily Work of Justice conversation was centered on the experiences of those who worked as advocates for the incarcerated within the criminal justice system.

The event brought together students who meet regularly with teens at the Merrimac Detention Center and volunteer advocates for abused and neglected children, as well as a myriad of other people working to help those escape the system.

Our goal for this series was that people would speak and listen and be heard and be received. And the reason for that is because when that happens, relationships begin to build, and through relationships we can see glimmers of hope,” Office of Community Engagement Director Melanie Porter said. “I think you’ve probably seen those around your table tonight. I know that I’ve heard that at my table.”

“Our goal for this series was that people would speak and listen and be heard and be received. And the reason for that is because when that happens, relationships begin to build, and through relationships we can see glimmers of hope,” Office of Community Engagement Director Melanie Porter said. “I think you’ve probably seen those around your table tonight. I know that I’ve heard that at my table.”

The conversation series was designed as a way for people of various occupations to come together and talk about their experiences. Guest speakers had the chance not only to tell the community about what they do, but also to speak to people in other occupations about their experiences.

Linda Palmer ’77 volunteers as an advocate for children who have been abused or neglected. She spends the majority of her time getting to know not only the child, but also their teachers, family and friends. She writes recommendations to the judge working on each child’s case so that he or she is fairly represented in court.

“We all work in isolation, and I think it’s really important to share our experiences so that you know we can learn from one another,” Palmer said.

Members of the Steering Committee organized the event not only so that attendees could have the chance to talk about the criminal justice system, but also so that they could find out about ways to get involved in the community.

Travis Harris ’18, a student working toward a Ph.D. in American studies, said he was originally uninterested in the event.

He said that he has had no desire to be a part of another conversation where people talked about criminal justice issues and left feeling good about themselves. He wanted this series to be a way for people to become educated so that they could become more involved.

“Just recently here in James City County, last year I was going to present at an academic conference … and I was dressed up in a three-piece suit,” Harris said. “In front of my apartment a James City County police officer stopped me and detained me and said that I looked suspicious. In front of my apartment. The only thing I did was I took trash to the trash can and walked back to my car, and I looked suspicious. So, that’s my motivation, that’s what drives me.”

Harris said he felt like the event was successful in preparing attendees to get involved however they could within the system. Students who came were looking to be lawyers or criminal counselors in their future, and this event served as a supplement to their education.

Leslie Bowie, an employee for James City County Public Schools and the JCC adult education program, was a guest speaker at the event.

The adult education program includes course offerings in the Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail. One class offers students the chance to earn their GED and the other offers basic educational courses. These courses allow the incarcerated to prepare for life outside of jail and for future employment.

“Some of our students have said, you know, that we’ve done a lot to help boost their confidence,” Bowie said. “No one’s ever told them they were smart before and you know they haven’t had that chance for success.”

Leslie Conton, another guest speaker, is the executive director of the Opportunity, Alliance, Re-entry of Richmond. The organization is dedicated to giving resources to the incarcerated when they leave the prison system.

I got into my work because I believe people deserve second chances, and I serve as an advocate for those folks,” Conton said. “There’s so many folks in our world that have a much different experience than us that they look different than us, come from different backgrounds, and they get treated much differently than many of us would in the system so I think its important to talk about the work that goes on, the change that needs to happen.”

“I got into my work because I believe people deserve second chances, and I serve as an advocate for those folks,” Conton said. “There’s so many folks in our world that have a much different experience than us that they look different than us, come from different backgrounds, and they get treated much differently than many of us would in the system so I think its important to talk about the work that goes on, the change that needs to happen.”

Students, community members and speakers who came to one or all of the Daily Work of Justice conversations were presented with the information and resources necessary to start changing the way the criminal justice system is operated.

“There’s that quality of presence that has gravity to it and that has meaning to it and that has potential for action,” Porter said. “That’s a really good thing because acts of citizenship do not happen in a vacuum, it cannot happen alone … because there is power in numbers and the power of collective action not only means that we have more influence, but that we can be more influenced by that action together.”

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  • Heather Baier