Nancy Shippen, Executive Director of Our Prison Neighbors, and Judge Sonja Spears ’82, P ’10, ’12 visited Beaver’s Theories of Justice class to discuss the criminal justice system.
Shippen talked about working in prisons and with prisoners; the media’s portrayal of prisons; the death penalty; the rapidly-growing population of women prisoners; and pre-conceived notions of inmates.
“It isn’t ‘us’ and ‘them’,” Shippen said. “It’s just us.”
At the core, she iterated that while some people may not be able to function in society for a “real long time” there’s a need to support the incarcerated population, especially when it comes to younger individuals.
“I believe everyone can change – and everyone has a right to change,” she said.
After Shippen, students heard from Spears, who has a background as a judge and a lawyer. Spears discussed the practical aspects of the justice system – explaining to students the differences between the civil and the criminal systems and sharing her hardest cases. In addition, she led a debate among students about “what makes a criminal” after watching a clip from What Would You Do with actors portraying pickpocketers.
Prior to the speakers’ visits, students spent two weeks reading and watching videos about the criminal justice system. They analyzed the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment, looked at the history of convict leasing in America, explored the prison system in Brazil and Norway, and watched Ava DuVernay’s 13th. When examining the system, the question students focused on was, “Is the criminal justice system designed to be retributive, to rehabilitate, or to provide opportunities for restorative justice?”
MORE ABOUT THE SPEAKERS:
Nancy Shippen is executive director of Our Prison Neighbors, an organization that “recruits, supports, and expands the role of volunteers in prisons, and seeks to be a voice to about the power of this work and the great need for it.” Working with prisoners since the early 1990s, Shippen facilitates 4 to 6 Alternatives to Violence workshops at prisons every year, and she has also led many book discussion groups, character development sessions, and anti-bias workshops at these prisons. In addition, Shippen has worked with the Concord Prison Outreach since 1994, where she has served as a grant writer, board and steering committee member, and as co-chair. Shippen, who also has a 30 year background as a special education teacher, is active with the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) of Massachusetts, a member of the committees of AVP/USA, and on the coordinating committee of AVP International. She is the co-clerk of the Friends Peace Teams, which has taken AVP to East Africa, Latin America and Indonesia – helping to expand to civics education, election violence prevention, trauma awareness and resilience, and cooperative development projects in those communities.
Judge Sonja Spears ’82, P ’10, ’12 was elected to the civil bench in New Orleans in a landslide victory over a 17 year incumbent at age 34, making her the youngest judge in Louisiana. She was re-elected without opposition and served 12 years until her retirement. As a practitioner, Spears handled both civil and criminal cases in New Orleans. She has taught at Tulane Law School, Harvard Law School, and was a former Boston Public School teacher. She currently teaches in the Ex-College at Tufts. Spears has served as a trustee for various community organizations, including service as chair of the New Orleans Public Library Board. She is a graduate of Tufts University and Tulane Law School.