Student and community groups protest prison education cuts
In a dark Ballantine Hall classroom, with a backdrop of painted banners declaring “Strike” and “All Prisoners are Political,” about 60 protesters listened to the recorded voice of a prison inmate Friday night.
“Uhuru Sasa,” the voice said. “That means ‘freedom now’ in Swahili.”
The students and community members gathered to promote awareness of education cuts in Indiana prisons.
The event, called “Shake the Cage: Free Show to Support Indiana Prisoners,” was attended by groups such as Student Power IU and Decarcerate Monroe County, a group that challenges the local justice system.
“Shake the Cage” consisted of three live performances from local bands and speeches from individuals. The recorded phone call with the prisoner marked the first portion of the event.
Tom, a student who helped organize the prisoner recording portion of the event, described the speaker as a long term inmate and activist from an Indiana prison. He did not provide a last name.
Tom mentioned the importance of preserving the speaker’s anonymity, as many prison activists are punished if discovered.
They are often placed in isolation units, for up to 23 hours in one day, Tom said.
“When I first came here in 1999, higher education gave me a feeling of empowerment,” the prisoner said.
Much like the funding cuts universities are experiencing, prison education and other prisoner services have been sacrificed due to financial restrictions, the prisoner said.
These cuts have eliminated GED-granting programs and have restricted college classes, contact visitation and access to mail. The cuts have also limited prisoner showers from seven to three days per week, senior and former IDS opinion columnist Aidan Crane said.
Crane said the cuts are depriving prisoners of basic rights to education to better themselves.
News of the protest spread mainly via word of mouth, and the event’s purpose was outlined on a website called shitisonlygettingworse.blogspot.com.
“Educational programs are almost nonexistent,” the prisoner said. “It’s making the environment a lot worse.”
The protesters used the space in Ballantine without permission, keeping the door open with a duct tape wedge.
The protesters also broke other University rules, Crane said, including using amplified sound equipment and being there after hours.
“That itself is sort of a statement that the rules are restrictive,” Crane said. “They don’t run our lives and control our political expression.”
The group was striving to express their view rather than create a disturbance.
“Nothing destructive,” Crane said. “It’s just a concert.”
Three police officers arrived at the event at 10 p.m., leaving shortly thereafter without making arrests.
The event lasted until about 11 p.m. and included performances from the bands Ratón and The Underhills.
Singer Crescent Ulmer gave the final performance of the night, playing guitar and singing four original songs. Between songs, she spoke about how her brother was shot by police officers in 2005.
“My dad also spent some time in jail in his youth, and it definitely made him a different person,” Ulmer said.
She sang an original song titled “Futility.”
“The whole premise of the song is fighting against the futility in our lives,” she said. “Working with prisoners behind bars and the futility they’re fighting as well. It’s pretty awesome.”
The prisoner on the recording talked about students’ ability to build relationships with struggling prisoners. He encouraged community members to write prisoners letters or make them phone calls.
As both a student and someone with friends who are currently in prison, Tom said he appreciated the importance of the protest.
“There’s lots of prisoners in the inside that are drawing inspiration from student struggles in the same way that we are drawing inspiration from them,” Tom said.
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