Justice Assemblies Captivate Riverdale Community

Justice Assemblies Captivate Riverdale Community

Photo Courtesy of the University of Chicago Press
Executing Freedom Cover

This fall, Riverdale welcomed two speakers who spoke about justice in America. The first speaker, Professor Daniel La Chance, Mr. Michael Sclafani’s former Constructing America partner, spoke to the Upper School about the death penalty and the complex constructions of masculinity that go along with it. The second speaker was Riverdale’s own history and art history teacher Ms. Jenny Eskin, who spoke to the Upper School about her experience as a teacher in prison rehabilitation programs.

While prisons exist across the globe, the United States deals with prisoners in a peculiar nature. The United States has a prison system that is wrought with overcrowding and incredibly high incarceration rates. With sentences ranging from weeks to lifespans, prisons can be the final resting place for many inmates.

Professor La Chance, who teaches at Emory University, spoke about the death penalty, specifically in connection to the ideal of the frontiersman. He was introduced by English teacher Ms. Melissa Miness, who knew him well when he taught at Riverdale. Ms. Miness’ experience introducing Professor La Chance was one that “really just wanted to get the audience interested, and do Professor La Chance's work justice.” Ms. Miness thought that “for some students, maybe the ninth and tenth graders, [the assembly] could have been a bit complex and that's [understandable]. I think for twelfth graders and maybe for eleventh graders some of the themes he was raising about masculinity and the West were comfortable with them …  so for them I think, I hope they found it very interesting.”

When Miness was asked about the education aspect of the assembly, she said, “I hope it was intriguing and got [students] thinking about the kinds of academic questions that you can ask. [...] It doesn't have to be a simple ‘do you believe in the death penalty or not?’ Instead of looking at whether it's right or wrong, you could look at it as why are we different than everybody else.”

Ms. Eskin spoke to the Upper School about her experience as an art history teacher in prisons that allow qualified inmates to receive a college education. Ms. Eskin taught the prisoners through Hudson Link, which funds and supports inmates earning college degrees while in prison. The degree is granted by the Mercy College Program, which offers inmates degrees identical to those received by all other Mercy College students. For Riverdale students interested in working with these programs, Ms. Eskin said that they “could raise money to support Hudson Link, but more important what I think they can do is consider the effectiveness of rehabilitation through education when they are developing their own political opinions. As [students] are developing their own points of view on the death penalty and life sentences, they should consider what they learned about the students I teach who have truly changed and who want to become positive members of society.”    

The justice assemblies exposed the reality of justice in this country, both within the justice system and outside. For many in the room, it was a shock to find out that prisons could be spaces of rehabilitation and education rather than simply inhumane centers to carry out punishments. But, as both speakers have stated, their intention in educating the student body about incarceration and the death penalty was help them develop their own political opinions.

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