Students in Natania Kremer‘s service and justice seminar participated in a pen pal program with a California prison inmate and joined with him in creating Power, Love, Education and Justice for Liberation.
“I learned a lot about what we as citizens are being told about the justice system, versus what I learned about the truth of the justice system. Through Mume’s letters, I learned about the psychological punishment that is solitary confinement…Everyone, especially kids, should know from early on the injustice in the justice system in order to grow up and try to reform it.”
“He inspired me because he made me realize that if he can achieve great things inside prison, I can do so many things out in the world, and especially in my school. Mume has been in prison in California since 1976. His background that he grew up in is similar to many other young men that are incarcerated. He was innocent of the crime that he was convicted for. One extraordinary event that Mume initiated was the Hunger Strike in Pelican Bay Prison. This event happened July 8, 2013, where over 30,000 prisoners in California prisons initiated a hunger strike because of the unfairness, injustice, and uncooperativeness from higher officials in and out the prison system. The strike lasted about 60 days and it was successful because their demands were complied with and the legislators agreed to hold public hearings so their concerns could be voiced.”
The sampling of student comments in the PLEJ brochure tells most of the story, but not all of it. The acronym itself, standing for Power, Love, Education, and Justice, is a creation of BFS upper school sudents, their prison pen pal Mume, Human Rights Pen Pal Program founder Sharon Martinas, and BFS Director of Service Learning Natania Kremer.
“It’s a new program that we created based on the experience that my students had this past school year,” said Natania of her Service and Justice Seminar. PLEJ operates under the aegis of the Human Rights Pen Pal Program, a California initiative to link inmates with high school students via letters. “The goal of this project is to create a justice-oriented, people-centered curriculum about the prison system for teenaged youth and young adults,” explained Natania.
The Human Rights Pen Pal Program linked Natania’s students (who are now juniors) to Mume, aka Paul A. Redd, Jr., a California prison inmate who spent years in solitary confinement, became a “jailhouse lawyer,” and led a landmark inmate hunger strike. “My students identified criminal injustice as the issue they wanted to explore and better understand,” said Natania. “The opportunity to connect and correspond with Mume was incredibly powerful.”
The project started last fall after Natania’s sophomore students selected “criminal justice” as the social justice issue they wanted to explore in her seminar. They spent the semester in the investigation and preparation phase, and took action through the pen pal program in the spring. Natania facilitated the exchange of letters, drawing, poetry, and questions.
“Mume thoughtfully and generously wrote back to each of us,” she said. His frank responses inspired the students to create a “think tank” at BFS, which in turn led to the creation of workshops to raise student awareness of solitary confinement, police stop and frisk programs, prison labor, juvenile justice, and LGBTQ rights in prisons.Student readings throughout the year included Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness and contemporary news articles about solitary confinement policy changes in New York State, the exoneration of the five wrongly imprisoned men in the 1989 Central Park jogger case, and the untold stories that inspired the hit prison drama Orange is the New Black.
Guest speakers from in and outside the school spoke to the students. Inspired by their experiences with Mume, they reached out to inmates closer to home by making and sending holiday cards to inmates at Sing Sing (Ossining State Prison) in upstate New York.Natania and her students also created a brochure, PLEJ for Liberation, summarizing and reflecting on their experiences. The brochure has been distributed to teachers nationwide and was presented at the Teachers for Social Justice Conference in San Francisco in October of 2014, the National Association of Independent Schools Conference in February of 2015, and will be presented by BFS students at the New York Collective of Radical Educators Conference in March of 2015.