Vanderbilt Prison Project holds awareness week on Criminal “Injustice” System

The awareness week, held Oct. 26 to 29, features a variety of programming including a showing of “13th,” several panels and student-led discussions.


Josh Rehders

Vanderbilt’s pedestrian bridge spanning 21st Avenue South at Edgehill Avenue connects the Ingram Commons and Peabody Esplanade with main campus. (Hustler Multimedia/Josh Rehders)

Alex Brooks, Staff Writer

Vanderbilt Prison Project (VPP) will hold an awareness week during the week of Oct. 26. The events will be centered on educating students about policing and the prison system in America today. 

The awareness week, which will take place over four days, includes a variety of student programming including panels, student discussions and a documentary, per VPP executive board members senior Jin Heo and junior Sydney Aronberg.

Heo and Aronberg, along with a committee of VPP general body members, collaborated to make the events of this week a reality. The team met weekly beginning in September to figure out the logistics of the event.

“VPP holds an awareness week every year, and through doing this we really just try to bring awareness to a certain issue within the overall legal system,” Heo said. “This year, our focus is on what’s happening in what we call the criminal ‘injustice’ system today, and so we’re covering all the things we’ve been seeing in the news the past few months.”

All of the panelists and collaborators for VPP’s awareness week come from the greater Nashville community, per Aronberg. 

“Most of our events are panels, and we tried to mainly include people from the Nashville community who are involved in multiple organizations relating to the criminal justice system,” Aronberg said. 

Heo emphasizes the importance of including expert voices from outside the immediate Vanderbilt community. 

“I think we really wanted to highlight and amplify the voices of the community. As valuable as the academic perspective would be from professors, there’s a whole other side to this kind of work, so that’s kind of what we were keeping in mind,” Heo said.

VPP's awareness week itinerary
An itinerary of VPP’s events scheduled for its awareness week from Oct. 26 to 29. (Vanderbilt Prison Project)

Each day of the week focuses on a different aspect of the American prison-industrial complex. Monday’s event, called “Policing the Protest,” will include a panel discussion with the People’s Plaza of Nashville, a group known for protesting on the steps of the State Capital building this summer, focused on over-policing and defunding the police.

“This year, and especially now in this time, we felt we would be remiss if we didn’t address policing,” Heo said. “We were thinking about who to invite to this, and we had a member of VPP who had a connection to People’s Plaza through work with them over the summer, and that’s how we facilitated that connection.”

On Tuesday, VPP will host a virtual viewing of Ava DuVernay’s “13th,” a Netflix original documentary about America’s growing prison population. Following the film screening, there will be a discussion on mass incarceration and the injustices facing Black Americans in the prison system today.

Wednesday’s event will focus on the unique threats that the COVID-19 pandemic poses to those in prisons. This event will be accompanied by Vanderbilt University Medical Center research instructor and research scientist Dr. Jennifer Gaddy and Nashville public defender Martesha Johnson, who both work to address the effects of COVID-19 on prisoners and release incarcerated individuals.

On Thursday, there will be a panel discussion with Rahim Buford from the Unheard Voices Outreach, a Nashville-based non-profit aiming to empower previously incarcerated individuals. The panel will also feature Dawn Harrington of Free Hearts, an organization of formerly incarcerated women dedicated to uplifting families affected by the prison system. This panel is co-sponsored by Vandy Votes and will focus on felony disenfranchisement in Tennessee.

Heo recognizes a need to inform students on ways to take action regarding Tennessee felon voting laws.

“We’ve got this emphasis on current events, but we’re also trying to focus on what students can do,” Heo said. “So, we’ve been asking our panels and guests to think about what students can do to take direct or indirect action. Anyone who’s interested in this kind of work should definitely show up to one of these events to get further involved.”

Sophomore Stephanie Miller, a Vandy Votes committee member, said she looks forward to the week’s events not only to learn more about the criminal justice system but also to discover these ways to get involved in helping reform systems of injustice in the greater Nashville community.

“I’m really excited to see what VPP puts together for this week,” Miller said. “I think this is a really great way for students to educate themselves and find out how to actually get involved in efforts to address the wrongs of the prison system in our own community.”