On Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018, the University of South Carolina School of Law’s Black Law Student Association hosted a screening of “Rikers: An American Prison,” followed by a panel discussion on prison reform. The event helped kick off the university’s week of activities honoring Martin Luther King Jr.
Panelists and attendees tackled difficult topics like implicit racism and arrest rates among different races. BLSA members say it was a heavy discussion, but an important and timely one.
“I believe the best way to honor Dr. King's legacy is to address the injustices and oppression that are present in our world today. We must take the torch of justice and be the ‘Dr. King's’ of our generation,” said second-year law student Aaron Greene, who also serves as BLSA’s Social Action Chair.
The 2017 documentary followed several former inmates who all spent time at Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex. The film recounts the experiences of those inmates in the wake of lawsuits and demands for the facility to close due to complaints of systemic violence and corruption.
The panel was comprised of perspectives from across the criminal and legal scope. Professor Seth Stoughton, a former Tallahassee police officer and criminal law expert, began the discussion citing systemic racism and a lack of rehabilitation for inmates as the main reasons America has such a high incarceration rate.
The discussion was moderated by Judi Gatson, the evening anchor for Columbia’s WIS-TV. Among the panelists were Richland County Defense Attorney Social Worker Yolonda Marshall, former politician and criminal trial lawyer I.S. Leevy Johnson, and executive director of Soteria Community Development Corporation in Greenville Jerry Blassingame, as well as Greene. Rounding out the panelists was Rev. Hector “Benny” Custodio, a former Rikers inmate who was featured in the film and now serves as a pastor and prison reform advocate in Brooklyn.