By Errol Castens
OXFORD – Mississippians interested in learning how the criminal justice system works – and doesn’t work – are invited to the first University of Mississippi Conference on Rethinking Mass Incarceration in the South at the Robert C. Khayat Law Center.
The conference opened Sunday with a screening of “Mississippi Innocence,” the 2010 film that explored similar capital murder cases in Noxubee County in which the men convicted were eventually exonerated. After a tour and presentations at Parchman Penitentiary, the on-campus programming continues today at 5:30 with a keynote on prison rebellions. Tuesday will feature 12 panels on subjects from prisons and higher education to post-prison reentry and from experiencing incarceration and its aftermath to race and the Southern criminal justice system.
“As you may have seen by the volume of tweets over the past few weeks, we’re excited about this,” Otis Pickett, assistant professor of history and political science at Mississippi College and co-founder of the Prison to College Pipeline program, told Sunday night’s audience. “Thank you for caring so much about the issues … for giving a voice to those who are often neglected.”
Patrick Alexander, assistant professor of English and African-American studies at Ole Miss and co-founder of the Prison to College Pipeline program, said many of the issues at the conference will be as pertinent to those most focused on public safety as to those interested in restorative justice.
“This conference is not only putting forward the issues that aggravate us but is putting forward solutions – or at least makeshift solutions until we get better ones,” he said.
The “Mississippi Innocence” film stunned the audience of more than 50 people. It explored factors that contributed to the flawed convictions of Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks of a crime that DNA eventually proved was committed by someone else – who then admitted his crimes. The problems ranged from undisclosed evidence to deeply flawed “expert” testimony and a lack of accountability for false prosecution.
“Because the justice system looks very official, you can’t assume it is always right,” said Joe York, the Ole Miss documentary filmmaker who directed “Mississippi Innocence.”
“I would like people to leave (the screening) with a healthy mistrust for the legal system,” he said. “Things didn’t work the way they were supposed to work in these cases, and they probably don’t work the way they’re supposed to a lot of times.”
Except for today’s prison tour, all sessions are at the Robert C. Khayat Law Center on the Ole Miss campus and are open to the public. For more information, visit sarahisomcenter.org/mass-incarceration or call (662) 915-5916.