On April 6 at 6:00 pm, people started trickling into Kohlberg’s Scheuer Room. 30 minutes later, chairs were being pulled from the lobby as the organizers struggled to make space for all the attendees. Swarthmore students, faculty, and staff came together to attend Prisons and Policing, a panel hosted by the following students from the Human Rights Law and Advocacy class in the Peace and Conflict Studies department: Ragad Ahmad ‘26, Sahiba Tandon ‘25, Savannah Shepherd ‘24, and Maeve Keeley-Mehrad ‘25.
The panel started with an introduction to the guest speakers: Chef Reeky, Jonathan Abdur-Rahim King, and Carol Lastowka. Reeky is the owner of a cafe and restaurant. He explained that his passion for cooking stems from his experience running a kitchen while incarcerated. King is the founder and CEO of Safe Corridors, a nonprofit fostering safety for children in schools. He is also a formerly incarcerated individual and avid community advocate. Lastowka is the Southeastern PA Coordinator of CeaseFire PA, promoting responsible gun use and support for gun violence survivors.
The organizers first asked the panelists about the systematic inequalities that perpetuate unjust prison systems. In response, King described how prisons are designed to punish marginalized groups.
“One of the things I learned when I was doing my research as a paralegal in prison is that people are supposed to be treated equally by law, but the war on drugs was specifically the war on brown and Black people. Incarceration is really a racist agenda to get people out of the way for a while. A lot of prisons were being built, but not a lot of rehab centers or programs [were]. Incarceration is not rehabilitation,” said King.
When asked what she learned from the panel, Ahmad spoke about intersectionality.
“We learned that prison and policing do not start or end with being arrested and incarcerated. From the moment an individual is born, their fate and experience with the criminal justice system are determined. Factors like their race, gender, neighborhood, and more contribute to their relationship and interaction with police and prisons,” she explained.
Ahmad emphasized that genuine change can only be made by addressing issues that lead to incarceration and those that occur afterward.
“After incarceration, an individual is degraded to a second-class citizen, affecting their success and re-entry into society. If genuine change is going to be made within the criminal justice system, life before and after prison must be addressed just as much as the prison itself,” she said.
Both Reeky and King spoke about the difficulties of entering the job market after being incarcerated. Reeky said he had been denied from several universities and had to write a letter to Temple detailing why he should be considered for admission. King further described how formerly incarcerated individuals simply do not have the support to succeed, especially those further stigmatized by racial stereotypes.
“Most people that get out of prison will not make it. They won’t make it because they have to have the drive, tenacity, and resources to succeed. They have to have all of those things because as soon as someone sees they have something on their record, the label stays. If you’ve had a gun in your hand, had drugs in your hand, you are the worst person in society,” he said.
King spoke about the racialized nature of his personal interactions with the criminal justice system, specifically police officers.
“I am a black, poor, ex-con, Muslim. Because of the people the [police] may know [who are] like me, I am labeled the same as any drug dealer, addict, or murderer on the street right now. I am looked at with no difference. A policeman is still in control of any situation in which we interact. It’s never going to be equal. It’s never going to be fair.”
As an expert in gun violence, Lastowka explained how the irresponsible use of guns fosters a sense of mistrust between law enforcement and local communities.
“The US has the largest number of police killings. This is probably connected to the fact that so many civilians carry guns. They don’t want to get shot and they think that bigger and tougher is going to save them. But in reality, more guns mean more gun deaths. I think this is fed by mistrust. If one person gets beaten or shot by police, no one in that community will trust the police,” she explained.
Reeky recounted an example from his own life to further explain how the power dynamic between the police and community can worsen.
“We had cops that preyed on us. To the extent that they once locked up a friend of mine. They did not see him do anything, but they arrested him. And they threw drugs at the back of the cop wagon to pin it on him. That’s the kind of case where they abuse their power. This leads to mistrust, as Lastowka said.”
In the middle of the panel, King requested to borrow a piece of paper from the organizers. He then conducted a demonstration to show how the justice system permanently traumatizes incarcerated folk.
“Our panelist, Jonathan Rahim King, was able to vividly show the damage done by the criminal justice system by taking a fresh piece of paper, crumbling, and then unraveling it. He said that prison was the equivalent of crushing the paper, and after getting out of prison, no matter what happens, the paper will never return to its original, flattened-out state,” explained Ahmad.
In an interview with the Phoenix, attendee Lina Verghese ‘25 shared how the panel offered personal, unique experiences that gave her a better understanding of the prison system.
“I’m currently working on a project that aims to expose public health outcomes in Penslyvnaia’s incarceration system. This panel gave me a lot of information to work with and these perspectives about real-world experiences really reinforced my previous research. It shed light on how while numbers are important, stories are so much more powerful,” said Verghese.
When asked about what she believes students can do to contribute, organizer Tandon described how students can join community programs that support incarcerated individuals, such as the Petey Greene Program, a national organization that matches college student tutors to incarcerated individuals.
Above all, Tandon and the other organizers said they hoped to inform and educate the community. She emphasized that the gravity of mass incarceration should motivate students to get involved.
“Mass incarceration is a serious problem, and it will keep happening. And it’s not okay if we, as students, just overlook it as something that’s a part of our system and never going to change. It is something that can change and be better.”