Filmmaker Dawn Porter Examines Criminal Justice System in Otelia Cromwell Day Address

Photo by Yuka Oiwa '16 | Attorney, activist and filmmaker Dawn Porter visited Smith to discuss incarceration.  

Veronica Brown '16 Associate Editor

The 26th annual Otelia Cromwell Day, held this year on Nov. 3, focused on the theme “Incarceration: Intersections of Criminal Justice, Social Justice and Activism.” Filmmaker and attorney Dawn Porter gave the keynote address, entitled “Defending America in the Age of Mass Incarceration.”

Kim Alston, program coordinator at the Center for Religious and Spiritual Life and co-chair of the 2015 Otelia Cromwell Day committee, explained the theme “appeared to be a timely topic given the climate around police brutality, the Black Lives Matter movement and systemic racism in this country.”

Today, the United States incarcerates 2.2 million people, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Although the United States constitutes less than five percent of the world’s population, 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population resides in the United States as U.S. incarceration rates soar above other countries. One out of two African American men will be arrested before reaching their 23rd birthday.

Porter grounded her address in these statistics, but as a documentary filmmaker, she wanted to provide more than just data. “What stays with us... is stories. Stories about people. And that’s what moves us.”

Porter directed the 2013 documentary “Gideon’s Army,” which follows public defenders in the American South. Porter explained that a single public defender often represents over 100 felony cases at a time and up to twice the number of misdemeanors. Mounting a defense, Porter said, “is incredibly difficult to do just because of the sheer volume of the work.”

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 80 percent of defendants are represented by public defenders. Cases are overwhelmingly settled with a plea bargain, and only five percent of all federal and state cases go to trial. “We’re picturing the world of ‘Law & Order,’” said Porter, “where two prepared advocates go head to head and our constitutional system is at work, but that’s not what’s happening for far too many people.”

Because the clients of public defenders already lack financial resources, they often suffer most acutely from the repercussions of a conviction. People with a criminal record often cannot live in public housing or receive other government assistance, such as food assistance or unemployment benefits.

Porter complemented these concerns with a clip from “Gideon’s Army” of a young man facing a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison for armed robbery. “At this point,” said Porter, “you’re feeling the stress that [the public defender] feels, you’re feeling the anguish of [the defendant’s] family, and I think you should feel that. The reason I think we should feel that is because it’s important.”

She continued, “Rules that preserve fairness and justice and equality are important, and that’s really what the criminal justice system is supposed to be. So when it’s flawed, we all have a responsibility… to ask ourselves to be a part of the solution.”

Throughout the afternoon, the Helen Hills Hills Chapel hosted a Contemplative Reflection and Discussion Space. “That time is meant for us to [reflect] as a community so that after the day we are incited to take action as opposed to being bogged down with all of this new knowledge,” said Idia Irele ’16, a member of this year’s Otelia Cromwell Day committee.

“Conversations about incarceration are beginning at Smith,” said Irele. “I hope that this year’s Otelia Cromwell Day events will spark an even wider conversation on the issue and encourage people to not only think about the gravity of the prison industrial complex but want to take action to stop it.”