Prison Justice Project joins YMCA, holds first meeting


Students and community members gather for the April forum on Mental Health Disparities in the Criminal Justice System, led by Dr. Matt Epperson from the University of Chicago, on Thursday in the School of Social Work.

By Stephanie Kim

After its recent induction into the YMCA, Prison Justice Project, a registered student organization, had its first general meeting at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday in the Murphy Lounge at the University YMCA.

Amanda Hwu, president of Prison Justice Project and junior in Social Work, gave an overview of recent events as well as an introduction to a new mentoring program that will start in Fall 2014.

Each undergraduate student will be paired with two students between the ages of 13 to 18, one on probation and another who is deemed “high risk” because of frequent involvement with the police. But the aim of the program is not to “save” the kids, Hwu said. She calls it a “relationship of transitive growth.”

“We’re sending mentors in, but not to save these kids or to rescue them from themselves,” Hwu said. “But, rather, to create a learning experience for both parties. We want to give undergraduates a way to engage locally with these issues pertaining to incarceration.”

Hwu encourages fellow undergraduate students to step out of the “bubble of privilege” and engage with human beings that experience the criminal justice systems, which are talked about theoretically.

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“As undergrad students, our job here is to learn, but not only to learn about what’s in our textbooks but about what’s in the world around us,” she said. “And I wanted to provide an environment in a student organization that allows that curiosity to grow.”

In the fall of 2012, Amanda Hwu started writing letters to a man in prison. As time passed, their friendship grew, and her passion for working with those who have been incarcerated developed. 

She learned that he had been in prison since the age of 18 and was 42 at the time of their letter exchange. The man would be in prison until he was 65. 

“He didn’t murder anyone. He got into two bad fights and was also involved in two robberies,” Hwu said. “It didn’t make sense to me that someone would be incarcerated from the time that they’re younger than me and get out when they’re the age of my grandparents. It didn’t seem restorative. It didn’t seem reparative.”

Hwu channeled her confusion and frustration about the criminal justice system by reaching out to campus organizations to build her knowledge and to feed her curiosity. 

She attended forums, reached out to professors and actively pursued ways she could create change in the local community. Eventually, she connected with Professor Rebbeca Ginsburg and the Education Justice Project, an organization focused on providing education to the incarcerated population. 

“In our program, undergraduates don’t really have a role,” Ginsburg said. “After meeting Amanda, she was interested in getting an undergraduate chapter going. She has had an extraordinary amount of energy, and this time it really has taken off.”

Gingsburg said since Hwu’s role as president, PJP has become a organization with a real presence that draws attention to criminal injustice on campus and in the community. 

After collaborating with EJP, Hwu continued her ambitions for PJP and applied to work with the YMCA. On March 9, PJP was officially inducted as a YMCA organization.

“We were elated,” Hwu said. “What we work on, no other student organization follows what we do. So, it’s really nice to know that there are other organizations that are there to support us.”

Being a part of the YMCA also brings PJP closer to those at the University who are committed to impacting the world, she said. 

“Their mission is really important, and I think mass incarceration is one of the major issues of our day,” said Kasey Umland, YMCA program director. “It’s been referred to as the new Jim Crow. It’s an issue that very much touches a lot of the Y’s history of social justice and human dignity.”

But it is not only the uniqueness of PJP that Umland is impressed with – it is the same perseverance and organization of PJP that Professor Ginsburg witnessed when Amanda first reached out to her as well. 

“Even though they’re so young, they have such a well-structured organization with great leadership and I think they provide a lot of potential with helping develop their peers and resource sharing. It’s really exciting to see what they have to learn and what they have to give to the other students at the Y,” Umland said.

All three organizations are united by their drive to raise more awareness about a social issue that is part of society’s every day life, no matter how physically or mentally far prison may seem, Hwu said.

“I really became interested in incarceration because it’s really the product of a lot of the inequalities we face each day – racism, sexism, classism, privilege – all wrapped into one as the ultimate brain child of social constructs,” Hwu said. “If we believe that if someone else makes someone else suffer, that they have to suffer, they have to go away and they have to take their rights as a human being taken away, that says a lot about us.”

Stephanie can be reached at [email protected].