Last weekend, the John J. Hemmingson center was the setting of the university’s first-ever Criminology Symposium, a day-long event offering presentations, panels and speeches from both students and experts. The event featured over 20 speakers who presented on a variety of criminology-related topics ranging from the role of mental health in policing to ableism in prisons.
The symposium was the brainchild of Esther Matthews, an assistant professor of criminology at GU who joined the staff last year. As a person who was formerly incarcerated, Matthews appreciates the value of learning from lived experience and has used her background to bring into her classes speakers who have had first-hand experience with the criminal justice system.
“This year I thought, why don’t I just plan a symposium so that more than just my students get to hear from these amazing people who are making a change all throughout the United States?” Matthews said.
Many of her students presented their own research at the symposium event. One such student was Morris Undergraduate Research Fellowship recipient Haley Mayer.
A senior criminology and sociology major, Mayer has been working under the advisement of Matthews for more than a year on independent research focusing on formerly incarcerated mothers. Her project provides insights into the resources these mothers want for themselves and their children, and how they feel the criminal justice system failed them both before and after their incarceration.
For Mayer, who chose to study criminology due to her curiosity and interest in people, the project has been both challenging and rewarding.
“I was really worried at first that the women weren’t going to want to talk to me, but they were really open because I think that so many of them have just never been asked what their stories are and don't have a safe space to share them," Mayer said. "So, I think it was this idea that they finally got to talk about these things that nobody has given them space to talk about before."
Mayer spoke at the symposium alongside attorney and reentry expert Brittany Ripper, a speech that was followed by a presentation from fellow senior Isabelle Girtz on the harms and implications of the school-to-prison pipeline.
In addition to speeches and presentations from students, the events also featured speakers pulled from Matthews’ extensive network of experts and professionals.
The Symposium’s keynote speaker was Jason Marque Sole, a prison abolitionist and criminal justice educator in Minnesota whom Matthews met when he was responding to calls for justice following the murder of George Floyd.
His presentation, which was delivered in Hemmingson Auditorium, told the tale of Sole’s life from being a kid growing up in the south side of Chicago, to being incarcerated on multiple occasions, to receiving a college education and becoming a professor.
To close the event, Matthews delivered a speech, presenting her own original research and sharing details of her lived experience for the first time publicly since leaving prison about 11 years ago. For Matthews, the decision to share such a personal story was a difficult but important one.
“Sometimes we don't feel comfortable talking about our past of incarceration," Matthews said. "I just really wanted to model that it's okay to talk about your past and really reframe it and talk about the wonderful things you're doing going forward."
Looking ahead, Matthews hopes that this will be just the first of many symposiums to come, a goal that looks promising considering the work she and others are already doing to make the event even bigger and better next time.
“We've reached out to so many community partners to join us in this work and so we're looking forward to maintaining those collaborations and really making it possible for our GU students to get involved in the community and work to effectuate the change that they want to see,” Matthews said.