Panelists talk about their experiences with incarceration in the Feinberg Lecture Series

By Hayley Johnson

Jessica Picard/Collegian
(Jessica Picard/Collegian)

As part of the Feinberg Lecture Series at the University of Massachusetts, a panel titled “The Collateral Consequences of a Criminal Record” was presented on Tuesday, Nov. 29. The four panelists shared their personal experiences with the incarceration system in the United States.

Over 100 people attended and the panel that included western Massachusetts residents Donald Perry, Jafet Robles, Veronica McNair and Elaine Arsenault, all of whom have had personal experiences with the incarceration system.

Each year, the Feinberg Lecture Series at UMass has a common theme among the featured presentations. This year the theme is exploring the ways that state violence, mass incarceration and mass criminalization transform the U.S. economy.

Donald Perry served 18 years and seven months in the Massachusetts Department of Correction and now works in criminal justice reform.

“Statistics say that one in three black males will wind up in prison. I am one” said Perry.

Perry explained that one of his greatest frustrations with the incarceration system is that it does not aim to help people once they get out; it leaves many jobless due to companies’ unwillingness to hire those with criminal records.

Jafet Robels went to maximum security federal prison at the age of 18 for a nonviolent drug offense. Today, he is involved with many organizations that work to combat certain aspects of correctional facilities.

Robels said, “Teachers told me directly and indirectly that I would never amount to anything, and detention led to suspension, suspension led to expulsion, and the streets eventually took me with open arms.”

“Once you catch a felony you can never work in a school, you can never work anywhere near a hospital; that’s federal law. So that can create a sense of hopelessness,” said Robels.

Robels explained that once he got out of prison he could “not even get a job at McDonalds.”

Elaine Arsenault does not have any direct experience in the incarceration system, though her daughter has a criminal record. She talked about the stigma of having custody of her granddaughter and how her family does not think highly of her because of this situation.

“People want to blame me for my daughter’s decisions…I don’t really care what people think, this is my family,” said Arsenault.

Arsenault explained that even though her daughter is out of prison now and working part-time jobs, being involved in the criminal system and in the mental health system have greatly limited her options.

Veronica McNair is a survivor of domestic violence, a recovering addict and has served time in the Hampden County House of Corrections.

“No matter how long I stay clean…there’s always someone wondering if they know ‘what did she do?’ And they want to ask, and so every time someone asks me ‘What is your record about? What did you do?’ It kind of peels the scab back. Nobody ever allows me to just move forward in life and let me outlive my past,” said McNair.

A question and answer session with the audience followed each of the panelists’ stories about the incarceration system.

Maria Patterson, a senior at Mount Holyoke College said, “I thought [the panel] was really great, it was really informative. I think it’s important to get the perspective of voices that we just tend to not hear. So, specifically hearing from people who have been incarcerated and experienced the struggles…is really important.”

Isaac Harmon, a sophomore political science major, said, “I think it is really useful to have these types of conversations, because it brings an issue that isn’t directly affecting the people that are on this campus that now get…the chance to see what it’s like to go through the incarceration system and see how it works…All these assumptions and stereotypes of what it means to be criminal and what it means to be poor and come from a community where crime is rampant…I think needs to be deconstructed.”

Hayley Johnson can be reached [email protected] and followed on Twitter @hayleyk_johnson.