Reciprocal Education and Community Healing on Death Row in Tennessee

From March 7-11, 2022, the Women’s and Gender Resource Center organized events for Gender Week 2022. In keeping with the theme for this year, Criminal (In)Justice, on March 8, Professor Amy McKiernan gave an impactful talk over Zoom entitled “Reciprocal Education and Community Healing on Death Row in Tennessee.”

Professor Amy McKiernan (she/they) is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy and the chair of the new Ethics minor. She also serves as the Director of the Ethics Across Campus & the Curriculum program. Her research focuses on the ethics of care in practice, and, at Dickinson, she regularly teaches courses on practical ethics, the philosophy of crime and punishment, and mass incarceration.

For her talk, Prof. McKiernan spoke about her experiences during her time in Nashville, Tennessee when she was working on getting her Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University. She began volunteering at the nearby Riverbend Maximum Security Institution as part of her work with the R.E.A.C.H. (Reciprocal Education and Community Healing) coalition, an organization that aims to reduce the impact of racial and ethnic disparities via community healing. Community healing aims to repair relationships that have been damaged by structural racism and build new relationships using an intersectional approach that considers the role of race, gender, and class in incarceration.

While working at Riverbend, Prof. McKiernan facilitated a weekly philosophy and social justice reading group from 2013-2017 for inmates on death row in Tennessee. She developed trusting friendships with several of them and they discussed heavy topics such as the school-to-prison pipeline, racial equity in medicine, domestic violence, suicide, and homosexuality in prisons. She aimed to create an egalitarian and safe space for the inmates by designating those who worked in the coalition as “outsiders” and inmates as “insiders,” rather than referring to them as prisoners. Her work emphasized restorative and transformative justice and recognized that offenders could also be victims of violence and need rehabilitation; however, she was careful not to endorse the violence the inmates had committed in their past and to honor their victims.

The R.E.A.C.H. coalition at the prison included a collective of students in philosophy, creative writing, art, and photography, which allowed them to produce artwork in collaboration with the “insiders” they worked with. Prof. McKiernan shared several images of artwork made by the “insiders,” which included a 3-dimensional piece on the school-to-prison pipeline, paintings that depicted themes regarding the death penalty, and art that could be taken home or could contribute to the community. They also produced photography and poems.

Prof. McKiernan’s formative work at the Riverbend Institution allowed her to see the inequities in mass incarceration, which informed her graduate study and her current research. The relationships she developed with the inmates continue to be a prominent part of her life to this day and helped her understand the importance of “making space for growth, self-awareness and transformation” for death row inmates. The experience also allowed her to recognize her own limitations as a non-incarcerated volunteer at the prison in how much help and support she could offer the inmates. She learned that it was extremely vital to show up for vulnerable members of our community, particularly those impacted by structural disparities, and ended her talk by encouraging those in attendance of her talk to seek out similar opportunities that can help heal their communities.

Written by Krisha Mehta’24, WGRC student worker

March 29, 2022