Prison studies

DATE: Monday, February 27, 2017

Book inspires community read and HCC Learning Community class

Sonia Mendez and Olga Pedraza, members of the writing group, Voices from Inside, shared their writings at HCC during an event in 2015. The group will return to HCC for an event on May 2.

Holyoke Community College is partnering with public libraries in Holyoke, Northampton, Florence, Easthampton, Southampton and Westhampton this spring to take a semester-long look at prison life in America.

For their annual "community read," called "Hamptons + Holyoke Read," area libraries have collectively chosen Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison, by Smith College graduate Piper Kerman, the memoir that inspired the popular Netflix series "Orange is the New Black."

At HCC, students this semester are studying the book in a Learning Community course called "Orange is the New Black: The Real Story." The course explores the American prison system through perspectives of both literature and sociology.

"Partnering with the local public libraries will give HCC students a great opportunity to learn more through the merging of college and community resources," said HCC English professor Lisa Mahon, one of the course instructors.

In addition to the community read and class, HCC and the libraries, together and individually, are also hosting a series of events related to the subject, including book discussions, guest speakers, film screenings, gallery exhibits, performances, and a book drive.

"Although the book gives a narrow view of prison life, we are using the title to have a wide-ranging community conversation about mass incarceration, youth in prison, prison reform, community prison and other related topics," according to project organizers.

The community project kicks off at Holyoke Community College on Wed., March 1, at 11 a.m., in the Leslie Phillips Theater with a free screening of the Netflix documentary "13th." The film explores racial inequities in the U.S. prison system and takes its title from the Thirteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which outlawed slavery except as punishment for crimes.

Preceding the film, there will be an opening reception with refreshments beginning at 10 a.m. in Frost 309.

Other related HCC events this semester include a Criminal Justice Reform Panel Discussion on Wed., April 12, at 11 a.m., with U.S. District Court judge Michael Ponsor and members of the HCC Criminal Justice faculty.

The HCC Theater Department will present "Getting Out," a play by Marsha Norman about a woman struggling with her life after being released from a Kentucky prison, April 20-22, 7:30 p.m., and April at 2 p.m., in the Leslie Phillips Theater.

On May 2, 10 a.m. to noon, HCC will present "Voices Carry," performances and poetry from formerly incarcerated women who belong to the "Voices from Inside" writing group.

March 6 through April 6, HCC and all participating libraries will be collecting books to donate to the nonprofit Prison Book Program.

A listing of other community and library events related to the incarceration project can be found on the Forbes Library website at

PHOTO by CHRIS YURKO: Sonia Mendez and HCC student Olga Pedraza, right, members of the writing group, Voices from Inside, shared their writings at HCC during an event in 2015. The group will return to HCC for an event on May 2.