Professor Presents Research on Mass Incarceration

Aly Fosbury ’21, Life and Style Editor

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Associate Professor of Philosophy Amy McKiernan recounted her experience volunteering with inmates on death row while presenting research on her most recent paper in a lecture titled “Blame, Empathy, and Mass Incarceration.”

McKiernan worked with the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies department and the Women’s and Gender Resource Center while conducting research for the paper.

Prior to teaching at Dickinson, McKiernan volunteered with inmates—who she refers to as insiders—on death row at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution: a local prison in Nashville, Tenn., where she and other volunteers ran Reciprocal Education and Community Healing (R.E.A.C.H.).

R.E.A.C.H. met every other week to discuss topics that were chosen at the discretion of the whole group, including the insiders. According to McKiernan, the topics of discussion centered mainly around education, the youth, and social justice because the insiders wanted to work towards a solution for future generations rather than reflect on their own misgivings. Rather than talking about subjects such as the insiders’ reasons for being on death row, which the volunteers never discovered, the group was “filled with energy and hope.”

Combining her experiences at Riverbend with her degrees in philosophy and women’s studies, McKiernan plans to explore the “entangle[d] empathy and moral blame” present in mass incarceration. During her presentation, McKiernan supported her research with quotes from numerous authors including Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, Myisha Cherry, and Lori Gruen. McKiernan also included photos of projects her insiders created as part of R.E.A.C.H., which included artwork, displays and writing excerpts.

Anastasiya Khlopina ’18, who took McKiernan’s Moral Problems class the previous semester, attended the event because of the “relevant and captivating” topic, as well as to support her professor. Khlopina noted that the event was not only exciting because of the material shared, but also because it gives students the opportunity to view a professor’s work. “The stories she shared about working with the individuals in prison was what stood out to me. But for most of the talk I could not help thinking about how awesome it is that here at Dickinson we have such an awesome opportunity to learn firsthand about professors’ work,” says Khlopina “This whole series has been incredible and so informative – great way to learn about topics outside of your major,” she said.

McKiernan ended her presentation by asking the audience for any advice or ideas regarding her research as well as a list of potential questions she will be asking insiders to further her research. Through her upcoming paper, McKiernan has been “thinking about empathy and blame together” in regard to mass incarceration. She summed up her reasoning behind this paper topic towards the end of her presentation, asking “How can I go to Take Back the Night and volunteer on death row and learn from both?”

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