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Democracy and Confinement

Resource type: Speech

Gara LaMarche |

Gara LaMarche, President and CEO of The Atlantic Philanthropies, accepted  the John Dewey Award for Distinguished Public Service at the commencement ceremony at Bard College, Eastern Correctional Facility. He spoke to graduates about the linked issues of democracy and confinement.

No public honour has meant more to me than the one you are conferring on me today.

First, because it is named for John Dewey, who more than any other person is identified with an approach to education and democracy that comes closest to my own core values, and which is under tremendous assault in these times.

Second, because it is given by Bard, which under the leadership of my friend Leon Botstein has stood as a beacon of the socially engaged college, a Deweyian institution if ever there was one.

Finally, and most importantly, because it is taking place here, at Eastern.  From everything I know about the Bard programme here, though we are confined behind bars today there are freer minds at Eastern than in almost any other place I know.

I am humbled by the achievements of today’s graduates, and will take only a few minutes more of your time on what is for you and your families, and the communities who care about you, a most special day where the spotlight should be focused on you.  Lincoln predicted at Gettysburg that the world would little note nor long remember what he said, but he was wrong – and one of the reasons he was wrong is that he spoke, in an era in which speeches could run for hours, for only two minutes.  So I will take a page from Lincoln and keep it short.

My job this morning is not to inspire you, since the inspiration, for all of us here, is coming from the graduates.  It is to give you something to think about, so I want to talk for a few minutes about the linked issues of democracy and confinement.

A few decades ago, American democracy took a terrible turn when the language of war and violence burst from the battlefields into our political and civic institutions.  We launched a “war on drugs” that effectively militarised communities already most in pain and distress, and shipped off young men, and increasingly young women, to distant prisons for the prime years of their lives, depopulating and devastating neighbourhoods with as much cruelty and consequence as an actual war or an epidemic.

I’ve worked closely with prisoners in my life and it is not my point here to excuse personal mistakes or paper over the harms that drugs can do.  But I also know what dysfunctional schools, disrespect and disinvestment can bring about, and it must be said that our national addiction to imprisonment has deep structural and historical roots – indeed, in its totality, that it functions much as slavery, segregation and Jim Crow laws did as a mechanism for marginalisation and control.

More recently, and disturbingly, the language of war and violence has infiltrated the national debate over education and shown up in the practices of our schools.  We now “blow up” schools that are said to be not working, and insist on “zero tolerance” school discipline policies that bring decades of “tough on crime” policies into the classroom.

High suspension and expulsion rates are at crisis levels. Over 3.3 million students were suspended or expelled in 2006 – nearly one in twelve. Only a fraction for serious offenses. The vast majority were for things like coming to school late, talking back to a teacher, or violating their school’s dress code – yet another way, of course, that schools are coming to resemble prisons.

Black and Latino boys are nearly three times more likely to be suspended than white boys for the same offense, and are far likelier to be suspended or expelled for less serious offenses. In Philadelphia, known for particularly vigilant “zero tolerance,” rules, students as young as eight are expelled for a range of disciplinary violations. Schools are relying more and more on the police and juvenile courts to address classroom behavior.

What does this have to do with democracy?  The rise of the prison-industrial complex in the last few decades, has been coupled with laws that strip the vote from prisoners and former prisoners, in many states for life.  This has disenfranchised vast numbers of people, most of them black men, rendering them voiceless in the vital political choices facing the country.  If former prisoners could have voted in Florida in the 2000 Presidential election, it is almost certain that George Bush would never have taken the oath of office.

The militarisation of public education in the world outside these gates has even starker consequences, because those who are not pushed out into the school to prison pipeline are increasingly less able to function as full citizens.  They’ve been taught to pass standardised tests, not to think.  Everything done here in the rigorous Bard programme at Eastern, where you have to research and write a 100-page thesis to get your degree, stands as an antidote to that.

John Dewey had much to say about free and critical minds. “Such happiness as life is capable of,” he wrote, “comes from the full participation of all our powers in the endeavor to wrest from each changing situation of experience its own full and unique meaning.”

From what I know of Bard at Eastern, those of you who will follow me onto this stage to claim the fruits of your incredible discipline and hard work – a diploma – have tasted that kind of happiness.  Despite your achievement, you face many challenges in your life ahead.  One challenge you face, and you will find many allies in the effort, is to spread that happiness, and the mental freedom that nourishes it, to a free world that is increasingly unfree.

Thank you.

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Bard College, Gara LaMarche