Author, activist Walidah Imarisha leads a discussion for the Unbound Book Festival

Author and activist Walidah Imarisha, center, discusses mass incarceration and the United States prison system with fellow panelists for the Unbound Book Festival on Saturday at the Macklanburg Playhouse in Columbia.

Three writers drew on their personal experiences to discuss injustices and issues within the United States prison system for a panel Saturday at the Unbound Book Festival.

The panel, which centered around problems with the U.S. incarceration system, featured Shane Bauer, Walidah Imarisha and Randall Horton. Each of them, respectively, is a reporter, activist and a person who was formerly incarcerated. All three are also writers and have their own connections to the prison system.

Imarisha shared experiences of her brother, who was incarcerated at 16, and argued for transformative justice — referring to how people change and how the importance of crimes change over time.  

"Prisons are about controlling and punishing potentially rebellious communities," she said. "Prisons and the criminal legal system has nothing to do with safety or justice. They're about social control."

Imarisha is the author of the nonfiction book "Angels with Dirty Faces: Three Stories of Crime, Prison, and Redemption," and is also the author of poetry collection "Scars/Stars." She is currently working on a black history book centered in Oregon. Walidah has previously taught at Stanford and worked as a public scholar with the Oregon Humanities Conversation Project. 

Bauer is a senior reporter for Mother Jones Magazine and the author of the recently published book called "American Prison: A Reporter's Undercover Journey Into the Business of Punishment." He also co-authored "A Sliver of Light" alongside Sarah Shourd and Joshua Fattal, which details the time he spent as a prisoner in Iran.

Horton is a poet and the author of "Hook: A Memoir," focused on the time he spent in incarceration. His previous work includes poetry collections "The Definition of Place," and "The Lingua France of Ninth Street." Horton is an associate professor of English at the University of New Haven.

The panel took place at the Macklanburg Playhouse on the Stephens College Campus. The theater, full of over a hundred audience members, paid close attention to the panelists as they read excerpts of their latest works and gave statements about their unique experiences in or with the prison system.

Audience member Denise Geiger, 61, of Columbia, thought the panel gave her a new perspective of the issue of incarceration. Along with understanding that they can tell interesting stories as nonfiction writers, she also found it powerful that they had "lived the nonfiction."

Horton, formerly incarcerated himself, addressed the need for alternatives to prison and incarceration, as well as the need for support when people are released from prison.

"I had the support behind me that I needed when I got out," he said. "Most people don't have that."

Along with discussing the personal injustices of the prison system, Bauer used his knowledge about private- and corporate-owned prisons to relate current issues back to the beginning of penitentiaries in the United States.

"Since the prison system was started, the very first penitentiary was meant to make money," he said. "Once they started to turn a profit, it became the system that was used all over."

Supervising editor is Daphne Psaledakis.

  • Public Health and Safety reporter, Spring 2019 Studying science, health and environmental journalism Reach me at, or in the newsroom at 882-5700.

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