The Darkest Hour: Isolation and Death Row in Texas Prisons

Documentary Film and Book Discussion with Dr. Betty Gilmore

Thursday, January 22, 2015
5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Vanderbilt University, Furman Hall 114

Complimentary Pizza!

Facebook Event Page

Join us for a screening of the documentary film, “The Darkest Hour,” and a discussion with Dr. Betty Gilmore, co-author (with Nanon Williams) of the companion book.

The Darkest Hour Vanderbilt Event-1

We live in the age of racialized mass incarceration. An age in which tens of thousands of human beings are caged in solitary confinement every day. Some for decades at a time. The documentary film, “The Darkest Hour” exposes the inhumane impact of extreme isolation experienced by those incarcerated nationwide.

Continue reading


Photo Gallery: Rally to Stop Executions, September 15

Photography by Luke Myers.

Photo Gallery: Nashville Teach-In, September 13

Photos from the Teach-In on Mass Incarceration and the Death Penalty at the Nashville Public Library, September 13, 2014.  Photography by Luke Myers.

Nashville Teach-In on Mass Incarceration and the Death Penalty: Event Schedule

Saturday, Sept. 13, 10 am – 4:30 pm

Nashville Public Library, Conference Center

615 Church St, Nashville, TN 37219

Directions and Parking Information

Facebook event page

10 – 10:15 am     Welcome


Activist Art Project: Imagine a World Beyond Prisons

– Carmela Hill-Burke, R.E.A.C.H. Coalition and Vanderbilt Philosophy

Participate in this project all day in the library’s art gallery, across from Room 1a/b!

10:15 – 11:15 am    Workshops

51 Years a Slave: The Lie of Truth and Sentencing Laws

– Reverend Jeannie Alexander

– Preston Shipp

– With contributions from men serving 51-year life sentences at Riverbend Maximum Security Prison

                Room 1a

SB 1391 and the Criminalization of Pregnancy Outcomes

– Hedy Weinberg, ACLU-TN Executive Director

– Thomas H. Castelli, ACLU-TN Legal Director

                Room 1b

School to Prison Pipeline

– Eric Brown, Lead Organizer, Children’s Defense Fund

                Room 2

Private Prisons for Fun and Profit, Mostly Profit

– Alex Friedmann, Managing Editor, Prison Legal News

    Room 3 Continue reading

Upcoming Events in Knoxville and Nashville

Knoxville Teach-In on Mass Incarceration

and the Death Penalty

Wednesday, September 10, 7-9pm

University of Tennessee-Knoxville

McClung Tower, Room 1210


Join us for a public event dedicated to a dialogue with university and community members on issues of mass incarceration and capital punishment, regionally and nationally. Speakers will include Stacy Rector, the Executive Director of Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, and Andre Canty of Highlander Center and 100 Black Men of Greater Knoxville.  This event is part of a series of statewide events by Tennessee Students and Educators for Social Justice as Tennessee, in stark contrast to its abolitionist history, moves forward with a schedule to execute 11 people in the next 16 months, beginning in October.

Nashville Teach-In on Mass Incarceration and the Death Penalty

Saturday, September 13, 10 am – 4:30 pm

Nashville Public Library, Conference Center

615 Church St, Nashville, TN 37219

Directions and Parking Information

Sept 13 Teach-in Poster

This teach-in will cover a range of issues, including private prisons, the school-to-prison pipeline, capital punishment, post-incarceration re-entry, and the criminalization of race, poverty, immigration status, pregnancy outcomes, and non-normative gender and sexuality.  The day-long event will feature workshops from Nashville community organizations, such as Project Return, ACLU of Tennessee, Open Table Nashville, the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, Brown Justice Chasers, Magdalene on the Inside, Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, and the Children’s Defense Fund.  Co-sponsored by the Vanderbilt Prison Project and Tennessee Students and Educators for Social Justice.  Lunch will be provided (RSVP on our facebook event page, or at  Preview a draft program here.

Rally to Stop Executions

Monday, Sept 15, 12 noon – 1pm

Legislative Plaza (corner of 6th and Charlotte)

Nashville, TN

Tennessee Students and Educators for Social Justice will send a delegation to deliver our Open Letter to Governor Haslam, asking him to stop currently-scheduled executions and to conduct a full and transparent review of Tennessee’s death penalty system. If you have not already signed our letter, click here to add your signature.

Come out and support our delegation!  Bring signs to express your views and banners to represent your school, college, community group, or congregation!


Save the Dates! Sept. 13: Teach-In on Mass Incarceration and the Death Penalty — Sept. 15: Delivery of Open Letter to Gov. Haslam

Tennessee Students and Educators for Social Justice is teaming up with the Vanderbilt Prison Project to co-host a Teach-In on Mass Incarceration and the Death Penalty on Saturday, Sept. 13, from 10 am to 4:30 pm, at the Nashville Public Library (615 Church St, Nashville, TN 37219).  The purpose of this event is to connect death penalty abolition with broader issues of mass incarceration, such as the school-to-prison pipeline, the criminalization of poverty and homelessness, and private prisons.  There will be a mix of issue-based workshops led by local activists, and first-person stories told by people who have been directly affected by these issues.  This event is free and open to the public.

After gathering a last round of signatures at the teach-in, we will deliver our Open Letter to Stop Executions in TN to Governor Haslam on Monday, Sept. 15, at 12 noon.  A delegation of representatives from Tennessee colleges, universities, and schools will meet at Legislative Plaza (at the corner of Charlotte and 6th) at 12 noon, then walk over to the State Capitol Building at 12:15 to deliver the letter to the Governor’s office at 12:30.

Please join our delegation, or rally with us to show your support!  Bring signs and banners representing your educational institution, student group, fraternity or sorority, and/or academic disciplines.  This is our chance to make a strong public statement as students and educators who are committed to social justice and to critical thinking about the death penalty and mass incarceration.  Members of the wider community, including faith groups, activists, and community organizers are welcome to join our rally and delegation.

If you have any questions, please contact us at

Death Penalty Teach-In – University of Memphis, April 15

The University of Memphis Philosophy Graduate Student Association will host a Death Penalty Teach-In on Tuesday, April 15th from 1-2pm in the University Center, Room 338 .

Professor Margaret Vandiver, co-editor of Tennessee’s New Abolitionists, will respond to questions from the audience after a presentation by philosophy graduate students.

This event is free and open to the public!

For more information, contact Joshua Dohmen at jrdohmen [at] memphis [dot] edu.

The Pitfalls of the Death Penalty

Thanks to everyone who came out to hear attorneys Dawn Deaner, Justyna Scalpone, and Kelley Henry speak about the pitfalls of the death penalty in Tennessee!  Here’s a brief summary of the event.  Read more about the panel in The Tennessean.

Photos by Rohan Quinby

Davidson County Public Defender Dawn Deaner explained that her office provides legal representation for defendants who cannot afford to hire their own attorneys.  But in the case of capital defendants, the resources for hiring mitigation specialists to examine whether it is appropriate to seek the death penalty in this particular case are not available until after the death penalty has been sought.  At that point, the trial becomes a “runaway train” and it is difficult to ensure that the defendant has a fair trial.  Not only are there fewer resources for poor people, but there are also racial biases in the system, and the jury selection process explicitly excludes anyone who is against the death penalty — so the odds are already against the defendant before the trial even begins.

Justyna Garbaczewska Scalpone, head of the Tennessee Office of the Post-Conviction Defender, explained what happens at the post-conviction level in capital cases.  The post-conviction office is meant to serve as a safety net to ensure that people are not falsely convicted or improperly sentenced.  After a sentence has been handed down, the post-conviction office reviews both the case and the trial process, checking for possible errors and constitutional violations such as ineffective assistance of counsel, jury misconduct, and Brady violations (in which prosecutors are found to have withheld evidence that could have benefited the defendant).  Scalpone reported that, in the past 3.5 years, 8 of the 10 death sentences reviewed by her office were overturned.  In 6 of these cases, the death sentence was reversed, and in the other 2 cases, a whole new trial was ordered.  She noted that more resources were needed at the trial court level to prevent factual and procedural errors, while still maintaining a robust safety net at the post-conviction level.

Finally, Federal Public Defender Kelley Henry spoke about her own work at the level of federal habeas review.  She recalled the feeling of elation when then-Governor Bredeson  commuted the death sentence of Gaile Owens to life imprisonment.   But not every client has been so fortunate. As an example, Henry recounted the case of Sedley Alley, in which prosecutors failed to disclose evidence that there was another suspect in the case, with material evidence suggesting that someone other than Alley committed the crime.  Alley’s attorney’s requested DNA evidence to rule out the possibility that Alley was falsely convicted.  But this request was denied.  There was also ample evidence that Alley had an intellectual disability, which would have disqualified him for execution.  But none of this prevented the state of Tennessee from executing Sedley Alley on June 28, 2006, for a crime he may not have committed.

At all three levels of the court system, underfunding for public defenders and a relative lack of accountability for prosecutors have resulted in wrongful convictions in the state of Tennessee.

Kelley Henry highlighted both the injustice of wrongful conviction and also the economic cost of using taxpayers’ money to incarcerate innocent people.  She noted that, across the US, 314 people have been exonerated through the work of The Innocence Project.  These people spent a total of 4202 days in jail, at a cost of about $30,000 per year.  In total, this amounts to $126 million of taxpayers’ money spent to incarcerate innocent people.

But dollar figures cannot begin to express the ethical harm of wrongful conviction – the loss of time, family connections, emotional well-being, and basic life chances that result from time spent behind bars on false charges.

The last word goes to Dawn Deaner, quoted by Brian Haas in his article for The Tennessean:

“Do we really want the death penalty?” Deaner asked. “Do we think that this is something that should be carried out on our behalf as citizens in this community, given the problems that exist?”


The Pitfalls of the Death Penalty in Tennessee: Three Public Defenders Share their Perspectives

pitfalls poster-image

Monday, March 31, 12 noon – 1pm
Vanderbilt University, Furman Hall, room 114
111 – 21st Avenue South, Nashville (click here for parking information)


The state of Tennessee is planning to execute an unprecedented number of prisoners in 2014-15.  Now, more than ever, it is important for all Tennesseans to understand the death penalty system and its pitfalls.  

Join us on Monday, March 31 at 12 noon for a panel discussion of issues raised by the death penalty in Tennessee with three public defenders at three different levels of the court system:

Dawn Deaner is the Metropolitan Public Defender for Nashville-Davidson County, a position she has held since 2008.  Before then, she spent 11 years as an Assistant Public Defender in Nashville.  Dawn is also an Adjunct Professor of Trial Advocacy at Vanderbilt University Law School.  She received her law degree from George Washington University Law School, and her undergraduate degree from Columbia University.  In 2011, Dawn received the Tennessee Bar Association’s 2011 Ashley T. Wiltshire Public Service Attorney of the Year award.  In 2012, she was recognized by Gideon’s Promise (formerly the Southern Public Defender Training Center) with the Stephen B. Bright Public Defender Award for her contributions to improving the quality of indigent defense in the South.

Justyna Garbaczewska Scalpone is the Tennessee Post-Conviction Defender.  She obtained her law degree in 2002 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  Following graduation, Justyna worked for almost ten years at the Office of the State Appellate Defender in Chicago, first representing non-capital indigent defendants on direct and then death row inmates in post-conviction proceedings.  In addition to providing direct representation to clients, Justyna has served as the supervisor to mitigation and investigative staff.  In the spring of 2011, Illinois abolished the death penalty and Governor Quinn commuted sentences of all the death row inmates to life in prison.  A year later, the Appellate Defender’s capital post-conviction unit closed its doors.  Having found her calling as a capital defense attorney, Justyna moved to Tennessee in June 2012 to work at the Office of the Post-Conviction Defender in Nashville.  She has been serving as the director of the office since March 2013.

Kelley Henry is the supervisor of the capital habeas unit of the federal
 public defender’s office in Nashville. The Capital Habeas Unit represents 
men and women on death row who are challenging their capital convictions
 and sentences on federal constitutional grounds. The unit represents these
 clients through federal district court, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, 
the United States Supreme Court, and in executive clemency. Ms. Henry has
 represented poor people charged with capital crimes at trial, direct
 appeal, state post-conviction, federal habeas, and clemency in Missouri,
 Arizona, and Tennessee.

This event is free and open to the public.  Pizza will be served for lunch.

Co-sponsored by Tennessee Students and Educators for Social Justice, Law Students for Social Justice, and the Vanderbilt Prison Project.


Unit 2 (Part 3): Gifts from Death Row, Feb. 1 at Nostos Gallery, Nashville

Gifts: Unit 2 (part 3)

February 1-22, 2014

Opening reception on February 1st, 6-9pm

Nostos Gallery, 58 Arcade

Nashville, TN 37207

Nostos Gallery is pleased to present Gifts: Unit 2 (part 3), an exhibition of works made by or in collaboration with prisoners living in Unit 2 (the death row unit) of the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Northwest Nashville.

This exhibition will be made up entirely of gifts for visitors to the gallery during opening night.  These objects—many knitted, many tooled in leather, many rendered in watercolor, pastel, or colored pencil—represent an effort by these prisoners to reach out from a social and political void using the modest tools they have at their disposal.  Their gesture raises the possibility that community—a community that is conjured and sustained through the gift—might extend beyond the walls of prison.  Their exhibition suggests that it might be possible, in spite of everything, to bring such a community into existence.

For more information, click here.