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It might surprise some of the readers of this magazine to learn that I have spent the night in jail. No, this wasn't a field trip to look for ghosts on Alcatraz Island. Nor was my overnight stay part of one of those reality shows where someone is placed in an unexpected circumstance for a brief period in order to somehow gain a different perspective on life or some form of enlightenment about the human condition (before returning to their job as movie star or business tycoon).

Nope. This was just me, in jail for the night.

The circumstances surrounding my detainment were fairly straightforward: I was arrested because I was under twenty one years of age and I was caught drinking beer at a party.

It was 1991 and my friends and I, like many other students at Carroll University (then Carroll College), were celebrating homecoming. While I can't recall whether or not the football team won the big game—even though I was on the team, I rarely saw any field-time—between visiting the local campus bars and, later, a rather large and boisterous house party on the periphery of campus, we were all certainly having fun.

After what was likely more beer than should be consumed by an eighteen-year-old athlete, I waved good night to my friends and walked out the front door of the house—and directly into the arms of an officer of the Waukesha Police Department.

The officer placed me in handcuffs and escorted me to a waiting Paddy Wagon which took me, and three other friends captured fleeing the party, down to the local police station. I was placed in a holding cell and told to wait. After a few hours and a rather lengthy interrogation in a separate room by a plain-clothed officer (Do you have drugs hidden on you? Do you do drugs? Did you ever do drugs?) I was issued a $75.00 citation for underage drinking and told to leave the police station.

While grateful to be free from that grim holding cell, I was a bit chagrined when I realized I was about two miles away from campus and had no money.

On the chilly walk home that morning, I considered the events of the evening. While the financial penalty for my transgression was modest, I thought, the other repercussions could be greater. Would this arrest stay on my record forever? What would happen to my academic career if the school found out? For that matter, what if everyone found out I had been to jail?

Looking back on these concerns, I see that my fears might have been fueled by my youthful ignorance of the law and the relative severity of my crime; I paid the fine and the arrest never appeared on my record. But, it surprises me today to think how much fear and shame clouded my thinking about getting handcuffed and thrown in jail. Too, much of that fear and shame had to do not with how much I drank that evening or even with getting caught doing something illegal. Instead, it was wholly dependent on what other people would think about my being behind bars—if only for a night. For a long time, I told no one about what had happened.

I tell you these things now, dear reader, because my memory of those jail-related feelings of fear and shame recently arose in the most unlikely of situations.

Late last September, president of the Wisconsin Academy Council Jim Armstrong, Margaret Lewis, Alison Alter, and I arranged for a meeting of Wisconsin Academy Fellows last September to see if there was some topic of interest or issue facing our state toward which the group as a whole could turn their formidable intellect.

In many ways, we had called the meeting to explore interest in the Fellows contributing to the next Wisconsin Idea project for the Wisconsin Academy. The problem was that we were a group in search of a spark, of that one great idea.

In attendance that balmy autumn afternoon were Wisconsin Academy Fellows Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, Emily Auerbach, James Crow, Richie Davidson, Richard Davis, John Gurda, Paul Hayes, Sister Esther Heffernan, Lorrie Moore, Warren Nelson, Ben Sidran, Athan Theoharis, Ron Wallace, and Lee Weiss.

After a brief presentation by Wisconsin Academy staff, the floor was opened to the Fellows to discuss items they would like to see examined by the group, with the results of that examination shared in the pages of this magazine and/or at a day-long Wisconsin Academy symposium.

Different possibilities were bandied about—jazz musician and author Ben Sidran and neuroscientist Richie Davidson did a brief presentation about interdependence, or how our behavior affects the world around us, that led to a forthcoming event at the Wisconsin Science Festival—but what invoked in me those familiar feelings was Sister Esther Heffernan's presentation on incarceration.

As the diminutive yet commanding Sister Esther took the podium for her presentation, I felt that tingle of shame at the base of my spine. Strangely, I could see that others were uncomfortable, too. It reminded me that for many prison is a socially taboo subject.

Sister Esther began by softly stating that 1 out of every 31 adult citizens are under the correctional supervision of the state. "If they are in prison or jail, they are invisible. If they are on parole, they are equally invisible," she said, launching in to an impassioned exploration of the human consequences of this large swathe of citizenry under the correctional control of the state.

Other Fellows immediately connected with Sister Esther's ideas and joined the conversation. Author Lorrie Moore mentioned the HBO series The Wire and how it exquisitely and painfully captured the racial disparity of the War on Drugs (see her recent New York Review of Books article "In the Life of 'The Wire' "). Ben Sidran and poet Ron Wallace both discussed music and poetry projects they have done with prisoners. Richie Davidson pointed to the impact of his mindfulness training on recidivism. Emily Auerbach, director of the Odyssey Project (a life-changing college humanities course for low-income adults) talked about income disparity and education for prisoners. World-class bassist Richard Davis added his observations on prison and institutionalized racism.

It seemed like Sister Esther had hit upon something worth examining. And, to me, it seemed like the biggest obstacle to an honest examination of incarceration would be those twin pillars I encountered years ago that were still palpable: fear and shame.

So, we put forth a challenge to these Fellows that they consider the question with which Sister Esther concluded her presentation: Why prisons? And, when you read Sister Esther's article, perhaps you'll begin your honest examination of that question as well.

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From 2008 to 2021 Jason A. Smith was the associate director of the Wisconsin Academy and editor of its quarterly magazine of Wisconsin thought and culture, Wisconsin People & Ideas.

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