Caines discusses criminal justice reform


AJ Walker, Contributing Writer

Wesley Caines returned to the school for his second year in a row to discuss his experiences with the criminal justice system and his work with the Bronx Defenders at a school-wide assembly on Tuesday, November 17. Following the assembly, Caines visited a 10th grade United States History class to continue the conversation about criminal justice reform in the U.S. 

Caines currently serves as the Chief of Staff of the Bronx Defenders, where he advocates for criminal justice reform and works with families and communities that are directly affected by inequities. Recent efforts include pushing city and state officials to help incarcerated people apply for stimulus checks amidst the pandemic. 

During the assembly, Caines described how the American criminal justice system targets Black and Brown Americans, using the story of Kalief Browder as evidence. Caines spoke of how the 16-year-old Browder was imprisoned at the Rikers Island jail after allegedly stealing a backpack and refusing to plead guilty. Browder’s family could not afford bail and he was held for three years before the charges against him were dropped. Browder later took his own life as a result of the emotional trauma he had experienced while incarcerated.

Browder’s story led Juliette Shang (11) to think about her own privilege, she said. “I’m also 16, but I haven’t had to worry about these situations as much since I’m Asian, and police brutality is not usually targeted towards Asians,” Shang said. “It makes me incredibly frustrated at our current system, though.” 

Along with the Browder story, Caines also recounted some of his own confrontations with inequality in the justice system. The use of personal experiences was incredibly insightful and encouraged viewers to look at American society through a different lens, Upper Division Dean of Students Michael Dalo said. “Mr. Caines’ lived experience is so starkly different from my own in many ways and for many reasons, and I believe that there is always an opportunity to learn from people who are willing to share themselves and their stories with you.”

Although Caines focused more on his personal experiences this year, when he spoke at the school last year alongside Lynn Novick ’79 he mostly discussed his part in Novick’s documentary “College Behind Bars,” which reported on the work of the Bard Prison Initiative. Through the Bard Prison Initiative, Caines completed his college education while incarcerated.

Last year’s documentary provided helpful background information for Tuesday’s assembly, Chris Kaiser (12) said. “This assembly was a little different in that we didn’t have as much of a base, and I feel like people who didn’t see the last one might not really understand,” he said. 

Elias Romero (11), who attended Caines’ assembly last year, loved having Caines back at the school, he said. “The assembly about ‘College Behind Bars’ was the most impactful one of last year for me, so I really enjoyed getting Wesley Caines’ personal perspective and talking about his story about the Bronx Defenders.” 

Caines was happy to return to the school, as he loves speaking to young students, he said. “If I can get one of you to think critically about any of the many assumptions on which we have ordered society — especially if it moves you to seek change — it is the highlight of my day.”

Caines succeeded in making Jack Chasen (9) think critically about the criminal justice system. “I was unaware that if you’re going to court as an innocent person but you don’t have that much money, that it might be hard to prove your innocence or post your bail,” Chasen said. “The government lacks enough of the proper resources to help with that.” 

Alexander Ment (10) also found it surprising and scary that basic rights such as the right to a fair trial were not always provided by the criminal justice system, he said. “It just goes to show how important Mr. Caines’ line of work is.” 

In relation to his work with the Bronx Defenders, Caines also discussed the topic of defunding the police. Caines hopes that by explaining his time with the Bronx Defenders, students better understand policies, such as defunding the police, he said. “I like speaking about aspects of my work and experiences because I think it helps people to understand how our policy choices play out in real life,” Caines said. 

One moment from the assembly that particularly stood out to Dalo was when Caines placed his hope for a more just future in the hands of the American people rather than the elected officials in Washington, he said. “That was a reminder to all of us that our voices matter and that we have not just a right, but a responsibility to make them heard.”

Daniel Schlumberger (11) said having Caines return to speak at the school was worthwhile because it’s beneficial to have conversations about problems with systems in the United States. “I think that it’s important that we are reminded of this constantly because it becomes more apparent and more integrated into everything we’re doing,” he said. 

While Caines touched on several important topics during the assembly, he hopes that viewers take away the understanding that they can be “agents of change,” he said. “Accepting the status quo is not an option.”