Prison & Prejudice: Discussing injustice and the need for prison reform

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Utah Valley University prides itself on its diverse cultural understanding. One of the initiatives of this is a very active Multicultural Student Council. This council fully supports diversity and regularly has Diversity Dialogues. This is done through a lecture on Tuesdays and a dialogue on the following Thursday. The most recent was about SAFE Justice Act and the RICO act. This topic was chosen because it directly influences the MSC. Nani Green who is the Academic Branch Coordinator said that this is their focus this year.

“This lecture was chosen because it directly impacts a member of our council [Tiale Leatutufu] whose brother is serving time in federal prison,” Green said. The previous lecture was on immigration and immigration reform which has influenced a few members. The next lecture will be on LGBTQ rights and health which directly impacts one of our council members.”

RICO stands for Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organization Act. Racketeering in this case includes but is not limited to; kidnapping, murder, human & drug trafficking and extortion. To be convicted beneath this act one must have two or more issues of racketeering in a 10 year period. In order for this to go to the federal level, it must also involve crossing state lines.

“SAFE stands for Safe Accountable Fair and Effective,” said Hehnly,  a professor in the UVU Criminal Justice Department who has served in the military and spent 15 years in law enforcement. Hehnly was the second speaker at the event and was there to provide a textbook perspective on the justice system.

The first speaker was Rachel Leota, who is the older sister of the council member in question. She began the lecture with a letter from her brother Kepa Maumau who is serving a 55 year prison sentence for three counts of racketeering for a gang in the Salt Lake City area of which he is a member. In his letter he said that he should have received 10 to 12 years and also wrote “My brother was stabbed to death in prison,” and that another “was shot down in court.” His family has since taken up action to end “stacking” which is the build-up of time sentences from multiple crimes, and to change “Mandatory Minimum Sentences.” At the moment these actions include a support group and spreading the word about these injustices which is why they were grateful to be invited to speak. They have joined with MercyMe924c and FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums.) To raise, as Leota’s sister Caroline Figueroa said, “awareness of unjust sentencing laws.” They encourage people to look up these resources  for further information: First Step Act,, FAMM, the SAFE Justice Act H.R. 4261.

The Mandatory Minimum is by law 85% of their sentenced time according to Hehnly, regardless of Good Behavior Points which are exactly what they sound like. Hehnly went on to describe the process of the Justice System and elaborate on what each aspect meant in regards to Leota’s brother. She concluded that the SAFE Justice Act was a step in the right direction. “The corrections system is constantly changing and the SAFE Justice Act,” Hehnly said. “It is an effort to make the process move faster and more efficiently.” The act has been adopted by 38 states.

When both speakers had said their peace they were asked why people should care. Hehnly said, “The corrections system is always changing. It has to in order to match society’s expectations, and it effects all of us. All of us know someone who has been incarcerated. They are our neighbors and family members.” On this, Leota said, “They’re humans too. They have every right to a second chance. It is good for the community and society as a whole.”

Green was asked the same question, “It’s important to have a well-rounded education and be informed on diverse topics, some of which are only in the marginalized communities,” Green said. “As the next generation of professionals it is our duty to incorporate such understanding into our future careers. Besides I think it just generally makes you a better person. I know it made me a better person.”

The next lecture is scheduled for Nov. 27,and the subject will be on LGBTQ Rights and Health. A follow-up dialogue will take place on Nov. 29 to discuss what they learned.

Photo taken by Kim Bojorquez.