Press Release

Investigating Criminal Justice Reform at the Rothko Chapel

March 09, 2017

Investigating Criminal Justice Reform at the Rothko Chapel

Symposium exploring the legacy of mass incarceration slated for

Thursday, March 30 – Saturday, April 1


HOUSTON – March 8, 2017 – The Rothko Chapel is convening a symposium on criminal justice reform and mass incarceration in the U.S., subjects that are the center of much debate in recent years. 

An Act of Justice: Undoing the Legacy of Mass Incarceration will delve into human rights issue associated with mass incarceration and the associated harmful effects on individuals, families, communities and the nation.

The event is slated for Thursday, March 30 through Saturday, April 1 at the Rothko Chapel, located at 3900 Yupon St. in Houston, 77006 and the University of St. Thomas, in the Jerabeck Center, 4000 Mt. Vernon St. Building 30.

The symposium will illustrate how individuals and community organizations are working together toward equitable and sustainable reform.

The weekend will feature national and regional experts including academics, political leaders, activists, religious leaders, correctional officers, union officials and artists, as well as formerly incarcerated individuals and their families.

Through workshops, panels and keynote speakers, participants will have the opportunity to learn more about how the U.S. has created the world’s largest mass incarceration system, as well as local, regional and national reform efforts. 

In addition, an on-site solitary confinement virtual reality experience will be facilitated by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. Original poetry written by incarcerated youth will be performed by young poets from Writers in the Schools.

“Mass incarceration is one of the most pressing social justice issues of the day -- and reform is dependent on everyone getting involved,” the Rothko Chapel’s executive director David Leslie said. “The criminal justice system directly and indirectly depends on -- and impacts -- all of us. There is a growing movement to make major reforms including ending the mass incarceration of so many people -- many of whom, by the way, do not belong in jail or prison.”

He added that attendees will learn how to engage with those involved in and impacted by mass incarceration and learn the myriad ways that reforms are being advocated for and carried out.

“We want to help people connect to various resources so they can be engaged as advocates and volunteers in programs both in correctional institutions and the community,” Leslie said.

At 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 30, there will be a keynote address from Margaret Burnham, professor of Law and African-American Studies at Northeastern University School of Law.

In her talk, entitled "Decriminalization and Decarceration: Getting There from Here,” Burnham will explore the legacy of mass incarceration in the U.S. She will discuss the realities that race, class and economics play while also lifting up some of the visionary reform efforts that are underway – as well as what it would take as a society to undo this complex system. 

Burnham started her career at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and represented civil rights and political activists in the 1970s. She is the first African American woman to serve in the Massachusetts judiciary, and in 1993, was appointed by South African president Nelson Mandela to serve on an international human rights commission to investigate alleged human rights violations within the African National Congress.

At 7 p.m. on Friday, March 31, the symposium will feature its second keynote speaker Vincent Schiraldi, the senior research fellow directing the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

Schiraldi founded the Justice Policy Institute, which works to reduce the use of incarceration and to reform the justice system by promoting fair and effective policies. He has worked as director of juvenile corrections in Washington, DC, commissioner of the New York City Department of Probation and as senior advisor to the New York City Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. He has pioneered efforts working to create community-based alternatives to incarceration.

Both keynotes will be followed by a reception on the Chapel Plaza.

Highlights of the symposium also include:

·               Morning meditations and personal testimonials featuring activist and death row exoneree Anthony Graves, advocate and co-founder of California Families Against Solitary Confinement (CFASC) Dolores Canales and Rev. Ron Stief with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.

·               An exploration of Texas Legislation and reform efforts with Texas State Senator John Whitmire, Terri Burke with the ACLU of Texas, Mimi Marziani with the Texas Civil Rights Project, State Representative James White, Jay Jenkins of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, and Marc A. Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice and Right on Crime at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

·               An investigation of perspectives and challenges faced by incarcerated youth, women and family members featuring Charles Rotramel, executive director of Houston revision, Sandra Guerra Thompson with the Criminal Justice Institute at the University of Houston Law Center and Helen Taylor Greene, professor in the Administration of Justice program at Texas Southern University in the Barbara Jordan- Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs.

·               An overview of the criminal justice system -- from arrest to community re-integration with Nicole Cásarez of the University of Houston Law Center and University of St. Thomas, Houston Public Defender Peter Bray and Roberta Meyers, director of National H.I.R.E. Network of the Legal Action Center.

·               Discussions with Roberto LaCarra, founding director and associate professor of the criminology, law and society undergraduate degree with the University of St. Thomas Criminology Department and Lance Lowry, president at .

The three-day symposium is presented in partnership with the Criminology, Law and Society Department at the University of St. Thomas.

LaCarra explained that partnering with the Rothko Chapel for the symposium aligns with University of St. Thomas’ focus on social justice issues like mass incarceration. “We encourage dialog, consideration, and reflection on reform efforts to repair a broken criminal justice system,” he said.

For registration and more information about the symposium, including the daily schedule, visit

For more information about the Rothko Chapel, with a full calendar of upcoming programs, workshops and events, visit or call 713-524-9839.


About the Rothko Chapel

The Rothko Chapel is open to the public every day of the year at no charge and successfully interconnects art, spirituality and compassionate action through a broad array of free public programs. Founded by Houston philanthropists Dominique and John de Menil, the Chapel was dedicated in 1971 as an intimate sanctuary. Today it stands as a monument to art, spirituality and human rights. As an independent non-profit, non-governmental organization, the Chapel depends on contributions from foundations and individuals to support its mission of creating a space for contemplation and dialogue on important issues.

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