Photo courtesy of The New School
By Liz Garber-Paul
As they entered the sold-out Tishman Auditorium on the evening of November 30th, audience members watched a slideshow of photographs by Andrew Lichtenstein and Steve Liss while murmuring to each other about catching glimpses of actor Richard Gere from behind the curtains.
The event was the centerpiece of a two-day New School conference entitled “Punishment: The U.S. Record.” Besides Gere, it attracted a number of leading professors, writers and activists to discuss the ethics of American concepts of punishment.
The conference featured Richard Gere and his wife Carey Lowell as keynote speakers. But, as President Bob Kerrey noted during his introduction speech, this was a “different kind” of keynote event.
While Gere and Lowell are best known for their lead movie and television roles, they have been human rights activists for nearly as long as they’ve been actors. Gere is best known for his Free Tibet advocacy, and has also been active in the fight against AIDS. In 2001, he founded Healing the Divide (HTD), a New York-based nonprofit that works towards solutions for marginalized communities throughout the world. Lowell, who has long been working with the victims of pediatric AIDS, has been a member of HTD’s board since 2001. She is also the co-chair of HTD’s Criminal Justice Initiative, which is set to launch in 2007 and will re-examine the current prison system and help bring reform.
Instead of speaking expositorially about the prison system, the A-list couple read selections from the PEN American Center’s Prison Writing Program, a literary competition for incarcerated men and women that has been sponsored by the PEN American Center since 1973. Most of the selections are published in Doing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing, a PEN American Center Prize anthology released by Arcade Books in 1999. This was only the second appearance for the actors in which they spoke as a couple.
The selections read at the event, ranging from poems to short essays, chronicled life in prison: arrival, the daily routine and thoughts from death row. One poem, “How I Became a Convict,” by life-without-parole inmate Victor Hassine, described the chilling sounds of entering prison knowing he would never leave—the metal on cement clanks that are familiar to many from movies, but not personal experience. The piece “Contraband,” by Patricia Prewitt, humorously told of the mundane objects that aren’t allowed in some American prisons: not just homemade tattoo guns or knives, but things like clocks and colored pencils.
Gere and Lowell read thirteen selections in just under an hour, exiting the stage to a standing ovation.