Activist Kenneth Hartman Reflects on Time Incarcerated

Activist and former prisoner Kenneth E. Hartman visited Colgate to speak about his experience while incarcerated, as well as his work in criminal justice system reform on Friday, November 5. Sponsored by the Office of the Dean of the Faculty, CORE 152 and Peace and Conflict Studies, the event was presented by the Upstate Institute in partnership with Hamilton College and the Mohawk Consortium College in Prison program, which offers courses inside Mohawk Correctional Facility, a medium security men’s prison in Rome, New York.

At age 19, Hartman was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in 1980 for killing a man in an alcohol-fueled fistfight. 

“I was guilty. I did it,” Hartman said. “I accepted full responsibility for it. I still feel remorse for what I did when I was 19 years old.”

Hartman referred to this sentence of life without parole as “the other death penalty” or “death by incarceration.”

“There are 55,000 people nationwide serving life sentences without the possibility of parole,” Hartman said. 

“And the United States houses the largest population of inmates serving these sentences in the world.”

While considered a “fair trade” by many death penalty abolitionists, Hartman pushed back against this idea. 

“It’s an execution,” Hartman said.

While incarcerated, Hartman’s activism, writing and participation in prison reform efforts caught the attention of Hollywood producer Scott Budnick, who pushed former California Governor Jerry Brown to release him in 2017. Hartman repeatedly emphasized the role his privilege played in his release and continues to play upon re-entering society, highlighting the issue of race within the conversation of criminal justice.

“I’m not a great representative for people getting out of prison today because I am a white man, and I am in the minority of people getting out of prison today,” Hartman said. 

In the 22 months since Hartman’s release, he has spent his time working on criminal justice system reform and speaking to young people about his experiences.

“I have an obligation to do what I’m doing now,” Hartman said.

Throughout the talk, Hartman discussed his frustrations with the way criminal justice system reform is approached, emphasizing the importance of learning from those who are, or were previously, incarcerated and empowering them to make change.

“I’ve come to believe that the people closest to the problem are the best people to deal with the problem and come up with solutions,” Hartman said.

Hartman repeatedly touched on the issue of how society views prisoners, frustrated with widely held notions that they do not deserve humane treatment. These views, he said, translate to “traumatizing” living conditions and lead people to focus more on punishment than rehabilitation.

“We should be taking that money that they’re wasting on bullets, and guards, and walls, and electric fences, and put it into programs that will help people get out and stay out,” Hartman said. “That’s what prison should be for,” Hartman said.