Stuyvesant Amnesty International Hosts “Behind Bars: A Look at the American Prison System”

Amnesty Prison Speaker
Photo by Ting Ting Chen

Motivational speaker and personal Trainer Carlos Bernal visited Stuyvesant on May 26, 2017, at the request of Stuyvesant Amnesty International to speak about his experience with and opinions on America’s criminal justice system. The visit, titled “Behind Bars: A Look at the American Prison System,” aligned with Stuyvesant Amnesty International’s goals to educate students on human rights and encourage student action.

Bernal began by describing his experience living in crime-infested Hudson County, New Jersey. He went on to describe his move to the largely upper class Bergen County, as his parents believed the Hudson County environment was having a negative effect on him. However, moving to Bergen County did not stop Bernal from stealing bicycles and vandalizing walls.

Bernal was eventually arrested after getting into a fight with a group of teens who harassed him. He was later told that as a result of the fight, two people were dead and two were injured.

Bernal was presumed to have caused the deaths and injuries, and was charged with provocation manslaughter. He was tried as an adult, and sentenced to 25 years in prison. He went through multiple pleas for parole and was eventually released on October 18, 2004, after serving 12 years.

In his speech, Bernal emphasized the ineffectiveness of the prison system and tried to spread awareness. “Nothing’s [going to] change in the prison system, nothing’s [going to] change in the world if people don’t care,” Bernal said. “I want to help anyone who is on the wrong path get back on the right path.”

Co-presidents and juniors Selina Zou and Nowshin Islam met Bernal at an Amnesty International workshop at Columbia University in March where he spoke about solitary confinement. “Sometimes we can get stuck in our own little bubbles at Stuyvesant, which is completely understandable, but we brought Carlos to remind people that there is a lot going on outside of these school walls and that we should care,” junior and co-vice president Joyce Wu said.

The visit had an effect on many of the students in the audience.  “[I] never really heard a story like his before. I was in awe of how he constantly stayed hopeful in all his time in prison, with his main motivation being his mother. I was glad to hear that after prison he still did not give up on life and was able to start his own business and family. And then started going around to different schools to share his story.” junior Levi Olevsky said.

Bernal ended by challenging conceptions of the prison experience. “[Prison is] not like the movies, not like candyland, something in between. You just have to find and navigate through it. […] My biggest takeaway is that you can be the good change,” Bernal said.

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