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Sound Justice Initiative program aims to expand educational opportunities to incarcerated individuals

With the goal of educating prisoners, Kerry Spooner co-founded Sound Justice Initiative in 2019 to combat recidivism and help reverse the prison pipeline.

The Calverton-based organization has been a nonprofit since 2020 and is now offering college-level liberal arts courses to individuals in Suffolk County correctional facilities in both Riverhead and Yaphank.

“Our program, I wanted to focus on improving self-regard [through liberal arts] … When we explore our human experiences and different perspectives, we learn more about ourselves,” Ms. Spooner said. “We can cross that chasm, or at least build the bridge across the chasm between self and other and between people.” 

There are six categories of courses offered within the program. The required introductory course, “Just Think,” was created to guide students to develop creative and critical thinking skills.

Participants also study and read the works of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and Albert Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus,” among others. The program also includes employment preparation and preparedness courses as well as an individual pathway for each student, according to Ms. Spooner.

“We create a less intimidating approach to education,” she said. “It’s through certain exercises, it’s learn by doing.”

Ms. Spooner is currently teaching the program virtually due to the pandemic. It takes place twice a week for three to five weeks. Ms. Spooner holds a Ph.D. in literature from Stony Brook University and an M.A. in experimental humanism from New York University, according to the Sound Justice Initiatives website.

Implementing this ambitious program, however, wasn’t without its challenges. It was designed with the timeline of three to five weeks, to work at correctional facilities on the island, according to Ms. Spooner.

“The challenge here was to adapt what worked or works so well, in the long term context for a shorter term facility whose population is in flux,” Ms. Spooner said.

Programs like those from the Sound Justice Initiative aren’t usually available in temporary correctional facilities, where on average the stay is about 37 days, according to Ms. Spooner.

A spokesperson at the Suffolk County Sheriff’s office said these courses are unique because of their roots in liberal art and humanities.

“These are kind of unique because they’re more about liberal arts and critical thinking and humanities. But all the courses that we offer give inmates the opportunity, hopefully, to reenter on better footing and reenter into their communities once their sentences complete,” said Vicki Distefano, public relations officer at the sheriff’s office.

Ms. Spooner makes sure her students are engaged by taking in their suggestions for course material.

“I give some prep of maybe some of the material I’m interested in, but I follow them,” she said. “They choose which direction and so the courses are always evolving.” 

According to Ms. Spooner, Sound Justice Initiative is currently searching for a bilingual teacher to teach these subjects in Spanish and getting courses to help students transition into society successfully after their incarceration.

“We’re planning on entering into reentry in 2022 because our contact with them is short and it’s inconsistent,” Ms. Spooner said. “It was obvious that we needed to go into the community, so that is what we’re in the middle of planning now.”

Ms. Spooner describes teaching these courses as “the best job I’ve ever had.” She takes the responsibility of teaching her students at the correctional facilities in Suffolk County very seriously.

“We have students who are eager to learn, who want further educational opportunities, and I think that it’s our responsibility to respond to their call,” Ms. Spooner said.