John Grisham Online: Grisham to discuss U.S. prisons

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green and white leafed plantsThe state of the nation’s prison system will be the topic of the Legal Aid Justice Center’s annual fundraising event.

“Incarceration Nation” will feature a panel discussion about the prison reform movement and an episode of the documentary series “30 Days” featuring filmmaker Morgan Spurlock’s month in jail.

The event will be held at 7 p.m. Oct. 19 at the Paramount Theater in Charlottesville, and author John Grisham will act as master of ceremonies.

Legal Aid is a nonprofit organization that provides legal representation to low-income people in Virginia. Alex Gulotta, the agency’s executive director, said the community education event/fundraiser focuses on a timely topic each year. This year’s subject was inspired in part by U.S. Sen. Jim Webb, who wants to create an 18-month review of the nation’s criminal justice system through the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009.

“We thought it would be a good time to focus people’s attention on crime and how we treat people once their behavior is criminalized,” Gulotta said.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, one of every 31 American adults was in jail or prison or on probation or parole by the end of 2007.

Legal Aid is home to the Virginia Institutionalized Persons Project, a two-year-old effort that investigates the conditions of Virginia’s prisons and mental institutions. Helen Trainor, the project’s director, said the criminal justice system has touched many people.

“I think that there are now so many people in prisons and jails in Virginia and elsewhere that almost everyone knows someone whose relative has been in a jail or prison,” Trainor said. “It’s an issue that now has finally reached home.”

Prior to the project’s creation, Trainor said, no one had ever looked at prison and jail conditions in Virginia. She said a detailed study is in order.

The panel discussion is expected to include Webb; R. Dwayne Betts, a poet and author of a book on how Virginia prisoners are treated; and David Fathi, the director of Human Rights Watch’s U.S. program. Gulotta said the event tries to include audience questions for the panel.

Ticket information can be found on Legal Aid’s Web site. Student admission is $15 and regular admission is $25, although larger donations will include admission to a private reception before the event.

More than 600 people attended last year’s fundraising event, which raised more than $150,000 for Legal Aid.

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