UP responds to complaint concerning Run with the Cops photos

Bethanie Gengler, Columnist

I returned to college to get a degree in journalism because all my life I’ve felt silenced. As the seventh out of eight children born in a blended family, I never felt like my voice was heard. This feeling continued throughout my adult life.

A drug charge in 2009 sent me on a path that led to a stay at the Winnebago County Jail. I remember sitting in a 6-by-8 foot cell feeling trapped, suffocated and unheard. I promised myself that someday I would write about my experiences and share them with others.

This desire to be heard was the driving force behind my desire to return to college as a nontraditional student; however, throughout my two years at UW Oshkosh I have told very few people about my past because I didn’t want to be judged or to be looked at as a criminal.

I wanted to fit in and feel normal for once instead of feeling shameful for a mistake made nearly a decade ago. My past was a deep, dark secret that I kept hidden until three weeks ago.

On Oct. 7, I was scrolling through pictures on the UWO Flickr page when I came across photos from the University Police’s partnership with the Special Olympics of Wisconsin for a charity event called Run with the Cops.

The photos showed UWO students and children wearing prison stripes standing behind bars while being handcuffed by police. They appeared to be laughing and having a good time.

When I saw these photos, I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach. No longer did I feel accepted on campus or like I fit in. My horrible experience with incarceration was being laughed at, and I couldn’t understand how making fun of incarceration helped those with special needs.

I sat down and began writing and my memories of incarceration poured out onto paper. On Oct. 10, my article “Incarceration is No Laughing Matter” was published in the Advance-Titan.

I didn’t know what response to expect from the campus community. At worst, I feared I would get angry emails calling me a criminal. At best, I thought my article would largely be ignored.

The United States’ criminal justice system is supposed to operate in a “do the time and you’ve paid for your crime” sort of way, but for a person with a felony conviction, you never really stop paying for your crime. In my experience, my opinion is often discredited once people learn I’m a felon.

However, my experience with incarceration gave my words credibility, and my words had an immediate impact on the UWO community.

The morning my article was published, I received an email from UP Capt. Christopher Tarmann who apologized for the UP’s ignorance and promised not to have the incarceration photo booth at future events.

“Having a jail cell and allowing folks to take photos inside that fake cell has been a part of our event since the beginning, six years now, and no one ever brought up a concern about it,” Tarmann said in an Oct. 10 email. “No one thought about the impact of what was written in the Advance-Titan article and that’s unfortunate because our intent was never to joke about being incarcerated.”
The UP declined to comment on this article.

Not only did my article spark change in the UP and future Run with the Cops events, but I also received emails of support from students.

“Incarceration is a seriously complex issue that should not be taken lightly,” one student said in an Oct. 10 email. “What the Run with the Cops event did was a vulgar display that I did not know about until reading your article.”

Students pose for a picture in incarceration costumes.

The UWO Social Justice Club discussed my article at their Oct. 17 meeting and will be hosting a panel discussion in November focused on incarceration. I will be participating in the discussion because I believe incarceration is a serious and often overlooked issue.

According to Winnebago County District Attorney Christian Gossett, you have a greater likelihood of being arrested and charged in Wisconsin than you do of earning a bachelor’s degree.

“Land of the free? More like land of the incarcerated,” he said.

Criminals are not just sketchy-looking characters hanging out in dark alleyways. We’re your friends, your neighbors, your family, your professors and your classmates.

The UWO community’s response to my article has made me grateful to be a UWO student journalist. For once, I was not silenced and my words made a difference; journalism made a difference. Thank you for listening to me.