by Pascale Joachim, ’23 (CLAS)
When Gus Marks-Hamilton graduated from UConn with a bachelor’s in English in 2003, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. After a first-hand experience with the criminal justice system, he knew he wanted to help incarcerated folks find employment opportunities and knew that in order to do so, he had to expand his education. Marks-Hamilton came back to UConn for a Master’s in Social Work in 2015, graduated in 2017, and got hired by the American Civil Liberties Union as a part-time field organizer in 2018. This role eventually turned into a full-time position, and in 2021, Marks-Hamilton was promoted to Campaign Manager of the Smart Justice Campaign.
Smart Justice is a legislative advocacy campaign primarily concerned with ending the harms of mass incarceration and eliminating the racial disparities that exist within our state’s legal defense system. Marks-Hamilton and his team work to accomplish this goal in a variety of ways: they work with people who are living with criminal records on issues involving the police and prosecutors, and the collateral consequences, stigma, and discrimination they face despite simply trying to move on with their lives. “We believe that people who have been formerly incarcerated or directly impacted by the prison system are experts in their lives. We try to center everything we do on the lived experiences of these people and their voices, which includes myself,” Marks-Hamilton shared during our conversation.
When Marks-Hamilton made the choice to go back to school, he was not interested in what people typically think social work consists of. He wanted to work at the policy-making level; specifically, he was interested in how the state could pass legislation to make finding work and housing for previously-incarcerated people easier. It was of utmost importance for Marks-Hamilton to work for an organization that centers their advocacy on the real experiences and voices of people with records, and he found that with the ACLU and the Smart Justice Campaign.
Some of the work Marks-Hamilton does is prepare individuals to give public testimonies before legislators at the Hartford Capitol, and he finds his background in English especially useful when doing so. Citizens are limited to three minutes of speaking time, and it’s important that they have an impact while maintaining an authentic sense of voice. “I have an appreciation for language and brevity when it comes to helping people put together their testimonies. Putting these things together can be challenging, especially at the Capitol since it doesn’t feel like a space made for formerly incarcerated people. Making sure these folks feel comfortable, safe, and confident to give a testimony that they feel is in their voice and speaks to the positive potential the right piece of legislation can have, yeah, I think my background in English helps me do that.”
Some legislative priorities for the ACLU this year include passing an act that would prevent landlords, property managers, and housing agencies from using tenant screening and selection policies to issue blanket denials to people living with records: “Criminal history is a poor indicator of tenancy outcomes. Stable housing reduces the risk of recidivism and enhances public safety,” Marks-Hamilton stated. They’re also working to pass acts to end deceptive interrogation tactics and require that prosecutors complete biennial evaluations.
In past years, Smart Justice has passed a Clean Slate Bill which begins the process of erasing a person’s record once they’ve completed their sentence if they’ve had no other interactions with the criminal legal system. However, not everything Marks-Hamilton works on is major legislation: a lot of his days are spent at the Capitol wearing his Smart Justice outfit and handing out fact sheets to legislators.
Not only is Marks-Hamilton’s career yet another testament to the ways an English degree can be useful anywhere, it’s inspiring and necessary work. Breaking down stigma is no easy feat, so every step forward, no matter how small, is important. “It’s in the best interest of everyone in Connecticut that we all have opportunities to live happy and successful lives. We need to tear down as many barriers as we can, and I’m incredibly proud to be working towards that.”