Philander Smith students build prison cell replica

A Nov. 21 event at Philander Smith College included a student-driven project that provided a replica of a death row isolation cell, which is smaller than the average parking space and confines a prisoner for 23 hours each day. 

The cell, sponsored by Philander Smith’s Social Justice Initiative (SJI) and assembled by students with the help of the Rev. Thompson Murray of Quapaw Quarter UMC Little Rock, made its debut in conjunction with a screening of “Herman’s House,” a documentary about the cruelty of solitary confinement in the prison system. A panel discussion followed, and attendees were invited to spend time inside the cell before and after the screening and discussion.

Ahmad Williams, a Philander Smith student and president of the campus Social Justice League who attends Wesley Chapel UMC Little Rock, was one of several students on hand to help assemble the cell. He said it can be reassembled in other locations, for churches or other groups that wish to learn more about isolation living conditions in prisons.

Dr. Joseph Jones, founding executive director of the SJI, said many of the 15 students active in the Social Justice League attend area United Methodist churches. (Jones himself attends Wesley Chapel UMC, located on the Philander Smith campus.) He said United Methodist beliefs influence every project of the SJI.

“One of the things that we intentionally do with our office is to try to align our efforts with the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church.… Even though we don’t explicitly say it to students, in the language and in the activities we do, we still try to make sure a Methodist presence is there,” he said.

Paragraphs 164G and 164H of the 2012 Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church deal with the death penalty and with criminal and restorative justice. Paragraph 164H reads, in part, “In the love of Christ, who came to save those who are lost and vulnerable, we urge the creation of a genuinely new system for the care and restoration of victims, offenders, criminal justice officials, and the community as a whole.”

To learn more about the project, contact the Social Justice Initiative office at 501-975-8546 or