Death Row Inmate Keith Lamar Phones Into Symposium and Concert

Keith LaMar, death row inmate, phoned in from his cell in Ohio to participate in an on-campus symposium and perform in a live concert at the Drake. LaMar has gained national acclaim as he fights against the death sentence for crimes he says he didn’t commit.

Death Row Inmate Keith Lamar Phones Into Symposium and Concert
Keith LaMar recorded the first-ever album by a death row inmate — “Freedom First,” a jazz record that was released in February 2022. Photo courtesy of Lauren Leydon-Hardy.

Keith LaMar has been incarcerated for over three decades, and now sits on Ohio’s death row for crimes he says he hasn’t committed, garnering national attention.

During a prison riot in 1993, authorities said that LaMar became an enforcer and used the chaos of a cellblock takeover by other prisoners to kill inmates. There was no official state investigation, no forensic evidence, yet LaMar was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of five inmates by an all-white jury.

Determined not to be silenced or discouraged from fighting for his innocence, he has since written a book titled “Condemned,” and recorded the first-ever album by a death row inmate — “Freedom First,” a jazz record that was released in February 2022.

This past weekend, Amherst held a symposium with LaMar, who phoned in from his cell in Ohio, and a panel of six activists. The panel included Professor Jennifer Lackey of Northwestern University and Founding Director of Northwestern’s Prison Education Program (NPEP), the first program at a top 10 university to award Bachelors of Arts to incarcerated students, as well as NPEP graduates James Soto, Darryl Johnson, Javier Reyes, and Maria Garza, and the Director of the Justice for Keith LaMar Foundation Amy Gordiejew. The panel was moderated by Assistant Professor of Philosophy Lauren Leydon-Hardy, who was also a tutor for NPEP in previous years. Following the panel, there was a concert playing his album at The Drake downtown.

The formerly incarcerated panelists commented on the biggest challenges they faced in the system. Soto — imprisoned on a wrongful conviction for 42 years before being exonerated in 2023  — emphasized that there “is no human contact in a supermax [prison] … Putting a human being inside of a cell all day long will actually drive a person insane.”

LaMar added that it can sometimes seem impossible to “remain hopeful when there is no hope.”

“The system is designed to make you think your chances [of leaving prison] are so slim that you do not even try,” he said.

Garza and Reyes, now cofounders of Challenge to Change, a nonprofit focusing on helping with reentry to society, said that the three biggest obstacles after being released are employment, housing, and education.

“Your debt is never paid off. You have settled your debt with your time, but there is always interest,” said Reyes, referring to the many legal restrictions that follow inmates even after they are released.

Challenge to Change offers space for people to stay for up to a year for free to save their money and complete necessary programming and education.

With the mention of education, Lackey joined the conversation, discussing her work with the NPEP, which sends educators into prisoners to teach and help the incarcerated members who are accepted to the program receive a bachelor’s degree She spoke on the delicacy required to balance her role as an educator, activist, and advocate. If her educational work upsets prison authorities, she often faces “the threat of being banned from facilities,” so she is careful to forcefully push for change while not overstepping.

But despite opposition, the program has persevered, and members of the panel described how obtaining a bachelor’s degree unlocked doors in their lives. Soto emphasized that his “professor saved [him] in a way that nobody else did.”

The system “tries to bury everyone, but we are seeds. Everyone will grow,” Reyes added.

LaMar expressed how meaningful his supporters have been, whether it has been his legal team, the musicians he has collaborated with, or the volunteers who have worked to spread his message of innocence.

“Community is everything,” LaMar added. “[As a community], you are not just two people, you now have the universe behind you.”

The panelists were all on the same page about how imperative it is to celebrate small wins.

Reyes explained that “even with the losses, a small win is a big win. When you celebrate, it becomes contagious.”

Gordiejew also expressed that “victory is like soul food. It serves as an example that the impossible can still happen.”

One such victory in LaMar’s case is a recent ruling granting him one more chance to file for appeal, on the grounds of witness tampering and other violations. Soto added that — to him —“life without the possibility of parole is another form of the death penalty — death by incarceration.”

On death row, LaMar has turned to music. The album he created features contemporary jazz played by a group of international musicians along with LaMar’s spoken word poetry pieces.

On a granular level, the panel unpacked the legal processes of jury selection and the court system. Soto commented on the difficult uphill battle of trying to get rehabilitation and to convince the general public and legislators that this is the best solution.

Jury participation is key. The panelists stated that being one of 12 jury members means that your voice can make a difference.

Rachel Howell ’26 commented on the power of hearing from formerly incarcerated members. “There is an intrinsic value in hearing straight from the voices of those who have lived the experience,” she said. “[It was] incredibly eye opening to hear about the first-hand experiences of individuals who have been through the criminal justice system and have come out to tell their stories and help others.”

The event concluded with a reminder from Professor Lackey to “dream big.” LaMar describes how the carceral system is “like being thrown into the ocean without knowing how to swim. The hardest thing is to find faith in yourself.”

But, the biggest takeaway is to “always bet on yourself,” he said. “You have to participate in your life, otherwise it’s not your life. You have the right to speak and to be.”