Ben & Jerry’s Serves Up Criminal Justice Reform Push

The famous ice cream brand is spotlighting calls for criminal justice reform at its factory and visitors' center in Waterbury.

A new initiative from one of Vermont's most famous companies is calling for reforms to criminal justice systems across the country.

Ben & Jerry's has partnered with the Art for Justice Fund to put reform issues center stage in an exhibit outside its popular factory and visitors' center in Waterbury.

"This exhibit gives voice to the voiceless," observed Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan, a Democrat, who attended Tuesday’s unveiling of the new display.

The exhibit shows work from several formerly-incarcerated artists like Mary Baxter, who was shackled to a gurney while giving birth more than a decade ago during her Pennsylvania prison sentence for drug possession.

"Frankly, I want them to be disturbed," Baxter said of how she hopes visitors experience the story of her shackling during childbirth. "I want them to be disgusted. I want them to be moved to action."

Baxter, who continues to advocate for more humane treatment of pregnant incarcerated women and others involved in the criminal justice system, said she would like people who visit Ben & Jerry's from around the country to take the stories told through the art back to their home communities and discuss ways to improve the system.

Ben & Jerry's, which is also highlighting criminal just reform efforts on its website, is calling attention to areas like racial disparities in drug arrests, and in the sheer numbers of incarcerated Americans.

Terrence Bogans of the Art for Justice Fund said the partnership with Ben & Jerry's could result in greater empathy for people like Mary Baxter and others who served time behind bars and are working hard to reintegrate into society.

"Art gives you the access and exposure of what the reality is for so many Americans," Bogans told necn. "Then, the empathy, I think, comes from that."

If you're thinking this may be unfamiliar or risky territory for a company as famous as Ben & Jerry's, then consider its long history of advocating for social change: including on climate justice, LGBT equality, and the global refugee crisis.

"A lot of people ask me, 'Don't you think people will get upset if you do this, or if you do that? You're an ice cream business!'" said Matthew McCarthy, the CEO of Ben & Jerry’s. "And I say, 'Listen. We do these things because we care.' We're a business of people."

One of the co-founders of the famous brand, Jerry Greenfield, added that a social mission was always a key component of the vision for the company.

"Business plays a big role in society," Greenfield said. "It doesn't just exist to make money. And as a neighbor, it has a responsibility to look after social and environmental issues."

According to a Ben & Jerry's spokesman, the new exhibit is expected to hang for about a year.

Based on visitation numbers at the popular destination, its criminal justice reform message could reach 400,000 or more people.

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