Teresa Miller, Law Professor and Prison Reformer, Is Dead at 59

When Teresa Miller, a professor at the University at Buffalo School of Law, showed her documentary film about the Attica Correctional Facility during a panel discussion at the Glimmerglass opera festival in 2014, it sparked an idea. Why not, she thought, bring an opera to the prison?

Francesca Zambello, the director of the festival, in Cooperstown, N.Y., had the same notion and joined the effort. Ms. Miller helped persuade prison officials to grant permission, and a year later Glimmerglass took Verdi’s “Macbeth” to Attica. Opera there became an annual tradition, with Ms. Miller each year sitting among a rapt audience of inmates to watch the production.

“It’s culture we don’t see,” Donovan Jackson, an Attica inmate, told the news website syracuse.com in 2017. “Ours is hostility and violence.”

Bringing the outside world behind prison walls — and then showing that outside world what life behind bars is like — was a central part of the criminal justice work done by Ms. Miller, who died at 59 on Aug. 6 at a hospital in Manhattan.

As a law professor at Buffalo for 19 years — she was later a top administrator for the State University of New York, of which Buffalo is a part, focusing on diversity issues — she had made it a practice of having her students step outside the classroom and into the penal system as a way to humanize incarcerated people.

She reached a larger audience with two short documentaries, most notably the 24-minute “Encountering Attica” (2009), which she produced and also directed with Tim Gera. The other, “4 Myths About Attica” (2011), which she also produced and directed, was made for a University at Buffalo conference she organized on the 40th anniversary of the prison uprising at Attica that left 43 people dead.

“Encountering Attica” shows the interactions between three first-year law students and four men serving life sentences, including for murder. Putting students in conversation with inmates, Ms. Miller found, fostered empathy among both groups. (She was also an adviser to Attica inmates seeking parole.)

Ms. Miller first took students to the prison in 2007. “Bringing a video camera into a prison is no small feat,” she wrote in a 2012 paper for the Journal of Legal Education titled “Encountering Attica: Documentary Filmmaking as Pedagogical Tool.” Acclimating students was also a challenge.

“For the average law student,” she wrote, “walking into the state correctional facility in Attica, New York, is a shocking transition into a completely foreign culture in which common household objects are prized, seemingly innocuous activities are forbidden, technologies the public takes for granted are alien, and the sight of a tree trunk, grass, flowers are distant memories.”

She added, “The video camera has the potential to remove some of the barriers between the prison and society.”

Teresa Ann Miller was born on Feb. 20, 1962, at Fort Benning, Ga., where her father, Billy G. Miller, was stationed. A lieutenant colonel in the Army, he was a helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War. Her mother, Henrietta Thomas Dabney, was an administrator at the University of North Carolina and later at Norfolk State University in Virginia. Ms. Miller grew up in both states. Through genealogical research, she later found that a relative is the civil rights lawyer Fred D. Gray, who had helped defend Rosa Parks.

Ms. Miller attended Booker T. Washington High School in Norfolk, graduated from Duke University in 1983 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and went on to Harvard Law School, graduating in 1986. She then earned a master of law degree from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Ms. Miller clerked for federal Judge William M. Hoeveler of the Southern District of Florida and taught at the University of Miami Law School.

She joined the Buffalo law school faculty in 1995 and in 2014 became the first vice provost for equity and inclusion at the University at Buffalo. She continued to rise through SUNY’s ranks, becoming the system’s senior vice chancellor for strategic initiatives and chief diversity officer in 2018. In that role she instituted a program promoting tenure-track professorships for people of color across SUNY’s 64 campuses.

In her work on criminal justice she was a member of an American Bar Association task force on protecting prisoners’ rights and served on the boards of the prison reform groups Prisoner Legal Services of New York and the Correctional Association of New York.

Her daughter Seychelle Mikofsky said Ms. Miller died of gallbladder cancer.

Ms. Miller married Daniel Mikofsky, a human resources executive, in 1998. They separated in 2013. She is also survived by their two other children, Miles and Croix; her partner, Paula DiPerna; her sisters Belinda Matingou, Janelle Jordan and Celinda Kibria; and her brother, Jason Miller.

Newyork time

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