I am a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. For nearly a decade, I taught creative writing and literacy workshops inside Chicago’s Cook County Juvenile Detention Center, and now I am writing about the education of young people in prison.
My work as a teacher was rooted in my belief that no young person’s life should be defined by the worst thing they ever did. What I wanted most for my students was for them to understand themselves as more than the labels that had been slapped on them by the police and criminal legal system. They had been told they were gangbangers, thugs, criminals, felons, foster kids, and worse. Very often, the names they called themselves were even more harrowing. I wanted my students to expand their identities to include “poet,” “writer,” among their list—to expand far beyond the limitations that the drab uniforms of the detention center had imposed on them.
I wanted them to imagine a future like the one Michelle Jones has so courageously forged for herself by applying to Harvard and other doctoral programs in History and American Studies this year. While serving 20 years of a 50 year sentence in Indiana Women’s Prison, Jones earned her bachelor’s degree from Ball State University in 2004. As part of a course inside the prison, Jones also began researching the history of the women’s prison in which she was incarcerated.
Without access to Internet and relying on books she got through library requests and the archival papers of the prison itself, Jones published a paper on the “ladies of the night” who were held in the prison a century prior. The piece was named Indiana Historical Society’s best research project last year. In addition to this scholarship, Jones became an accomplished playwright, with one of her plays opening at an Indianapolis theater in December 2017.
Jones had been incarcerated since 1996 for the murder of her four year old son, Brandon. She became pregnant after “non-consensual sex” at 14 and was beaten in the stomach with a board by her mother in response. She describes having had a psychotic episode a few years later, which resulted in her committing violence against her child, who died. It’s a horrific and tragic story, and one that she clearly regrets. She says now that, “I have made a commitment to myself and him that with the time I have left, I will live a redeemed life, one of service and value to others.”
And she has so far succeeded in this mission. According to the New York Times, “N.Y.U. was one of several top schools that recruited her for their doctoral programs. She was also among 18 selected from more than 300 applicants to Harvard University’s history program.” Professor Elizabeth Hinton, a Harvard historian of mass incarceration, calls Jones “one of the strongest candidates in the country last year, period.”
What more could our legal system ask of a person who made such a grave mistake so long ago? Her story should have been used to affirm for all of us who work in the justice system that what we most hope for is possible—that young people who have made terrible mistakes (and who have been victimized) can grow and change. That their lives need not be wasted. That they can, in fact, become the moral and intellectual redeemers of our society. In spite of these accomplishments, and in spite of having been selected for admission by the History Department faculty committee, Jones’s admission to Harvard was overridden by higher-ups. I was dismayed to read Professor John Stauffer’s comment that, “we knew that anyone could just punch her crime into Google, and Fox News would probably say that P.C. liberal Harvard gave 200 grand of funding to a child murderer, who also happened to be a minority. I mean, c’mon.”
Are we left to believe that Harvard is choosing whether or not to admit (black) students based on how their admissions decisions will be received by Fox News? In these times, when white supremacists are in the highest levels of government, the Harvard community should be using our tremendous platform and privileged position to defend the vulnerable and resist racism. I am saddened to see that Harvard has, in this case, chosen to do the opposite.
By turning away Jones, who was apparently among our very strongest candidates this year, what message is Harvard sending to my students about the possibilities for their own futures? My greatest hope for them was that they would not be erased, locked up, killed, or disappear into the prison system. That they would instead become students, and through the process begin to heal from childhood trauma and build lives as poets, lawyers, historians—that they would use their voices to critique the society they live in, be heard, and create change.
I wish Michelle Jones the best as she begins her doctoral studies at N.Y.U. this fall, but I suspect she does not need my wishes. As she put it, “People don’t survive 20 years of incarceration with any kind of grace unless they have the discipline to do their reading and writing in the chaos of that place…Forget Harvard. I’ve already graduated from the toughest school there is.” Her rejection from Harvard is clearly our loss as a community of scholars, not hers.
Amanda R. Klonsky is a doctoral student studying educational leadership at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
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