Interfaith Students to Help Educate Prisoners

Kaia Stern, a lecturer at Harvard Divinity School, called the Harvard Interfaith Prison Education program an invaluable step towards fixing a prison system in “crisis” at the program’s official kick-off event Thursday evening.

HIPE, which was founded in November through a partnership between the Harvard Episcopalians and Harvard Hillel, pairs mentors with incarcerated individuals working towards their Bachelor’s Degrees at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Norfolk.

Stern, co-founder and director of the Prison Studies Project, first began interest in America’s penal system began in college, and she has been involved in educating inmates ever since. Speaking to HIPE’s volunteers at Hillel on Thursday, Stern, who is also an ordained interfaith minister, shared her personal experiences witnessing the many opportunities and challenges faced by prisoners.

Stern spoke about mass overcrowding and longer imprisonment sentences due to increased commercialization and profit-seeking within the prison system. The issues she touched on, said Harvard’s Episcopal Chaplain Reverend Luther Zeigler, will help HIPE become “sensitive to the overall context” within which it will work.

“While a huge part of this project is building relationships with incarcerated individuals and mentoring them as they pursue their bachelor’s degree, you can add different components such as educating people outside of the program [and] educating ourselves about the prison system in America,” said HIPE co-founder and Divinity School graduate Hilly Haber.

HIPE’s 21 members come from across the University, including the College, the Graduate School of Education, Hillel, the Episcopal Chaplaincy, the Divinity School, the School of Public Health, and the Law School. And unlike other education programs, HIPE emphasizes its interfaith platform.

“There is a theological dimension to what we are doing,” said Zeigler. “We are not only trying to be mentors and friends to these prisoners, but to understand that relationship in the context of our own religious traditions.”

—Staff writer Zohra D. Yaqhubi can be reached at Follow her @zohradyaqhubi.