As someone who worked in New York City’s jails and prisons, including Rikers Island, through the Thrive for Life Prison Project, I expected to continue my work in this area when I arrived at Harvard by exploring ways to work within Boston’s penal system.
When I arrived in Cambridge, however, I came to the horrifying realization that what I experienced in dealing with America’s broken criminal justice system could also be found right in my backyard at Harvard. In fact, Harvard may not have cells and steel bars, but it harbors the same institutionalized social problems that American society does: A startling lack of opportunity for redemption and a lack of concern for those who make mistakes in our society.
One of the volunteers at Thrive for Life is the most scrumptious woman you’ll ever meet in your life. Her contradicting grandmother-like yet tween-ish attitude could throw anyone for a spin. When she’s not talking about Gottfrey, her dog, she chit-chats about the inmates we work with as a pastime.
She constantly tells stories of how she warns “the guys” to never plead guilty to a felony, at all costs—even if it means getting a new lawyer.
That is, until she realizes she’s lost Gottfrey and stops the conversation to find him.
Unfortunately, not every incarcerated individual has the help of a grandmotherly guru. Our nation’s public defenders are so overworked that over 90 percent of the time they convince their client to plead guilty to a lower offense, which is often a felony. In federal cases and in nearly half of all states, expungement—or deletion of a case in the eyes of the law—is not an option for those who plead to or are convicted of a felony as a legal adult (in four of these states, sealing, or removing the case from public view, is permitted under varying circumstances).
Without the option of expungement or sealing, felony convictions ruin formerly incarcerated individuals’ chances at successful reentry into society. In fact, formerly incarcerated individuals with a felony conviction can be barred from many federal professions, disenfranchised, unable to receive government aid, and are less likely to be employed due to false assumptions made by employers about their character. Indeed, a felony conviction on one’s record acts as the equivalent of a societal Scarlet Letter. It exerts an influence on every aspect of one’s life, even after one’s time has been served. This at least in part explains the United States’ astonishingly high recidivism rate, currently upwards of 75 percent five years after prisoners’ release.
Such a disgusting system can only exist due to a striking and malignant lack of concern for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals that pervades our society.
That includes at Harvard.
When the History Department chose to admit one of the top scholars in the field of American Studies, Michelle Jones, their decision was overridden by the administration, according to internal memos and emails obtained by the Marshall Project, a news outlet that reports on criminal justice issues. Concerns were voiced about misrepresentation of her criminal record on her application. Still, this decision was made despite vocal support from her prosecutor, recommendations from renowned historians across the country, and her assertion that she would have talked more about her crime if she had been asked about it.
More importantly, if Harvard truly believed in human redemption, then Michelle Jones would have served her time. End of sentence. No amount of minimization of her crime would have harmed her application, since it should not have even been a factor. This is not the only way, however, that Harvard has demonstrated its indifference towards those in our society who have made mistakes.
Even within on-campus discipline, Harvard can irrevocably punish. Much like a felony for a formerly incarcerated individual that can never be sealed or expunged, a permanent notation on one’s academic record is considered an academic “kiss of death.” Since employers can often see these permanent notations, the future prospects of students are significantly harmed. All disciplinary forced withdrawals cause this notation to be marked on one’s transcript. Furthermore, this notation cannot be removed under any circumstance—including a return to campus or eventual graduation.
There are ways to discipline students that don’t involve ruining the rest of their lives. Furthermore, even if forced withdrawal itself is not changed, the University could follow in the footsteps of Syracuse and allow the notation to be removed with the completion of a non-credit course.
Efforts to structurally reform the way the University disciplines students have seen limited success. After removing academic dishonesty from the Administrative Board’s jurisdiction and giving it to the Honor Council, cases resulting in forced withdrawal have decreased from 20 percent to 16 percent between the two periods of 2013 to 2015 and 2015 to 2017.
Nevertheless, without the elimination of a culture that does not offer an opportunity for reconciliation, Harvard will always be a mirror of America’s broken criminal justice system.
Manhattan Detention Complex. It was just like every other Friday. I give in my ID. Guards, large automatic sliding doors, loud buzzes, alarms, occasional lockdowns. It’s all a part of the drill. We sit in a circle with the inmates participating in the program. It was just like every other Friday.
Except it was the Friday before Christmas.
We near the end of the session. I hear sniffles to my left that, in a painfully slow and heart-wrenching crescendo, become uncontrollable sobs. An inmate explains that he just wants to see his family. I put my hand on his shoulder, offering all that I could in the moment, even though both he and I knew I would have to leave in a few minutes.
Student or inmate, we’re all people.
We make mistakes.
Why can’t we just recognize that?
Lorenzo F. Manuali ’21, a Crimson Associate Editorial Editor, lives in DeWolfe.
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