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Beyond Bars, Beyond Gates

By Nawal K. Arjini, Martin M. Bernstein, and Sonya A. Karabel

Speaking at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture this past November, University President Drew G. Faust argued that education is the civil rights issue of our time. Drawing inspiration from Frederick Douglass’s insistence on the importance of education as resistance to slavery, President Faust wrote in Harvard Magazine, “Education liberates the mind, even when the body is oppressed. It gives us perspective as a passport to other times, other places, and other points of view, as well as a way to learn about ourselves and to re-imagine our lives in ways that alter us forever.” As racial oppression in the United States persisted but changed forms, education continued to be a key frontier, with Brown v. Board of Education marking the first major victory against Jim Crow. Today, as policing and mass incarceration have become central to institutional racism, education remains a powerful means of resistance. If Harvard is serious about education as a civil right, it is time to start offering College courses in Massachusetts prisons.

In September, following the revelation that Harvard administrators had likely overturned the admission of Michelle Jones to the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences due to her formerly incarcerated status, 171 faculty signed onto a letter titled “We Are Educators, Not Prosecutors.” The signatories called on Harvard to add criminal history to Harvard’s non-discrimination policy and to support Harvard faculty interest in creating a prison education program. From March 5 to 7, the Beyond the Gates conference will propose how to actualize this demand. Students who graduated from higher education in prison programs, including Jones, and educators who have helped develop these programs will come together to discuss models of prison education and propose bringing together the best features of each to create a new, innovative program at Harvard. It is crucial that Harvard does not let this opportunity for action pass by.

Harvard currently lags behind its peers in offering courses in prison, though it has historically been a leader. Graduate student researchers working on a report to be released at the conference have discovered in the Harvard Archives that as early as 1833, Divinity School students were entering prisons to offer religious education. In the 1920s, Howard B. Gill, Class of 1913, designed Norfolk Prison Colony as a “community prison,” complete with buildings arranged like a college campus, a community center, dormitories around a quadrangle, and a well-stocked library. It was through Norfolk’s debate team that Malcolm Little became the powerful public speaker Malcolm X. In the 1950s, the Phillips Brooks House Association began to send Harvard students to teach alongside incarcerated men and women. Today, the Harvard Organization for Prison Education and Reform, a part of PBHA, continues this work, tutoring men and women at six local correctional facilities in life skills and GED preparation. But at many other universities—including Yale, Columbia, Princeton, and Cornell—prison education has moved beyond undergraduate volunteering. At these institutions, faculty teach accredited college courses in prisons.

Harvard had such a program, the Prison Studies Project, led by Graduate School of Education lecturer Kaia Stern and Professor of Sociology Bruce Western. From 2008 to 2013, Harvard and Boston University students shared a classroom with incarcerated men and women enrolled in Boston University’s Prison Education Program for a semester-long seminar that explored topics in urban sociology, such as race, poverty, and community justice, inside the walls of local prisons, for which both Harvard and Boston University students received course credit. However, since funding dried up for this initiative, these courses are no longer offered.

Harvard has an opportunity to become a leader in the field of prison education once again, by directing its resources towards new models of prison education which offer accredited courses for incarcerated and campus-based students together. Offering mixed-classroom courses combats the isolation of incarceration. In a society like ours, where gates keep people out and bars keep people in, the classroom is a place of solidarity and community. Creating communities of learners, rather than isolating people into categories of “students” and the “incarcerated,” has ramifications outside of the classroom, too: It provides social networks which can help incarcerated students upon re-entry. It facilitates intergenerational conversations between students of different ages. And it ensures that all students think and learn in ways that keep them engaged with the world. Prison education empowers people who have been systematically denied access to education. It gives tools for change to those who know the injustice of the criminal justice system best. As Marcus Williams of the prison education program Liberation Literacy writes, “Education teaches us how to resist and organize. Politicizing someone’s mind is a non-violent form of resistance.” A mixed-classroom prison education program would enable Harvard campus students to come together with incarcerated students and develop the language, skills, and community necessary to resist and organize against systemic oppression. It would be a concrete step towards Harvard’s goal of providing education that benefits society.

As students, we call upon Harvard to begin offering courses in prison, both because we believe it would help us become more engaged learners and because we believe Harvard has an ethical duty to the community around it. Accordingly, HOPE is holding a rally outside University Hall on Tuesday to demonstrate student support for prison education at Harvard. The rally has been cosponsored by the Black Students Association, Association of Black Harvard Women, Student Labor Action Movement, and more student organizations.

Prisons deny people the chance at the personal and political growth that Harvard rightly views as a civil right. If Harvard is serious about its responsibility to members of its internal community, and about acknowledging its role in the larger communities it occupies, it must put its immense resources towards engaging with the incarcerated population around it.

Nawal K. Arjini ’18 is a History and Literature concentrator in Dudley House. Martin M. Bernstein ’20 is a History and Philosophy concentrator in Dudley House. Sonya A. Karabel ’18 is a Social Studies and African American Studies concentrator in Dudley House. The authors are members of the Harvard Organization for Prison Education and Reform.

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