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Activists Urge Harvard Law School to 'Better Prepare' Students to Support Incarcerated People

Harvard Black Law Students Association president Lauren Williams HLS '19, pictured here in 2018.
Harvard Black Law Students Association president Lauren Williams HLS '19, pictured here in 2018. By Amy Y. Li
By Aidan F. Ryan, Crimson Staff Writer

The Harvard Black Law Students Association released a statement Wednesday asking the Law School to place greater emphasis on criminal justice and calling on Harvard to steer clear of investing in prisons, among other demands.

The group’s public statement — posted on Twitter Wednesday morning —  endorses 10 demands issued as part of the National Prison Strike and states the Law School must “work to better prepare its students to support the plight of incarcerated people.”

The document is Harvard Law students’ latest public show of support for the strike, a three-week-long national movement meant to advocate for prison reform in response to a riot that recently broke out in a South Carolina maximum security prison. Among the 10 demands of the National Prison Strike are “an immediate end to prison slavery,” an end to “racial overcharging, over-sentencing, and parole denials of Black and brown humans,” and calls for Pell Grants to be reinstated in every U.S. state and territory.

Roughly 30 students gathered at the Law School three weeks ago to hold a demonstration in support of the strike. In an interview Wednesday, Lauren D. Williams, president of BLSA, said the group must continue to publicly back the cause.

“I think it’s important that we as an organization stand by this cause because a lot of our work that we have done in school is really connected to this kind of work, and especially when we’re looking at a system that disproportionately impacts black and brown people,” Williams said.

The BLSA statement also included four proposals aimed specifically at Harvard. These included ensuring the University’s endowment is not supporting any institutions that profit from the prison system; creating a “movement lawyering” clinic at the Law School to prepare students for social justice work; starting pipeline programs for jailhouse lawyers and a prison law clerk program; and appointing a critical race theorist to the Law School faculty.

The final demand echoes a rallying cry of the now-inactive activist group Reclaim Harvard Law. Reclaim occupied a main thoroughfare in the Law School in 2016 to pressure the school to hire more faculty of color and to bolster the school’s curricular offerings on critical race theory.

Law School spokesperson Robb London wrote in a statement Wednesday that the Law School is committed to teaching students about criminal justice reform.

"Criminal justice reform is the focus of a great deal of leading scholarship, research and advocacy by a number of faculty, clinics, and student organizations at HLS, including BLSA,” London wrote. “We learn from hearing student proposals about ways to improve the learning experience at HLS."

Emanuel Powell, one of the co-chairs of the Powerfully Utilizing Law School Educations for Political and Social Justice Committee — a subcommittee of the Harvard Black Law Students Association that organized the demonstration three weeks ago — said the group hopes to use the Harvard name to call attention to the cause.

“I think it’s critical... for us to use our platform in support of individuals who are currently incarcerated — to use our platform to elevate their voices,” Powell said.

“By attending this institution, an institution in general, we’re at a position of privilege and a position of power and we can make changes and do things and actually impact the system,” Williams added.

Both Williams and Powell said they are planning to reach out administrators to discuss the proposals BLSA put forward.

—Staff writer Aidan F. Ryan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @AidanRyanNH.

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Student GroupsHarvard Law SchoolProtests