In April, Harvard released its long awaited report on the University’s connections to slavery.
The report, produced by a committee of academics, provided a detailed account of the “integral” role slavery played in shaping Harvard, including as a key source of the school’s wealth. With the release of the report, the Harvard Corporation — the University’s highest governing board — committed $100 million to a Legacy of Slavery Fund established to redress the University’s ties to slavery.
But Brit G. Shrader ’24, a member of the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign, calls the report’s lack of mention of connections between slavery and the carceral system today a “disgrace.”
Though the report provides recommendations for how to use the fund, any efforts to combat injustice in the prison system are not explicitly outlined in the proposal.
The term “mass incarceration” is included in the report only once — in the 734th footnote. The one-sentence mention acknowledges that mass incarceration is a part of slavery’s legacy and something Harvard’s existing community service engagement “could be expanded” to address. This sentence does not appear until page 116 of the 132-page report.
“That’s such a disgrace to so many people on this campus, but also so many people outside of this campus,” Shrader says.
Radcliffe Institute Dean and Legacy of Slavery Chair Tomiko Brown-Nagin says that the proposals outlined in the report are intentionally broad, according to an article in the Harvard Gazette from April.
“The recommendations are broad because they’re meant to leave plenty of room for meaningful engagement with individuals on campus, with the Harvard Schools, and with community partners who will help shape the work ahead,” she says.
As choices surrounding the use of the Legacy of Slavery fund are discussed, many at the University are thinking about how the institution should address the harms caused by the prison system in the United States — whether through its education within the classroom or outreach beyond its gates.
Today, the United States incarcerates around 2 million people in its prisons and jails. Activists such as Michelle Alexander and Angela Davis have described mass incarceration as a form of “modern slavery,” drawing connections between the country’s history of enslavement and its alleged continuation within prisons today.
Though the 13th Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude within the United States, its language includes a loophole which is heavily exploited today — “except as punishment for crime.” Many activists argue that those five words have enabled the weaponization of mass incarceration as a means of using incarcerated people, and especially Black Americans, for free and forced labor.
People in prisons are typically provided with the bare minimum when it comes to food, clothes, and hygiene supplies — the so-called “three hots and a cot.” Prison wages are unlivable; on average, incarcerated workers earn 13 cents to 52 cents per hour, and wages can remain stagnant for years at a time.
Over the past several decades, HPDC, a student-led abolitionist campaign, has called upon the University to divest its endowment from the prison industrial complex, which HPDC defines as the “set of symbiotic relationships between state capacity, private capital and forms of carcerality in an expanded sense: not just prisons but also parole, occupation, border control, policing, surveillance technologies, etc.”
HPDC calls Harvard’s relation to the prison industrial complex “one of the concrete manifestations of the afterlives of slavery.”
Many of the investments that HPDC has said Harvard had in the prison industry have come through Exchange Traded Funds, bundles of externally-managed funds made up of many individual stocks. The Harvard Management Company, which manages the University’s $50.9 billion endowment, dropped the ETFs from its portfolio in February and has not picked any up since, according to public filings. However the University has not made any public commitment to divestment; it is unclear whether it will invest in ETFs again in the future.
Regardless, HPDC has continued to campaign for further transparency surrounding Harvard’s investments. The vast majority of the University’s endowment is invested through external managers. As a result, only about 2 percent of the school’s investments — the portion managed directly by the Harvard Management Company — are accessible via public filings.
Shrader’s involvement with HPDC is just one of their connections to prison abolition efforts — they have also volunteered with Black and Pink, a prison abolitionist organization focused on the liberation of LGBTQ+ people, and taken courses at Harvard focused on prison abolition for their concentration in Government.
Their interest in criminal justice started with a desire to understand the political and social systems, racial capitalism, and state violence that occur within the country. But the subject is also personal for Shrader.
By the age of two, Shrader was a victim of the carceral state when their father was sentenced to prison. They were 11 when he was released. Shortly after, he was killed at the hands of police officers during a mental health crisis.
“My father has already passed away, but there’s a lot of wonder about what could have been if we had a different system,” Shrader says.
Students and faculty at Harvard have been involved in efforts to reimagine what this system could look like — and what role Harvard does and should play in it. Some activists, like Shrader, have a personal connection to the carceral system. But even those who don’t believe the University has closer ties to incarceration than students may think — both in its historical ties to slavery and its current potential to effect change within prisons.
Many students and faculty members believe that Harvard must acknowledge its position of power and do more to educate its students on how to channel that power for good. But whether Harvard has an obligation to educate students about mass incarceration — and how it should do so — is a question that looms large.
In 1927, 14 years after he graduated from Harvard College, Howard B. Gill founded the Norfolk State Prison Colony — his vision of a “prison without bars.”
He wanted to replicate the environment of a college campus, with shared dormitories, degree programs, and work opportunities. Inmates wore civilian clothes and had opportunities to interact with people outside the prison. They ran a radio show, wrote for their own newspaper, and formed an orchestra.
In 1931, Gill led the push for a debating society within the prison. The group would go on to compete in debates with colleges all over New England, including Boston University, Columbia, MIT, Princeton, Williams, and Gill’s alma mater: Harvard. Between 1936, the year the Debating Society began competing with college students, and 1952, the debaters at Norfolk State Prison Colony won 44 debates and lost 15.
In the late 1940s, the Debating Society welcomed a young man who would later become one of the most famous leaders in the civil rights era: Malcolm Little, also known as “Malcolm X.”
Later, in his 1965 autobiography, Malcolm X would write about his interaction with Harvard students while at the Norfolk State Prison Colony.
“The Norfolk Prison Colony’s library was in the school building. A variety of classes was taught there by instructors who came from such places as Harvard and Boston universities. The weekly debates between inmate teams were also held in the school building. You would be astonished to know how worked up convict debaters and audiences would get over subjects like ‘Should Babies Be Fed Milk?’” he wrote.
Many of the Norfolk debaters had not even earned high school diplomas, the president of the Debating Society told The Crimson in 1952. Out of all the debates, the one at Harvard drew the biggest audience because it “represents the education they never had,” he said.
But by the time the Debating Society began competing with Harvard, Gill had withdrawn from his role as superintendent after a controversy over his leniency in disciplining inmates. The new prison administration eventually abolished all of Gill’s extracurricular programs as national “tough on crime” policies began to set in during the latter half of the 20th century. The Debating Society came to an end.
The U.S. prison population began its sharp rise in the 1980s, increasing from about half a million people in prison to 2.3 million by 2008. Today, the national incarceration rate per 100,000 people is higher than in any other country.
That new wave of mass incarceration undermined the feasibility of Gill’s vision for a rehabilitative, college-like prison. When Gill returned to the Norfolk State Prison Colony in the 1980s, he would ask: “What have they done to my place?”
Today, the prison system in Massachusetts looks much different than in Gill’s day. In Massachusetts at large, the prison population is around 11,200 people — most of them men, and majority people of color. In Suffolk County Jail — the closest jail to Harvard’s campus, only a 15-minute drive away — Black and Hispanic men respectively make up more of the prison population than white men, a disproportionate breakdown compared to the state’s overall demographics.
In MCI-Framingham, the Massachusetts’ women’s prison just 20 miles from Harvard, the poor housing and health conditions starkly contrast the rehabilitative space that the prison once was — a “reformatory” for women who struggled with trauma and substance abuse. In July, Prison Legal Services of Massachusetts published a report detailing allegations of sexual assault committed by prison staff. A state Department of Corrections spokesperson said at the time the agency does not tolerate “any form of sexual abuse or harassment by those living or working within its facilities.”
Today, the Norfolk State Prison Colony is known as the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Norfolk. In March, the Disability Law Center released a report detailing MCI-Norfolk’s neglect of inmates with disabilities throughout the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. The report outlined concerns about the inadequate testing and protection of inmates, as well as their harsh quarantine conditions.
Whereas once the Norfolk prison could have been called a “prison without bars,” it has distanced itself from that vision. Today, most Harvard students aren’t in nearly as close contact with incarcerated people — they may not even be aware of the current conditions in the campus’s surrounding prisons and jails. But one student group is fighting to preserve that awareness, aiming to open students’ eyes to Harvard’s proximity to the prison industrial complex.
At the Harvard-Yale game, one of the most anticipated student events of the year, members of HPDC seated in the first row of the stadium held up two large banners with the words “PRISONS” and “DIVEST.” Their aim was to disrupt the game just enough to remind students of the ties they say Harvard has to the prison industrial complex with its investments.
In November, HPDC released a new report on Harvard’s endowment in partnership with several other student-led activist groups. The report highlights the coalition’s three main goals: transparency, accountability, and divestment. It also includes a series of case studies which serve as a call to action for further research into where the endowment funds are being allocated.
Harvard previously invested in funds that held investments in private prison operators such as CoreCivic, GEO Group, G4S, and Serco. In 2020, these investments amounted to around $15,000, a small fraction of the endowment.
CoreCivic and GEO Group are two of the largest private prison and detention center operators in the United States. Over the last decade, both have been accused of inmate abuse in their facilities and have faced backlash for opening major contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In February 2022, Harvard sold the ETFs in its portfolio.
“The endowment has no direct investments in private prisons and we are not aware of any indirect investments in private prisons by our external managers,” writes Jason A. Newton, a University spokesperson.
But HPDC’s broad definition of the prison industrial complex — which includes any corporation tied to “occupations, prisons, militaries, land grabs, policing, and border control” — allows the group to contend that the University still has ties to the prison system through companies such as Amazon, Blackrock, Western Union, United Health Services, and Primo Water Corp.
Administrators have long said Harvard’s investments shouldn’t be used to make political statements.
“The University should not use the endowment….to achieve political ends or particular policy ends,” President Bacow said in a 2019 interview. “There are other ways that the University tries to influence public policy through our scholarship, through our research, but we don't think that the endowment is an appropriate way to do that.”
But HPDC says in its 2019 report that “divestment is a time-tested form of political action.” The group says the “effectiveness and ethical merit” of this method has been acknowledged by Harvard in the past through its divestment from oil companies in the mid-2000s.
David C. Wood, director of the Initiative for Responsible Investment at the Harvard Kennedy School, explains the nuances of the ethics of divesting endowment funds.
“A lot of people will say that’s politicizing the process,” Wood says about conversations surrounding divestment. “But everyone has some ethical line. The question is where they draw it.”
He adds, “If you have a position to do something like to divest in order to make a political statement that might have some meaning, that seems worth considering.”
While much of the student-led campaign is centered around divestment and endowment transparency, HPDC’s advocacy does not stop there. Some of the group’s pillars are aimed at reparatory investments for people directly impacted by the prison industrial complex and at funding academic projects that employ formerly incarcerated people, organizers, and scholars.
Though HPDC is unique on campus for its focus on the fiscal forms of activism, its education pillar is not HPDC-specific but instead practiced both inside and outside of the classroom.
To Harvard’s credit, the opportunity to learn about mass incarceration and the criminal justice system in the United States is largely accessible through its course catalog. Several classes are offered each semester about U.S. prisons, with topics ranging from abolition to the philosophy of punishment. Shrader says taking courses on prison abolition is “one form of fighting” that, despite being “mediated by Harvard,” is “still valuable.”
Taking place solely on Harvard’s campus, these classes face the challenge of striking the right balance between providing sufficient background about a complex issue and theorizing too much about an unlived experience.
Erin D. Routon, who teaches an Expository Writing 20 course called “Immigration and Incarceration,” researched immigrant detention centers through long term field work for her Ph.D. at Cornell. The course, which she first taught at Cornell, came out of her interest in offering “a chance for students to see this longer view of history of immigrant incarceration.”
“The thing that is important for me about teaching at Harvard — or other Ivies — is the proximity to power and influence that students have and will continue to have for probably the rest of their lives,” Routon says.
But Routon tries to keep class discussions away from “broader theoretical analysis” and instead focuses on exposing students to first-person accounts of incarceration.
“I think because I’m an anthropologist, I tend to frame the course in terms of personal narratives and stories of these experiences,” she says.
Teaching about incarceration within the Expository Writing department at Harvard puts Routon in a somewhat powerful position — the course fulfills a core requirement for freshmen at the College. And “Immigration and Incarceration” is not the only course about imprisonment within the department. R. Hudson Vincent teaches another Expos class titled “Are Prisons Obsolete?” — named after a book by Angela Davis — which is nestled under the Mindich Program of Engaged Scholarship.
The Mindich Program focuses on integrating “civically engaged experiential learning” into Harvard’s academic opportunities. Vincent’s class, for example, brings in local prison rights advocates to speak, some of whom have their own experiences within the carceral system to share.
Grace G. von Oiste ’24, who took Vincent’s class in her first year at Harvard, says the course encouraged her to channel what she learned into action.
“I think that’s why Hudson’s class was really special to me,” von Oiste says. “A lot of people throughout the class asked, ‘What can we do to help?’ And he really gave us, ‘Here, this is what you can do.’”
Vincent re-introduced von Oiste to the Petey Greene Program, a national program she had heard about in high school which offers tutoring to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals. Von Oiste has now been volunteering as a Petey Greene tutor for around two years.
This fall, von Oiste and the other Petey Greene volunteers at the University came together to form a Harvard chapter of the organization with the hope of carpooling to the Suffolk County Jail for tutoring, encouraging other students to join, and supporting each other. Von Oiste serves as the recruitment chair of the new group.
“We do have so much privilege at Harvard and if we’re going to learn, I hope that after we’re done here, or while we’re here, we’ll do something good,” says von Oiste.
Thomas A. Dichter ’08, who teaches a History & Literature course called “Prison Abolition,” shares a similar sentiment. Dichter started his work in the movement as an 18-year-old volunteering with formerly incarcerated activists and prison abolitionists in Porter Square. His work included corresponding with people in solitary confinement, helping with criminal background checks and reform efforts, and running workshops. It wasn’t until he got to graduate school that he considered connecting his activism outside the classroom with his studies in the academy.
“Moving back and forth between the classroom or the more conventionally intellectual spaces and then activist and organizing spaces and work, I think there can be a productive tension there,” Dichter says. “And that is something that I hoped to introduce into the abolition class.”
Initially taught as a seminar course on prison literature, Dichter noticed that most of his students seemed to have been waiting the whole semester to get to one text — once again, Angela Davis’s “Are Prisons Obsolete?” Students demonstrated such an appetite that he dedicated a whole class to prison abolition.
Unlike many theory-centered classes at Harvard, Dichter’s course places an emphasis on the importance of civic action. Although the class was first taught over Zoom in the spring of 2021, students had the opportunity to engage with a wide range of organizations involved in criminal justice reform, such as Black and Pink, the ACLU of Massachusetts’s Racial Justice Program, and the Abolitionist Law Center in Pittsburgh.
As students participate in conversations about what forms of activism are most effective, Dichter asks them to reframe how they think about theory vs. practice.
“Out in the real world, people are doing intellectual work. People are doing theorizing all the time,” he says. “What happens in our classroom spaces — that’s the real world, too. We’re real people who come from communities and are on our way after our time at Harvard to different spaces.”
Every week, William “Willie” Swett ’22, a student at the New England Conservatory, makes his way to Suffolk County’s Nashua Street Jail with his instrument, the bass. He enters a room of around 25 students who are each excited to pick up an instrument and work together to create music, experimenting with different sounds and rhythms.
Around a dozen of these students are from the University. The rest are incarcerated students within the jail. They are all part of the Radcliffe Institute’s “Music and Justice” working group, a new semester-long course in which Harvard students work with students at the I-Can Academy, an educational program within the jail, to create and perform music.
The working group — a type of course which engages University students with topics in law, education, and justice but which is not awarded credit — is a part of the Prison Studies Project, an initiative focused on offering educational opportunities within prisons and jails. Kaia Stern, the co-founder and director of the PSP, co-facilitates the group with Swett and Devon Gates ’23. Their aim is to explore the connection between music and social justice and to consider the role music can play in prison reform and abolition.
Gates says that she hopes the course allows students to connect as “human beings and as musicians first.” The group plans to conclude the class with a concert where students will perform their work — a culmination of their musical collaboration throughout the semester.
Saul A. Glist ’23 has also turned to music as a means of connection to Harvard’s surrounding prison and jail population. After enrolling in “Mass Incarceration and Historical Perspectives” freshman year, Glist became interested in understanding the carceral state as both a form of confinement and source of resistance through music.
While in the process of joining WHRB, Harvard’s radio station, Glist received a letter from someone in prison who expressed feeling comforted hearing Harvard students talk on the radio in real time.
“To feel like someone’s actually listening and like you’re actually making some sort of difference in someone’s life in a positive way, it gives much more of a sense of purpose,” Glist says.
Inspired by this experience, in the fall of 2018, Glist produced a marathon-style musical program for Record Hospital, WHRB’s underground rock department. The subject of his four-hour program was music recorded in prisons. The songs on this carefully curated playlist ranged from Parchman Farm Field recordings to albums made during the ’70s prison reform era to more recent hip hop artists, like Ice Cube, who sampled collect calls in their music.
The letter Glist received wasn’t an anomaly — WHRB has a listener base in prison and occasionally receives fan mail from local penitentiaries, much of which is preserved in WHRB’s archives.
In a 2008 letter, an MCI-Cedar Junction inmate wrote to WHRB about their appreciation for a radio show on the Wu-Tang Clan.
“Being a Big Wu fan, being locked up for a long time, that was big for me and all the guys here, to listen to the old and the new, all the classic stuff,” the sender wrote. “Thank you.”
An email correspondent, Melanie, wrote to WHRB in October about her experience listening to the radio every week at the same time as her boyfriend, who was distanced from her due to his incarceration at MCI-Norfolk at the time.
“Every Saturday night we listen to ‘the darker side’ together, it’s been a huge part of how we can ‘do things together’ during this horrible heartbreaking time,” she wrote.
Though the experiences of Glist, Swett, and Gates have been largely positive, they are also aware of the power they carry as members of an elite institution and its potential for harm.
“There’s a great analogy, which is you come in with this big instrument — the bass — and it’s towering over everyone in the classroom,” Swett says. “And it could be interpreted as a physical symbol for what the power difference is like.”
But Swett hopes that “Music and Justice” does not perpetuate power imbalances — he frames it as not just Harvard students performing to an incarcerated audience, but Harvard and I-Can Academy students working together on the same level to create music.
“The approach we’re trying to take is to not do the thing where a musician just comes in and performs, because that’s been done many times,” Swett says.
Glist similarly believes that his position as a Harvard student gives him a set of privileges that he must reckon with and be mindful of.
“We all have a responsibility based on our social, political and economic positioning to give back to communities that we are a part of and to be a fair, just, and righteous actor in society,” Glist says.
Glist believes that Harvard, as a university, has the same obligation.
“Harvard has a responsibility not to ignore vast populations of people who are incarcerated close by, especially considering its own historical relationship with slavery and an endowment invested in private prisons, and all sorts of other unsavory things,” Glist says. “Harvard has a responsibility to use its vast resources to educate people who could benefit from those resources, and it’s not doing that.”
Students like Swett and Glist are trying to think critically about how they use their educational advantages. The question for Harvard is whether the University is ready to grapple with its power in the same way — and implement prison rights advocacy at an institutional level.
Beyond courses that take place within Harvard, some students argue the University also has an obligation to provide classes within local prisons that would form more direct connections between Harvard and people behind bars.
In the past, Harvard has offered credit to students at the University for courses taken within local prisons through the Prison Studies Project. The PSP, founded by professors Kaia Stern and Bruce Western, focuses on offering for-credit, higher education programs in prisons that connect college students to people behind bars through seminar-style courses. The Harvard students in the PSP’s inaugural seminar in 2008 were part of the first group of students in history to receive college credit for a course taught alongside incarcerated students within the purview of the Massachusetts Department of Corrections. Between 2008 and 2014, PSP offered a number of courses for students from Harvard and incarcerated students at MCI-Norfolk and MCI-Framingham.
Reflecting on her own experience entering a carceral space during her time in college, Stern says: “While I was a college student in a very privileged place, going into a maximum security prison in New York — it just changed my world.”
“It’s one thing to study, to theorize this domination, white supremacy, racial capitalism, or so-called ‘school to prison pipeline,’” Stern says. But it’s another thing, she says, “seeing the faces of folks who can’t afford bail, who haven’t even made it to trial.”
Lauren E. Faraino ’13, a former PSP student, speaks about her experience studying at MCI-Framingham in “Beyond the Gates,” a short film the program produced about the history of prison education at Harvard.
“It was toward the end of the class that Kaia invited one of the students who was incarcerated to share a piece of writing about her experience in solitary confinement, and it was the most difficult thing that I’ve ever heard and probably ever will hear,” Faraino says. “It was a moment of realizing that too many courses, too many conversations talk about issues of incarceration in the abstract, and this brought it home.”
Faraino adds that she believes the University has “an obligation to make those experiences readily accessible to students.”
The “Beyond the Gates” film also outlines a few historical examples of Harvard’s exploitation of people in prison, specifically pointing to studies conducted by University professors that subjected people in prison to unjust experimentation. For instance, during World War II, professors from the Harvard Medical School injected cattle blood to inmates at Norfolk in an effort to develop medical innovations for the United States military. The study, known as the “Norfolk Guinea Pig Experiment,” ended in two deaths.
As an employee of Harvard, Stern not only reckons with the history of the institution and her position within it, but uses it to guide her work in the field of prison education.
“Clearly, there are deep histories and pockets of power here at Harvard. And I'm part of it,” she says.
Stern recounts the words of a woman she met while working at the Department of Corrections in New York in her 20s which shaped the way she thinks about tackling inequality within powerful institutions.
“She said, ‘Kaia, the way you crumble unjust institutions is to be a termite on the inside, and build relationships with other termites,’” Stern says.
This idea of “termite justice,” as Stern calls it, encourages her to continue her advocacy at Harvard and use education as a form of liberation within spaces which she believes are “dehumanizing to everybody.”
“I'm an abolitionist at heart and understand abolition as [more than] tearing down structures that cause harm,” Stern says. “It's also building relationships, building networks of opportunity and care.”
Courses offered through PSP were an example of what building these “networks of care” could look like in practice, but funding for the program dried up in 2014. Though PSP offerings started up again last year through the Radcliffe Institute working groups, University students do not receive credit for these courses.
Meanwhile, at Harvard’s neighboring colleges, prison education is better established and more integrated into the institution. Boston University’s Prison Education Program, which offers BU courses to people in prison, has existed for half a century. At Boston College, faculty similarly teach core curriculum courses to students inside their nearby prison and grant those students transferable credits to the College.
In its scarcity of academic opportunities within local prisons, Harvard comparatively falls behind its fellow institutions. And while professors like Stern have done their part to expand those opportunities, the University itself has yet to define a path forward for making them last.
Though Harvard students have their share of opportunities to engage with education about the criminal justice system, many activists agree that those opportunities are not as expansive as they could be.
The University’s responsibility now is figuring out how to make advocacy efforts easier, and how to support students on a larger scale — by ensuring funding to go toward prison education. As Harvard looks forward to the Legacy of Slavery Fund and imagines ways to pay for its contributions to slavery, perhaps it is time for it to consider if mass incarceration, and efforts to combat it, will be a part of the picture.
In lieu of a more institutional response, prison education and advocacy at Harvard consists of working groups and extracurricular campaigns — often student-led.
Those students are empowered by their work, and acknowledge its value.
“Reckoning with being here, I think one of the best ways to sift through that achiness is to just get involved and put your head down. Don't get petrified by your guilt. Be a part of the change that you want to see,” says HPDC member Kiersten Hash ’25.
But they also express that leading many of the criminal justice advocacy efforts without the University’s support is exhausting.
“I have amazing opportunities to connect with people and to further the work, and if I can use where I am already to do that, that’s what I’m going to do,” says Shrader. “But in practicality, it's hard. It’s really difficult.”
— Associate Magazine Editor Michal Goldstein can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @bymgoldstein.
— Magazine writer Ciana J. King can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.