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Reckoning With Harvard’s Ties to Slavery Requires Prison Divestment and Prison Education

By Sara M. Feldman, Contributing Opinion Writer

The recent “Report of the Committee on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery” is a necessary work of scholarship and thought which is long overdue. While in awe of the authors and their superior knowledge of both Harvard and slavery, I remain troubled by something that is missing.

The report discusses the legacies of slavery that remained after the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution “conferred emancipation nationwide in 1865.” However, it stops short of addressing the full text of the 13th Amendment, wherein slavery is abolished “except as a punishment for crime,” and makes no mention of Harvard’s current role in the system that emerged from this exception.

In reality, slavery has never been completely banned in this country or in Massachusetts. The path from slavery and slave patrols to our racist carceral and policing systems is well-documented.

I will not attempt to instruct the reader in the history and horrors of prisons, jails, and detention centers in the United States and Massachusetts, or the violent policing that accompanies them. I have only been arrested and locked up overnight after protesting outside such a facility and know that my treatment was much better than average. It took weeks for me to heal both physically and psychologically from just that little bit, yet others endure much harsher treatment for longer — or even die at the hands of this system, which is bolstered by racism.

Incarcerated people are compelled to perform what can best be described as slave labor and the bodies of the criminalized are commodified in business calculations and deals — even inside prisons which are not operated by private corporations. I struggle to understand what it can mean for an academic institution to redress its legacy of slavery while ignoring its own ongoing role in perpetuating these unbearable wrongs.

Harvard affiliates and alumni continue to incarcerate other human beings through their work in government and the legal profession. How many advance their careers by producing intellectual justifications for legalized slavery? While other Harvard affiliates already do outstanding work for abolition, what could the institution do to make that the norm?

Although the report recommended many actions Harvard could take to reckon with its historical role in slavery, it did not offer much about present-day abolition. Harvard’s first step towards abolition must be a commitment to never again invest in corporations that implement or benefit from incarceration, taking guidance from the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign. The most visibly harmful of these investments are in private prison corporations, but there are many others that exploit prison labor or provide goods and services necessary for the operation of government-run carceral institutions. Without prison divestment, is it not fair to say that slavery continues to fund Harvard University — and that Harvard funds slavery?

For as long as slavery continues to exist by any name, abolition demands that we work to liberate those who are not free. Where we cannot yet physically liberate, we must still advance the freedom and dignity of incarcerated people. The students I met while teaching in the Education Justice Project — the University of Illinois’ college-in-prison program — offered the most eloquent endorsements of the liberatory value of education that I have ever heard. I can attest to the fact that there are excellent, overachieving students hungry for knowledge, who are locked up with only limited access to reading material and limited study time due to their aforementioned labor.

Several institutions of higher learning offer college-in-prison programs, but potential college students in the carceral system remain overwhelmingly underserved. Some are entirely deprived of their human right to higher education, and others can only access correspondence classes or programs offered by Christian colleges that eschew secular accreditation. It is time to establish a for-credit Harvard-in-prison program which would offer a superior education to the talented students incarcerated in the region.

At present, only a tiny percentage of free people enjoy access to a Harvard education. But is anyone ever admitted to Harvard College from prison? As we continue the work of abolition, why not offer the liberatory power of a Harvard education as one of our efforts? If the institution would support a college-in-prison program, I would, along with other faculty and students, help to make it a reality. Could some of those $100 million dollars allocated towards reckoning with Harvard’s legacy of slavery be directed towards the liberation of people who are still not free?

Sara M. Feldman is the preceptor in Yiddish in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.

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