The Harvard administration set off a firestorm when it rejected a formerly incarcerated woman who had already been recommended by the Department of History. Numerous media outlets have covered the case of Michelle Jones, who is now pursuing a Ph.D. in history at New York University. While incarcerated, she completed an undergraduate degree and then became a published scholar in American studies with her paper “Magdalene Laundries: The First Prisons for Women in the United States.” She also wrote a play to be performed in a theater in Indianapolis.
Jones’s story is intensely personal for those of us that teach for the Prison Teaching Initiative at the University (and I do mean personal: I all but threatened to divorce my husband when he suggested he would want to see her application before siding with the candidate Jones over the Harvard administration). We at PTI teach college-level courses to inmates throughout the New Jersey state and federal prison systems. Jones's impressive resume and subsequent rejection evokes for us all of the brilliant students that we have taught over PTI’s 11-year history. These individuals are every bit as talented as students we teach at the University, but have been denied the opportunity to revel in academic pursuits.
It is amazing to watch our students discover their own talents, but it is bittersweet. PTI was awarded a National Science Foundation Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science (NSF INCLUDES) grant, specifically to strengthen STEM pipelines within the prison system and to pave the way for STEM degrees and employment. We ran an information session this fall, and the very first question the students asked was, “What jobs are open to me as a formerly incarcerated individual?” Of course, they are always precariously situated at the mercy of someone (like the Harvard administration) swooping in and denying them access to their dream career. We at PTI know that no one has fought harder, or proven their grit more successfully, than scholars born in prisons. But in this country, the stigma of being formerly incarcerated is lifelong. As powerful as prison education may be, we cannot truly succeed until we can guarantee formerly incarcerated individuals the opportunity to leave their past behind and live a productive life.
As the University works to be more inclusive at all levels, I hope we can learn from Harvard’s treatment of Jones. We must confront the question: Is Princeton prepared to admit the formerly incarcerated even if they have (potentially violent) crimes in their past? The University can take pride in the fact that its graduate application form has no “box” to check for those with a criminal record. There is no question that our formerly incarcerated students will bring the passion and intelligence to succeed, or that our campus will be strengthened by their presence.
Faculty Director, Prison Teaching Initiative, on behalf of:
Chiara Benetollo, Jannette Carey, Annegret Dettwiler-Danspeckgruber, Alessandro Giammei, James Gunn, Matthew King, Gillian Knapp, Angela Radulescu, Torey Wilson