Last week, they sat in a box outside Frist Campus Center — orange duct tape on the sidewalk marking seven by nine feet, the size of a solitary confinement cell. For 23 hours, student activists with Students for Prison Education, Abolition, and Reform (SPEAR) alternated sitting in the duct-taped rectangle for one hour at a time, and manning the information table to the side of the rectangle.
Although the group is perhaps best known for this annual demonstration, they work on many other initiatives and programs throughout the year. The Daily Princetonian sat down with present and past members of the organization to learn about the development of the group, their current projects, and their goals for the future.
Propelled by a group of University undergraduates involved in the Petey Greene Program (PGP) — a project to support the academic goals of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people — SPEAR was launched to advocate for the abolition of the carceral system and a rectification of ineffective reintegration programs for incarcerated individuals in the United States.
“SPEAR is an abolitionist group that seeks to take a lot of the resources Princeton has and redistribute them to communities in New Jersey,” SPEAR co-president Amber Rahman ’24 said during their Sept. 19 meeting. “We want to do a lot of advocacy work to resist carcerality.”
Rahman’s goal for SPEAR is a two-part reintegration plan. Part of the goal is to campaign for policy changes and do direct service work, such as teaching in prisons. But beyond this, Rahman said she wants SPEAR to work towards making prisons themselves obsolete in order to promote a process of rehabilitation over punishment. And in doing so, SPEAR’s end goal is ultimately to prevent the societal alienation of formerly incarcerated people.
Since its founding, SPEAR has subdivided into five committees, all encompassing a central philosophy of improving the incarceration system: Reentry, Princeton Students Against Policing (PSAP), Immigration, Project Solidarity and Divestment.
To supplement their efforts, a large portion of SPEAR concentrates on creating programs and syllabi that provide and universalize education for incarcerated individuals.
The committee focused on the reentry process primarily partners with New Jersey Prison Justice Watch and the American Reentry Initiative in the aim to expand access to Princeton resources for incarcerated individuals. According to Rahman, this committee hopes that SPEAR’s work will one day “create more of a pipeline and a pathway to [acquire] Princeton degrees.” But currently, “[SPEAR] doesn’t really have a program that is accessible to formerly incarcerated folks to be able to come to Princeton and get an education,” according to Rahman.
As one of the “only spaces on campus that [has] engaged in activist work, especially abolitionist work,” she said, “it [has] felt very meaningful” to take part in striving towards that outcome.
Bridging the gap back home for formerly incarcerated people
Reentry is one of SPEAR’s many ongoing initiatives for the year to construct a two-part reintegration program, helping individuals who were previously incarcerated to reestablish themselves in society. The project comprises two segments: “Radical Imagination and the Political Consciousness” and the “Welcome Home Initiative.”
“Radical Imagination and the Political Consciousness” is a comprehensive curriculum, curated by members of SPEAR, where individuals are introduced to a range of unconventional subjects that relate to the reformation and deconstruction of unjust institutions. Taught by University students and faculty, this first segment of “Reentry” takes place throughout the fall semester from late September to early November.
The course is designed to bolster discussion, debate systemic flaws within the status quo, and reevaluate what being convicted means during incarceration and post-release. It helps to develop meaningful skills like the ability to lead discussions and think critically, while also introducing a range of subjects that relate to reformation and the deconstruction of unjust institutions. Topics are centered around the analysis of texts from past social movements that bolster discussion and debate.
From Afrofuturism to the dissection of revolutionary writings, Rahman said that the topics were purposefully chosen to “create a space to imagine alternative, better systems.”
“There are so many ways [incarcerated people] are disenfranchised,” she said, “even though these folks have a critical perspective to share on these texts.”
The second segment, “Welcome Home Initiative,” is a diversified network of helplines, resource centers, and on-call civic groups that promote the initial steps of re-socialization, ensuring that all individuals are equipped to adjust to society.
With the support of coalition groups like Princeton Progressives and the American Reentry Initiative, the program helped facilitate over 2,200 New Jersey incarcerated people returning home in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. The group continues to receive donations and volunteer support from nearby community members, to respond to the most immediate needs of those recently released.
SPEAR’s collaboration with the University and the Princeton community seeks to incentivize New Jersey adult learners to capitalize on resources like digital libraries, diversity internships, and welfare resources that are not normally provided or subsidized in the state.
The program simultaneously prepares these learners to build a profile and cultivate the tools necessary to thrive in higher education so that one day they may be able to pursue an accredited bachelor’s degree from institutions like Princeton.
Former co-president of SPEAR Amanda Eisenhouer ’21 reaffirmed this purpose and said she often spent her time as a leader of SPEAR reflecting and asking herself, “How can [students] leverage [their] connection with the University to give back to the community as much as possible?”
With this increasing push towards building interconnected programs between the formerly incarcerated and the University, Eisenhouer said she agrees that acquiring the ability to affiliate oneself with the Princeton name and recap experiences — like, “I spoke on a panel at Princeton or I took a class at Princeton” — can be a major step.
Returning back to normalcy after incarceration is “hard to fathom and is incredibly impossible to do,” said Eisenhouer. Reentry contributes to making society a place for these individuals to thrive, rather than letting them “figure it out with all of this baggage attached,” according to Eisenhouer.
Reflecting on how much change Reentry has undergone since her membership three years ago, Hannah Wang ’21, a former SPEAR member commented: “It’s really interesting for me to hear, especially as an outsider. It wasn’t as fully fleshed out of an initiative [when I was there].”
Wang was formerly a senior news writer for the ‘Prince.’
‘I really want to see this grow’
Despite the major developments SPEAR has made with its projects, SPEAR’s leaders said that many of the organization’s ongoing demands have been neglected or responded to with much ambiguity by the University. Included among these projects and initiatives are PSAP, a group that calls for the termination of Princeton’s campus police, PSAFE.
PSAP’s work resumed this fall, as members attempted to provide information to the Class of 2026 about their advocacy with regard to PSAFE, including calling for a shift to a system that would end sworn police officer presence on campus altogether.
“We did a lot with the freshmen and the PSAFE show, handing out a bunch of flyers [about] inaction and resistance,” Rahman said. “I really want to see this grow.”
The group has also been mobilizing around The Reentry Committee’s proposal to administer university degrees to those who graduate from their curriculum. With this advocacy they have also maintained their five-year appeal to “Ban the Box,” referring to the University asking applicants about their criminal history or conviction of a felony.
Since its inception in 2018, “Ban the Box” has received support from students and alumni. Rahman and Eisenhouer said the University’s response over the years has been frustrating.
The group attended multiple meetings of the Council of the Princeton University Committee (CPUC) and held walk-outs as a sign of protest, but Rahman said that “we’ve been meeting with the admin, and they have not done much.”
University Spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss told the ‘Prince’ that the University had no further comment on the matter.
But despite what they described as setbacks, both Wang and Eisenhouer said they see the silver lining behind the organization’s continuous campaigning.
“I never see this as [a loss], because even if you lose the campaign, you radicalize a lot of people along the way,” Eisenhouer said.
“I commend SPEAR for continuing to stick with its guns,” said Wang, who was involved in the Ban the Box committee. “I hope that [SPEAR] recognizes that it’s amazing they were able to affect change at all but that also … they can and should keep fighting instead of compromising.”
The student group is still contesting amendments made by the Committee on Undergraduate Admission and Financial Aid (CUAFA) in 2019: changing the language of the question and adding the optional appendix for applicants to explain the context of their actions.
Rahman asserts that to “have the question at all is a deterrent for people applying.” She said she believes that the question demonstrates the University’s opinion that “the criminal legal system is fair in any way.”
As their advocacy continues, Rahman said part of her focus is fostering the solid and supportive community necessary for the work to continue.
“Being… with people that are caring and loving is a critical step towards being able to exist outside of the system,” she said.
“Being in solidarity is a very beautiful thing,” Rahman said. Only through solidarity, she said, can groups like SPEAR “build the worlds [they] want.”
Correction: This piece has been updated to better reflect the mission of the Petey Greene Project.
Keeren Setokusumo is a features contributor for The Daily Princetonian. Please direct any correction requests to firstname.lastname@example.org.