A young woman representing the Harvard Association for Prison Education sits at a protest against solitary confinement in the U.S.

By Christopher Zoukis

In April 2018, students from Harvard University held a 24-hour demonstration protesting the conditions of solitary confinement in prisons.

The protest consisted of a student sitting inside an area boxed off with tape. The 7 x 9 foot square showed how small solitary confinement cells are. Four locations on the Harvard campus were selected for the demonstration. Other students stood outside the box to answer passersby questions and provide education about the conditions of solitary confinement.

According to the America Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker organization founded in 1917 that works to promote peace and justice, the sensory depravation and inadequate access to rehabilitation or education programs while in long-term solitary confinement are a form of “torture and control.”

AFSC further claims, “If a person isn’t mentally ill when entering an isolation unit, by the time they are released, their mental health has been severely compromised. Many prisoners are released directly to the streets after spending years in isolation. Because of this, long-term solitary confinement goes beyond a problem of prison conditions, to pose a formidable public safety and community health problem.”

The students involved in the Harvard protest also used their performance art platform to collect signatures for a petition in hopes of pushing Harvard to create a prison education program for inmates.

This is not the first time Harvard has been looked at for prison education. In March, members of the Harvard Organization for Prison Education, or HOPE group, which is part of the Phillips Brooks House Association that runs a tutoring program for inmates, were involved in an advocacy event designed to spur Harvard to create a program for inmates, and to soften the admission barriers for applicants with criminal records.

Michelle Jones, who was famously rejected from attending Harvard, due in part to her criminal record, was a speaker at the March event.

“Leaving us out with exclusionary practices based on race, sex, class, and criminality, you are lost. You’re missing that extra examination that comes from my experience having been incarcerated,” said Jones.  “There are thousands of incarcerated people who’ve been lucky enough to have access to a higher education that allowed them to display what they already had within them. I think we need to remember that, because we are people who happened to be incarcerated as opposed to some monster that has been transformed by the magic of education.”

HOPE member Soyna Karabel is in favor of a prison education program from Harvard, noting that it would not only be good for the inmates, but for Harvard’s students as well. “I think that learning alongside each other is something that would have really profound educational impacts for everyone involved, and be really transformative, and also build positive social networks that I think people on both sides often don’t have the chance to create,” says Karabel.

Much has been said about the Millennials, painting them as the ultimate “me, me, me” generation with a runaway and costly love of avocado toast. However, time and time again we have seen that it is this younger generation of out-of-the box thinkers that are not afraid to take action, not afraid to stand up for what is right, and not afraid to speak their minds. This is a powerful generation bent on changing our society for the better. The young people of Harvard that sat in “solitary” in the hopes that others would not have to are a fine example of how real progress and change is made.

Article originally published in Medium.com.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily NewsPrison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).