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Harvard Student Group Advocates for Prison Education, Reform

by Monte McCoin

The Harvard Organization for Prison Education and Advocacy, a student-led group known as HOPE, was established in the 1950s as part of Harvard University’s Phillips Brooks House Association. Since its inception the organization has provided tutoring and educational programs for incarcerated men, women and juveniles, but in recent years it has expanded its focus to include a wide range of advocacy projects.

“It’s really anything that has to do with criminal justice reform,” said Leah S. Yared, who serves as HOPE’s educational co-director.

Twice in 2018, HOPE sponsored events to raise awareness concerning the use (and misuse) of solitary confinement as a correctional management practice. For each of the 24 hours between April 19 and 20, 2018, and again on November 29 and 30, student volunteers from the organization individually occupied taped-off 7-by-9-foot rectangles that had been set up in various locations across the Harvard campus. For the duration of the day-long vigils, which were intended to simulate the cramped conditions faced by prisoners held in control units, other volunteers were present and engaged with people who passed by to educate them about solitary confinement and circulate information about the organization’s advocacy campaigns.

Throughout the past year, students from HOPE have organized events and activities both on and off campus to raise awareness about reform-worthy issues such as the United States’ slavery-like prison labor practices and the effects of felon disenfranchisement. HOPE collaborated with another student organization, the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign, to implement an ongoing movement to encourage Harvard to divest from private prison companies. The group has hosted screenings of films such as Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th” and “The Prison in Twelve Landscapes” – a documentary centered on the prison industrial complex. HOPE expressed solidarity with prisoners during the national prison strike in August and September 2018; it has also rallied against immigration detention, and protested along with environmental activists to demand clean drinking water for prisoners at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Norfolk. [See: PLN, June 2018, p.16].

In yet another project, volunteers from HOPE circulated petitions and coordinated letter-writing campaigns to urge the university to create a degree-granting curriculum taught by Harvard faculty that would bring students into local prisons to take classes with prisoners. Sonya A.L. Karabel, who serves on HOPE’s board, spoke of the benefits such a program would have for both the prisoners and students.

“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,” she said.

Karabel also commented that she was “excited to be part of something that has a real chance of making a real change,” adding, “Sometimes it feels like student activism is symbolic and broad, but this is something concrete.” 




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