In 2011, following the release of a landmark report on the forgotten connections between Harvard University and slavery, President Drew Faust said: “Harvard must do its part to undermine the legacies of race and slavery that continue to divide our nation.” One of the most tangible of those legacies is mass incarceration. The Harvard Prison Education Program is an effort to grapple with this history.
Harvard University’s relationship to prisons dates back to 1833, when the Divinity School began sending tutors into local prisons. Ever since, members of the Harvard community have worked to improve and transform the conditions in the Massachusetts prison system. Most notably, in the 1920s, Harvard College alumni Howard Belding Gill developed the community prison -- an approach to incarceration that didn’t involve exploitative labor, striped uniforms, or solitary confinement. Gill realized his vision at the Norfolk Prison Colony, which he arranged like a college campus. Prisoners participated in cooperative self-government with staff. They ran a radio show, newspaper, and jazz orchestra. And they had access to an extensive library.
Yet of all the programs made available for prisoners at Norfolk, the debate team (which at one time included Malcolm X) was its most successful. By 1952, Harvard had participated in eight debates against the Norfolk team. By 1966, the team's' record was 144 wins, 8 losses. Despite these successes, cuts to educational programming in the late 60s forced the Norfolk Prison Debate Society to disband. In 2016, the Society was resurrected. On Wednesday, March 7th, as part of our programming for the “Beyond the Gates” conference, the Norfolk and Harvard debate teams will face off for the very first time since the Norfolk Debate Society’s revival.
Debate was just one way Harvard interacted with the prison. Beginning in 1934, a Harvard law professor helped create a student assistantship program in which graduate students spent a summer living, teaching, and learning at Norfolk. Renowned Harvard professors such as Gordon Allport and Richard Cabot also brought classes to the prison on a regular basis through the 1950s. Meanwhile, Harvard’s Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA) began offering classes at Norfolk and the Framingham Reformatory for Women. The Phillips Brooks House has maintained a presence at both Norfolk and Framingham prisons ever since. Hundreds of students at both institutions have received instruction from PBHA tutors on subjects ranging from leathercraft to philosophy to comparative theology.
These important efforts of alumni, faculty, and PBHA stand alongside the university’s harmful relationship to incarcerated people. Harvard’s complicity in slavery is again mirrored in the exploitation of prisoners. During World War II, as scientists sought medical innovations for the American military, professors at Harvard Medical School injected cattle blood into Norfolk prisoners as a potential substitute for human blood plasma. The so-called “Norfolk guinea pig experiment” ended when these injections killed two people. And in the early Sixties, Harvard professor Timothy Leary led the Concord Prison Experiment which administered LSD to prisoners and college students.
Harvard’s educational offerings inside prisons had been largely been limited to student tutoring from 1833 until 2008, when Professors Bruce Western and Kaia Stern launched the Prison Studies Project. Western and Stern taught a sociology class at Norfolk, which brought twenty college students from Harvard’s main campus to Norfolk prison so that students could learn together. Stern went on to teach five more such classes -- three at Norfolk and two at Framingham -- before funding ran out.
President Drew Faust recently championed equal access to education as a civil right. “Education,” she wrote, “liberates the mind, even when the body is oppressed.” One way to realize this is to expand the rich tradition of Harvard education in Massachusetts prisons by offering accredited classes with Harvard and incarcerated students, and to commit to opening the campus to post-incarcerated students and staff. Today, Harvard is falling behind many of our peer institutions -- Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Cornell, Georgetown, NYU, and Wesleyan -- that offer university courses inside of local prisons. As Faust writes, “to open the gates” is “to close the gap.” Beyond the Gates is a call to realize this vision.