When The Herald published my article, “In Favor of the Brown Incarceration Initiative,” alongside Jeremy Pontbriant’s beautiful article, “A Testament to the Power of Education in Prison,” a few weeks back, I did not expect to write this reply. I am upset that somebody read Pontbriant’s article and left with the takeaway: “I must google the crime for which he was incarcerated.” I am upset that The Herald would publish a letter that attacks Pontbriant’s character and fails to engage thoughtfully with his argument. I am upset that Pontbriant has been put on trial once again, forced to defend his humanity when he seeks only to improve himself through study.
I do not want to speak for Pontbriant, as he can best speak for himself. However, due to prison rules that make communication challenging, it will take some time to receive and publish Pontbriant’s response. In the meantime, I will share some of what I have learned about the prison-industrial complex in classes, through organizing work, and most importantly, through my work as a teaching assistant in the Rhode Island Adult Correctional Institute for the past two years.
While the author emphasizes the crime for which Pontbriant was convicted, the letter to the editor is not about Pontbriant. The letter to the editor cannot be about Pontbriant, because the author does not know anything about him. I was not permitted to read the response in its entirety before it was published, but I strongly suspect that the response is a reflection of a country that stigmatizes people convicted of crimes and denies them any chance of meaningful redemption. This is especially concerning considering that the criminal legal system disproportionately targets people of color and low-income people. The following five points are essential to grasp some of the injustices ingrained within the United States’s treatment of incarcerated people, rebut the unfair claims lodged against Pontbriant and understand Brown’s responsibility to implement the Brown Incarceration Initiative.
First, the dichotomy of victim and criminal is false. As soon as someone is labeled a criminal, we no longer view them as a whole person who too has suffered and has likely been victim to both interpersonal and systemic harm. As Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, says in his TedTalk, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” We ought to shift our mentality to one of restorative justice, which focuses on healing the community, not to justify acts of violence, but to actually address and prevent them.
Second, we cannot solely talk about non-violent offenders. Most of the conversation surrounding decarceration focuses on non-violent drug offenders, as it is easier to sympathize with such people. However, this reformist logic is flawed. Nobody should be defined as “violent” for the rest of their life without any room for transformation. We, as a society, must address the root causes of harm and not simply the individual manifestations of oppressive systems. Further, 84 percent of incarcerated people are in state prisons and more than half were incarcerated for violent crimes. In order to meaningfully address mass incarceration, we must expand our focus to people incarcerated for violent crimes.
Third, the U.S. legal system prescribes incarceration, not the deprivation of education, as the punishment for crime. My personal politics are those of prison abolition, which is defined by Critical Resistance as “a political vision with the goal of eliminating imprisonment, policing, and surveillance and creating lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment.” I believe the prison-industrial complex was not built to be a system for rehabilitation, but a for-profit system of exploitation, domination and racial control (see Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” and Ava Duvernay’s “13th”). Thus, I make the following point in an attempt to engage the argument of the letter writer. The U.S. criminal legal system claims that imprisonment is a tool for rehabilitation. Central to rehabilitation is education. In addition, according to the National Reentry Resource Center, 95 percent of people incarcerated in state prisons will be released. Therefore, prison education programs benefit all community members, as they help incarcerated people fight some of the barriers to reentry to society. Education is known to decrease recidivism rates, which saves tax dollars. A study by the RAND Corporation found that incarcerated people who participated in education programs in prison were 43 percent less likely to return to prison than those who did not.
Fourth, education is a human right. As a University that values the “transformative power of education,” Brown must defend education as a human right. University classes can help students develop their critical-thinking and practical skills, which act as a source of empowerment both in prison and after release.
Fifth, the University has the support, the resources and the responsibility to implement a for-credit college-in-prison program. There is an identified need for more college classes at the ACI, and the University has the financial resources and student and faculty support to respond. Both in its mission statement and in the 2006 Slavery and Justice report, the University asserts its commitment to communities outside of Brown. A University for-credit college-in-prison program is not simply community service. It would be an opportunity for the University to fulfill a responsibility as one of the largest institutions in Rhode Island and as an institution that claims to be dedicated to diversity and inclusion. Built by enslaved labor and with money from the transatlantic slave trade, the University must act on its stated commitment to “expand opportunities at Brown for those disadvantaged by the legacies of slavery and the slave trade,” as the Corporation’s 2007 response to the Slavery and Justice states.
If one reads Pontbriant’s article carefully, it is clear that the length of his sentence and the crime for which he was convicted are completely irrelevant in the context of prison education. He does not hide his past, but instead acknowledges that he was convicted for a “serious crime,” and then thoughtfully articulates the power of education as a tool for transformation. Pontbriant shares how education helped him regain his self-worth. It is this appreciation and passion for education that made Pontbriant such a wonderful student. Pontbriant exhibited intellectual curiosity and passion for learning, dedicating himself to his studies, asking questions and seeking out extra work. I have attended competitive private schools my whole life and I can confidently say that the classes I have attended in the prison have been some of the most intellectually rigorous, thought-provoking and fulfilling educational environments that I have experienced. The students display a deep respect and gratitude for the opportunity to learn, which is a refreshing change from the entitlement I have often seen on Brown’s campus. So, yes, I believe these students are worthy of Brown University credit — a credit that many students have access to, not due to merit or “worthiness,” but to privilege. In honor of the transformative power of education, I ask the author of the response to read Pontbriant’s article again and to truly listen to what he is saying. Focused on delegitimizing Pontbriant’s argument by centering his crime, the author has failed to hear him. So, I end by repeating Pontbriant’s words about the need for a Brown Incarceration Initiative: “An opportunity to shed the stigma and stereotypes associated with incarceration, a chance to prove to society as well as to ourselves that, if we are provided the means, not only will we succeed but we will flourish — well, that would be invaluable!”
Sophie Kupetz ’19.5 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.