Editor's note: This column is part of a two-part piece on the Brown History Education Initiative and the Brown Incarceration Initiative. For an incarcerated student's perspective, click here.
Jeremy Pontbriant is incarcerated in the medium security facility at the Rhode Island Adult Correctional Institute. A deep thinker, inquisitive questioner, voracious learner and dedicated scholar, Pontbriant is just one example of a student who would benefit from the creation of the Brown Incarceration Initiative, a program that would offer courses bearing University credit and taught by University professors to people incarcerated at the ACI. Pontbriant wrote the adjacent letter outlining the need for and potential impacts of such a program. We must learn from and honor Pontbriant’s words and demand the creation of a “Brown Incarceration Initiative.”
I met Pontbriant over a year ago, as a Teacher’s Assistant in a course he was enrolled in at the ACI. Soon after I introduced myself to the class, Pontbriant and his classmate told me that my voice sounded familiar. We realized that we had previously talked — not face to face — but through recordings that traveled past Brown’s Van Wickle gates and through the barbed wire fences and metal detectors of the prison. Pontbriant and I were enrolled in Professor of History Amy Remensnyder’s course HIST 0150C: “Locked Up: A Global History of Prison and Captivity” at the same time. The course had two sections — one of Brown students, and another comprising incarcerated individuals in the state. Despite the many institutional and physical barriers that separated me and Pontbriant, Professor Remensnyder found a way to facilitate discussion between our two classes — we asked and answered questions via tape recorder. Pontbriant remembered my voice from one of the recordings. We were classmates. But while I received University course credit for my participation in and completion of the course, Pontbriant did not.
Professor Remensnyder, along with other professors in the History department, teaches college-level history courses at the ACI through the Brown History Educational Prison Program. The University fails to officially recognize students in the program or award them college credit. Recognizing this injustice, professors and students at Brown (like those at Yale and Harvard) are calling on Brown to join schools such as Columbia and Bard College in granting incarcerated students course credit.
During the spring of 2018, Professor Remensnyder, in partnership with Professor of American Studies and Public Humanities Susan Smulyan and Assistant Director for Programs at the John Nicholas Brown Center Marisa Brown, submitted a proposal to the administration, calling for a Brown Incarceration Initiative. The proposal has garnered the support of over 250 faculty members and students thus far. The status of the proposal is in limbo, as we are waiting for the administration to take action. As an elite university with a mission to “serve the community, the nation and the world,” Brown ought to use its power to recognize that our incarcerated classmates — and the incarcerated population as a whole — are people, worthy of not only access to education, but of credit for their work.
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.