Harvard Black Law Student’s Association Statement on the 2018 National Prison Strike
September 25, 2018
Harvard Law School’s Black Law Students Association (BLSA) commits to supporting the efforts of the 2018 National Prison Strike, which started on August 21, 2018 and concluded on September 9, 2018. Our brothers, sisters, and community members in federal, immigration, and state prisons demand the following:
- Immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.
- An immediate end to prison slavery. All persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor.
- The Prison Litigation Reform Act must be rescinded, allowing imprisoned humans a proper channel to address grievances and violations of their rights.
- The Truth in Sentencing Act and the Sentencing Reform Act must be rescinded so that imprisoned humans have a possibility of rehabilitation and parole. No human shall be sentenced to Death by Incarceration or serve any sentence without the possibility of parole.
- An immediate end to the racial overcharging, over-sentencing, and parole denials of Black and brown humans. Black humans shall no longer be denied parole because the victim of the crime was white, which is a particular problem in southern states.
- An immediate end to racist gang enhancement laws targeting Black and brown humans.
- No imprisoned human shall be denied access to rehabilitation programs at their place of detention because of their label as a violent offender.
- State prisons must be funded specifically to offer more rehabilitation services.
- Pell grants must be reinstated in all US states and territories.
- The voting rights of all confined citizens serving prison sentences, pretrial detainees, and so-called “ex-felons” must be counted. Representation is demanded. All voices count!
(National Prison Strike Demands).
As law students, we understand how a lack of humanity and a love of punishment were hammered into the foundation of our legal system. The American Penal system both reifies and amplifies existing social and structural inequities: the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that 35% of state prisoners are white, 38% are black, and 21% are Hispanic, where racial and ethnic minorities are grossly overrepresented compared to their portion of the population nationwide. (The Sentencing Project). Here in Massachusetts, despite reflecting only 6.6% of the statewide population, Black people represent 28.3% of the inmate population. (The Sentencing Project). LGBTQ+ prisoners are similarly overrepresented and face disproportionate incidences of sexual violence. (Williams Institute: UCLA School of Law).
Indeed, the system’s horrors demand its very destruction. Prisons and jails, supposedly the province of the criminal legal system’s punitive and retributive aims, more often serves as a site of exploitation, alienation, and degradation. The average minimum wage for incarcerated people in the country is $0.14, while the federal minimum wage is $7.25 and the lowest state minimum wage $5.15, meaning that incarcerated people do not make even 5% of the lowest minimum wage provided in the country. (Prison Policy Initiative, National Conference of State Legislatures). In 2013, nearly 7 million Americans remained under varying degrees of penal supervision. (Bureau of Justice Statistics). The stigma of their involvement with the system hampers their ability to access meaningful employment, housing, and public benefits, even long after their time has been served. Furthermore, felony category-charges in jurisdictions across the country have gradually broadened to include a wide array of non-violent offenses, widening the pernicious net of disenfranchisement and further severing the currently and formerly incarcerated from civic participation. (Politico).
Our knowledge of this system and its consequences encourages us to use our position at Harvard Law School (HLS) to expose these injustices, uplift the voices of those closest to the issue, and fight for a legal system that truly advances justice and equity. We support the unwavering resilience and work of imprisoned peoples in the face of myriad political and socioeconomic barriers, and support their call for a framework that restores the promise of our highest constitutional ideals and aspirations.
Moreover, HLS BLSA recognizes that our law school must also work to better prepare its students to support the plight of incarcerated people until their rights are recognized in full. As a start, we propose that HLS:
- Leverage the Harvard University endowment, its supply chain and service providers, and any current or future investments to boycott institutions that profit off of the prison system.
- The Corrections Accountability Project of the Urban Justice Center identified “over 3,100 corporations that profit from the devastating mass incarceration of our nation’s marginalized communities.” (“The Prison Industrial Complex: Mapping Private Sector Players,” April 2018). Harvard should have no investment in any of these players.
- Create a “movement lawyering” clinic that focuses on preparing students for lawyering in service of movements for social justice.
- Programs like UC Berkeley’s Prisoner Advocacy Network offer law students the opportunity to provide both legal advocacy and support for the work of activists and jailhouse lawyers advocating for their rights while currently incarcerated. Other law schools provide students the opportunity to work at the intersection of direct services, impact litigation, and community advocacy. (Drexel University Community Lawyering Clinic, University of Virginia Civil Rights Clinic, Stanford Law Three Strikes and Justice Advocacy Project). It is time HLS uses its resources to provide similar opportunities for its students and the communities those students could serve and support.
- Increase access to Harvard through pipeline programs for jailhouse lawyers and a prison law clerk program.
- We are proud that we attend a university where students can participate in the Harvard Prison Studies Project, the HLS Prison Legal Assistance Project, and the HLS Capital Punishment Clinic. We also recognize that there are numerous other efforts happening at the Law School and other Harvard University schools. However, we know that this work is not done. HLS needs to ensure that jailhouse lawyers, participants in prison law clerk programs, and others currently or formerly incarcerated interested in pursuing legal education have a pipeline to become HLS students.
- Appoint a Critical Race Theorist to the faculty who can address the issues faced by currently and formerly incarcerated people.
The work of the National Prison Strike has included hunger strikes, boycotts, sit-ins, and worker strikes. As members of HLS BLSA, we are in solidarity with those who continue to fight for the demands of the strike. We will continue to uplift their voices and use our position to support their efforts in any way we can.