Activists Promote Education in Prisons at Harvard Radcliffe Institute


Prison reform activists argued in favor of high-quality education in prisons at a webinar Thursday held by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies.

Panelists included Max Kenner, the founder of the Bard Prison Initiative, and Dyjuan Tatro, a government affairs associate at the initiative. Zelda Roland, founding director of the Yale Prison Education Initiative and Craig S. Wilder, history professor at MIT, also spoke at the webinar, which was opened by co-founder and director of the Prison Studies Project Kaia Stern and moderated by Harvard Graduate School of Education lecturer Lynette C. Tannis.

Speakers highlighted their work in educational justice and emphasized the importance of quality teaching in prisons.

“My real job and my real priority is to bring legislators to prioritize people over prisons,” Tatro, who lobbies government officials to adopt prison education reform, said.


Tannis, whose research focuses on incarcerated youth, said insufficient education in prisons sends a message that society does not value incarcerated people.

“If there’s no training, support, professional development, what you’re actually demonstrating to the youth is that we don’t value you,” Tannis said in an interview after the event. “If we valued your life, we would actually be here preparing you for the transition, hopefully, the transformation for when you return.”

Roland, who is a graduate of Yale College, said teaching in prisons made her think critically about who “Harvard and Yale imagined to be students, or leaders, or citizens.”

Wilder similarly noted that teaching incarcerated people encouraged him to expand his understanding of activism through education.

“All these people are simply students and what they needed was a teacher,” Wilder said. “And to the extent that I see myself as a teacher, I had as much an obligation to them as I do to anyone else who passes through my class.”

Wilder added that colleges and universities have an “academic obligation” to bring higher education to prisons.

“College in prison is just one step toward a more democratic society,” Wilder said.

Elite institutions, however, do not sufficiently invest in bringing high-quality education to prisons, according to Kenner.

“Education in prison should be done well,” he said. “It should be done with care — that it is a place that we should go and actually invest in people and not visit in some voyeuristic or symbolic kind of way.”

Speakers also commented on the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on prison education, during the Q&A portion of the event.

Kenner said while the pandemic encourages prisons to improve digital learning opportunities, an over-reliance on technology could erode “real human relationships” among incarcerated individuals.