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As it Happened: Harvard Commencement 2023

Students Advocate for Prison Education at Radcliffe Institute Panel

The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study held an event Tuesday.
The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study held an event Tuesday. By Soumyaa Mazumder
By Tracy Jiang, Contributing Writer

Students discussed prison education and its potential for combating social ills at a panel hosted by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study Tuesday afternoon.

The event, titled “Education Justice: Centering Student Voices,” is the second discussion in a two-part virtual series that explores the impact of education in carceral spaces.

Panelists at the event included Katie Medrano-Escobar, a graduate of The Loop Lab — a nonprofit dedicated to increasing job opportunities for disadvantaged communities — and Zoe L. Hopkins ’22, an organizer with the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign. Sebastian Yoon, a graduate of the Bard Prison Initiative and a program specialist at Open Society Foundations, moderated the discussion.

When asked about their educational experiences, the panelists noted lacking support systems and the “eurocentricity” of curricula, which they believe led them to develop misconceptions about United States history.

Hopkins noted the tension between Harvard’s status as a place of higher education and its role in producing “carceral logic” and upholding “legacies of white supremacy.”

“There’s this kind of double bind in the sense that I know my education is financially tied to the very thing that I am fighting to dismantle,” she said. “I came to organizing through an understanding that I couldn’t be fully proud of my degree until I knew that it was divested from systems of harm like the prison-industrial complex.”

The panelists also considered education’s potential for fostering a civically engaged and compassionate citizenry.

For Yoon, access to education while incarcerated allowed him to develop empathy and a passion for social justice.

“If you provide access to higher education to prisoners, the recidivism rate will go down,” Yoon said. He cited the substantially lower recidivism rate for graduates of the Bard Prison Initiative — only three percent — compared to the much higher national recidivism rate of 60 percent.

Medrano-Escobar discussed her own experiences participating in workforce development programs like Year Up and The Loop Lab, noting the value of non-traditional educational trajectories.

“It doesn’t just have to be that narrow path to college,” she said.

Yoon said he believes education can take many forms, not just obtaining a piece of paper that signifies one’s degree. Historically, he added, totalitarian governments have sought to restrict access to education.

“Education is frightening to those who want to suppress others,” Yoon said.

He concluded by encouraging young students to harness the power of education to fight against institutionalized oppression.

“You have that power in your hands; you’re on the right path — just continue to harness that energy,” Yoon said.

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