Kaia Stern #98

Portrait by Kira Hower

Portrait by Kira Hower

Director of The Prison Studies Project

Visiting Faculty

Harvard University Graduate School of Education

Author, Voices From American Prisons


"The system itself dehumanizes everybody. I think all too often our punishment is so cruel that it has no integrity.'



What To Do About American Prisons?

By Heidi Legg

The morning after Donald Trump won the Presidency of the United States, stocks in private prisons surged. Corrections Corp rose 60 percent on November 9th before settling at 34 percent, and GEO Group Inc. saw an 18 percent jump. The reverse was true in August after the Department of Justice under President Obama said they would begin to phase out these jails. Bloomberg reported that analysts say Trump would reverse that decision. The US has 25 percent of the world’s prison population even though we are only 5 percent of the world’s population, and the US locks up six to ten times more people per capita than every wealthy nation it calls its peer. 

Investigative journalism into prisons is not easy to do but reporters who have managed to get inside are finding a spotlight as of late. Last summer, Shane Bauer published a story in Mother Jones last summer about his four-month undercover stint as a prison officer in a private prison, shining light on the inside workings where 131,000 of the nation’s 1.6 million people in prison are detained. For $9 an hour he moved to Winn, Louisiana, the state with the highest incarceration rate of the country (800 people in prison for every 100,000). He was handed a fridge magnet on his first day with a hotline number in case he ever starts to feel suicidal or fight with his family. And this week, Kristi Jacobson released her documentary Solitary: Inside Red Onion State Prison on HBO and revealed the cold emptiness and 24/7 florescent lit isolation in an experience that appears to dehumanize life for both guards and people incarcerated. So what is America going to do about its incarceration problem?

“The system itself dehumanizes everybody. I think all too often our punishment is so cruel that it has no integrity. I also think we're witnessing a move toward punishment, a continuation of punishment, that violates people's human rights and tries to annihilate their dignity.” In comes Kaia Stern, cofounder and director of the Prison Studies Project at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education (HGSE) and author of Voices from American Prisons: Faith, Education and Healing. Stern has taught at Sing Sing, Norfolk, and Framingham prisons. An ordained interfaith minister with a doctorate in religion from Emory University and an M.A. of Theological Studies from the Harvard Divinity School, she looks at how a lack of humanity in the incarceration system has serious impact.

Stern is passionate about restorative/transformative justice, dignity, and education, seeing these as remedies to a system and industry that is short on resources and missing in humanity. In September 2008, Stern and Bruce Western launched the Prison Studies Project (PSP) at Harvard University to promote informed conversation about the challenge of mass incarceration. The project is no longer formally at Harvard but Stern is a visiting faculty at the HGSE.  I sat down with her to talk about where she sees the greatest failings and places for reform.

What takes away the dignity inside prisons?

I think the example of solitary confinement or forced isolation, especially in the name of treatment, in the name of reform, is hidden and insidious.

How long do they leave people alone?

It varies. I'm thinking of women in state prisons. If you are struggling with mental health challenges and separated from your children, the impulse to bang your head against the wall would be a healthy response in many profound ways, and yet that desperation is met with a need for treatment. But the treatment is further isolation and that's not what people need. What's happening in the name of treatment often does more harm than equip people to reintegrate with their families and contribute to public safety.

One thing I want to clarify is that using the term ‘prison officers’ rather than guards and ‘people in prison’ rather than inmate is important. I think that civil liberties are at stake. It could be perceived as semantics but I also know there are state departments of corrections who are adopting more humanizing language, and the people who are on the ground working in the prison see a difference between calling someone by a state identified number as opposed to Mister so and so or somebody's name. You respond when your humanity is affirmed. You respond differently.

Would you describe the population of prison officers and the people in prison?

We don't talk about this enough in my estimation, but the people who make up the massive workforce in prisons across our country oftentimes come from similar socioeconomic communities, if not the same families, as the people who are locked up. I think prison abolition and prison reform is profoundly misguided when it doesn't take into account the voices and experiences of people who work in prison.

Every time I go into a prison and ask the officers how they're doing, generally, if they will open up, the response is they look at their watch, ‘well, I've got three years, four months, two days, and five and a half hours until I retire.’ No one inside these prisons is glad to be there.

We need to listen to that. If we care about decarceration and increasing public safety and having folks reunite with their families and not sending so many people behind bars to begin with, then we need to think about the prison officer who's trying to put food on her table and does not have access, has not been to college, and cannot afford college for her children. We need workforce development for this massive population.

Stock in private prisons shot up the day after Trump's election. What do you think?

I can't think of a time in the history of the United States when a corporation has been held accountable for human rights violations and had their assets taken away as a penalty.

I think we have to be vigilant and relentless in our creative ways to resist this profiting off of prisons. I think the Obama administration was making great strides to stop the privatization of everything: healthcare, education. It is a grave threat to us all. We really have to figure out how to resist.

Who will be your allies on this? Is it bipartisan?

There have been meaningful bipartisan efforts towards reform and I think there are different motivations. Some people frame it in terms of racial justice and economic justice and surely this is more progressive framing. Then there's the fiscal conservative who want much less government spending.

I would say the Obama administration's commitment to prison reform has been clear and helpful.

The privatization piece is… I've had conversations with people who are commissioners of the entire state prison system. They've explained how they've gone to sleep thinking they have sixty prisons in their state and woken up to these private contracts that happened without their knowing.

How does that happen?


You don’t know?

No, people know. There are definitely activists and researchers who focus on this. I don’t want to give misinformation.

But what I do want to say about privatization is this: the two largest healthcare providers in the country are listed as LA County Jail and Rikers Island, which is the largest penal colony in world history in New York. It is a jail that is a healthcare provider, really pharmaceutical dispenser, where people line up and get little cups and medication. This relationship between pharmaceuticals and healthcare provision, similar to what's happening in the name of treatment as a kind of isolation, doesn't help heal people.

Then, again, let’s talk about the people who work in prisons. These folks are not trained as social workers and the people in prison are, all too often, losing their minds. These officers are not equipped to provide social services that are so necessary to keep the population in prison nonviolent for everybody.

What are the conditions like?

The euphemisms never cease to amaze me. Take people who are held who can't afford bail. They have not been convicted of a crime. They’re innocent in terms of constitutional law and if they are in a state of violent despair, they are locked in what's called a 'safety cell.' I'm thinking of this jail in Santa Barbara, probably one of the most wealthy areas in the nation. I took a bunch of students from UCSB and the officers said this is our 'safe place.' It's a room with nothing but padded walls, and people are locked in there naked with nothing but a grate on the floor to relieve themselves, there's blood and feces all around the wall because people will resist with whatever they have. In some ways, that's a testament to the human spirit. It's also as clear a demonstration as possible that this is in the name of justice, in the name of safety, this is how we are treating people, and those stories need to be told.

Why aren't these stories being told?

Well, we're telling them now. Too many voices are silenced. I think as long as Americans tolerate poverty and live in fear, we're all complicit in a kind of silencing that is day in and day out. These silences are deafening.

Is your work at Harvard more about education and curriculum inside prisons or about fixing systematic treatment that you think is inhumane?

My work at Harvard has varied over the last ten years. I've been closely aligned with the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, and their work on a national level is focused on policy and community justice. In 2008, Bruce Western and I co-founded the Prison Studies Project and at that point I was most deeply involved in bringing Harvard students traveled to the prisons. It was a partnership forged between the Massachusetts Department of Corrections, Harvard University, and Boston University's long-standing prison education program. Founded in 1971, it offers college degrees to men and women in Massachusetts. Harvard students go into the prison and we learned from this experience that it is both a community and a classroom that joined those two communities and it is powerful.

What is on your desk right now?

Restorative/transformative justice – Restorative justice is a growing field with roots in indigenous practices of justice. The Boston Public Schools are applying it more and talking about restorative justice. I like to qualify it by also using the word transformative justice. Most simply, it is the work to create healthy communities while repairing harm in relationships.

Critics of the restorative justice framing say, "how can you restore what isn't there to begin with?" For example, I don't call it our criminal justice system. I say we have a criminal punishment system. These semantics matter.

The most powerful work of "restorative justice" that I'm doing here at HGSE is around punishment narrative. On the first day, 35 of us sat in a circle. Everyone was asked to share a significant story about an elder in their life and bring that wisdom into the circle. People shared stories of inspiration and pain from their families. The affirmation that we are all connected to community brought out a lot of tears and it was a powerful reminder to me. I have yet to meet anybody who isn't intimately acquainted with some form of domestic violence or mental illness or addiction in their families, maybe not in their nuclear family but in someone that they love.

I'm co-facilitating this work in prison and addressing what we all carry with us. What we are facing now is a profound challenge and opportunity in terms of how we educate, how we punish, and how we enact justice. It’s all intertwined: the mental illness, the poverty, and the race relations.

What drew you into this work?

Something in me tells me to go toward what makes me tremble, go toward the questions that keep me up at night. And resist the impulse to turn away from suffering. Never have I witnessed a faith so strong as in the belly of the beast. Recognizing the pain experienced by almost everyone involved in the prison system, I was brought to my knees in the darkness. I began to understand the power of spirituality as sustenance and a means for people to save their own lives. I have come to believe that religion is itself a paradox, both ideologically and practically. The general practice of religion simultaneously saves and damns, heals and harms, frees and yokes. My research at the intersections of theology, education and the US penal system attends to many aspects of this paradox, both the most damaging and the most promising. Many people who are shackled imagine themselves to be free in relationship to God/Allah... how do we make sense of that? Trembling, paradox, and the boundless capacity for human transformation -- that is what drew me to and keeps me in this work.

How could what you're doing at Harvard actually change things in the real world?

Many of the students that I teach at Harvard are acquainted with communities of concentrated disadvantage or family members who are incarcerated or work in law enforcement. Here at HGSE, especially, they may have decades of experience teaching in schools that are struggling to have resources and with students who are hungry. Many of them are expert practitioners and know what so many people call the 'school to prison pipeline' or the 'cradle to prison pipeline.'

Does the Harvard Graduate School of Education seek out candidates who've been involved with prisons and public schools?

Certainly what I have witnessed is that the students who are in my class are clearly co-teachers and co-learners with this material in terms of the experiences that they have locally, nationally, and internationally. Some students don't know anything about it but are hungry to learn – they’ve never seen images of lynching and don't understand our history of this continuum of racialized violence from chattel slavery to what we now call mass incarceration. Some people don't know the connections and some people live it every day, and it's powerful to have both.

One could not think of two more extreme ends of a society: Harvard and prison. How do students use this to help?

The power and capital of the brand Harvard was evident in the work when I was bringing undergraduate students into the prison to work with students in the prison. What Harvard would call 'diversity' is really put to the test when you're in a prison setting and there are people there who are veterans and could be your grandparents, and then there are the assumptions that the incarcerated students have about the Harvard students and vice versa. Without fail there is a coming out moment. Maybe the Harvard student will say, ‘you think I'm this Harvard student and actually my family was homeless before I got to Harvard,’ or there is a student who's serving a triple-life sentence inside prison and insists on rewriting his papers over and over again even though the grade is clearly not counted in the traditional sense of increasing opportunities and life chances. These are the ways that people have to wake up to their own assumptions and each other's humanity. It is profoundly transformative.

I also think that the prison classroom is a transformative and sacred space, partly because of the lack of technology. You can't bring in ChapStick or water, let alone a screen, and the ways we have to attend to each other when we're not distracted by technology is powerful.

How do you bridge this?

I remember walking into this one class and there were panelists from The Wire talking about the power of mentorship to intervene in this path of destruction, the power of relationships and attending to each other and yet, the vast majority of the people in the room were on Facebook and Snapchat, distracted. It almost felt like blasphemy.  How can you, with this opportunity and this capital, not be attending to what is going on around you?

I ask the Harvard students to please put screens away and be present with each other and realize how radical and urgent that attention to each other in a learning community right now. Students in prison often risk their safety to be in the prison classroom.

How can we reduce the incarceration numbers?

Well, you decriminalize drug addiction. That's key.

I read on the Bureau of Justice statistics website that in 2015, a study was done and half of drug of offenders are in prison for the possession of powder or crack cocaine. Why is the number of people in prison in America so high? Is there a certain type of crime that is driving these numbers?

I would say Marc Mauer's work with the Sentencing Project has been the great leader on this disparity between powder cocaine and crack cocaine. I would urge any reader to the website the Sentencing Project. While powder cocaine and crack cocaine have the exact same effect on your bloodstream, they're sentenced differently. Powder cocaine is more expensive and crack cocaine much less. The sentencing on powder cocaine is far more lenient.

I spent ten years working in very fancy, trendy New York City restaurants and there was always a VIP room where people would smoke Cuban cigars and snort cocaine and there was private security so that those folks could do what they want without surveillance.

There are many instances where people who have been caught with powder cocaine but they are black or brown. The assumption on the part of the law enforcement is that they're going to turn it into crack and there was intent to sell. It's not just, ‘this person's struggling with addiction and they work on Wall Street and there's going to be lenient sentencing and they can pay for a lawyer.’ The disparity in how we punish different people and what's criminalized is great.

On this chart, it looks like the number of Americans in prison in the country has quadrupled. Is this true?

The crime rate has remained relatively constant over the last thirty years and, indeed, it's dipping now. But the rate of incarceration in state prisons in the 1980s doubled in a seemingly arbitrary fashion in eight years, and much of that had to do with drug sentencing and the so-called War on Drugs.

What are some of the main reasons people are sent to prison?

The vast majority, at the state level, is in for what people call 'non violent drug-related offenses.' I want to be careful with this distinction, as someone who's steeped in this work, because I think it can have unintended consequences in terms of who is eligible for reform. If we were to imagine addiction as a public health crisis and decriminalize addiction, our prison population would look very different.

If we could move these people out of prison, what would you spend this prison budget on instead?

If that opportunity were really presented, I would ask the people themselves as well the people in communities where people in prison come from and return to. In New York, for example, there are 120 congressional assembly districts, and 11 of them make up over 90 percent of the state prison population. It boils down to seven neighborhoods – these folks have ideas about what they need.

I think the assumption that a Harvard person would know better than someone who is living in the community is partly where the problem is, because we pour money into certain institutes at Harvard.

People need social services. What's happening at Framingham Prison, less than twenty miles from this room in Harvard Square, is not right. There are women who legally should not be there and it's not the fault of the prison administration that they're there. There just simply aren't enough 'female beds' in the community to attend to addiction. People are detoxing in a cell in a state prison paid for by taxpayers of the Commonwealth. We need community resources, yet the first thing to get cut is educational programming.

The top office in Massachusetts, called the Executive Office of Public Safety, runs probation, parole, state corrections ­– meaning the prison system. There are budget crunches and what gets cut are educational programs. There are people who work in prisons who are committed to education and know that this is going to help the community inside, but they're not the lawmakers and they are losing their jobs and being offered early retirement packages.

The resources in the community to attend to addiction and to attend to poverty are where we need spending: so many kids are showing up to school hungry, so many people are homeless. It's a huge interconnected system and I don't think we need more studies.

President Trump says he's a dealmaker. What deal does he need to make?

Well, he needs a little humility in terms of listening to people who really understand what's at stake and what can help reverse a destructive path that we've been on for far too long, but it doesn't seem as if he's demonstrated listening to the voices of those who are most vulnerable.

What public opinion would you like to change?

I'm interested in this tension between justice and punishment and having people reimagining what justice looks like, because I don't see how we're going to change the way we 'punish' the so-called 'criminal' without first reckoning with some painful truths about how we punish ourselves and our children and imagine the criminal as an other. We imagine them as the other that's so profoundly different from us that their human rights are in question. I think we need to reckon with that.

How can Americans make a difference in prison system change?

I'm shifting in my work right now from policy reports and white papers and more studies to what feels like internal work that we need to ask of ourselves and students around punishment. I call it a 'punishment system.' I've been asking hundreds of students at Harvard and in prison to recall a memory of being punished as a young child and to really try to remember what happened and how they felt. Was it met with corporal punishment or seemingly more progressive timeout or a withdrawal of love? The vast majority of them share the feeling as the child that it was unfair. I think it would be a powerful kind of podcast or community effort – whether you are from a red state or a blue state, a grandmother or a prison officer -- about that childhood memory of how we were punished. Because how can we re-imagine how we punish without first remembering how we were punished ourselves.

My academic work is rooted in religion and theology, and I see persistent and abiding notions around sin, wholeness, and who can be forgiven. It informs our policies. I think we have this kind of religio-legal system that's informed by religious ideology about who's the ‘other’ and who's fully human. That division of beings is not helpful.

This spring term Professor Stern teaches a class called Restorative Justice: From Classroom to Cellblock to Community.