Ideas – Marc Morjé Howard

Marc Morjé Howard is Professor of Government and Law at Georgetown University, and he is the author of Unusually Cruel: Prisons, Punishment, and the Real American Exceptionalism, which will be published by Oxford University Press in 2017. He is the founding Director of the Prisons and Justice Initiative, which brings together scholars, practitioners, and students to examine the problem of mass incarceration from multiple perspectives. He also teaches regularly in the Prison Scholars Program at the Jessup Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison in Maryland. His work addresses the deep challenges of contemporary democracy and the tragedy of criminal justice and prisons in America.

In addition to his work on prison reform, Howard is the author of two prize-winning books, along with numerous academic articles in such journals as the American Journal of Political Science, the British Journal of Political SciencePerspectives on Politics, and the Journal of Democracy, as well as op-eds in the New York Times and Newsday. He has also written several pieces about the life lessons of sports in Tennis Magazine and Sports Illustrated, including one about being Ivan Lendl's practice partner and another about playing tennis with the San Quentin prison tennis team.

Howard received his B.A. in Ethics, Politics, and Economics from Yale University, his M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of California, Berkeley, and his J.D. from Georgetown University. Read more about Marc Morjé Howard here.

Sam Potolicchio: What initially sparked your interest in prison reform?

Marc Morjé Howard: The initial spark and inspiration for my interest in criminal justice and prisons came from the horrible experience of my childhood friend, Marty Tankleff, who was wrongfully convicted of murdering his parents and spent over 17 years in an upstate New York maximum security prison before being exonerated. It was a triumphant moment to be with Marty as he walked out of prison, but I couldn't just stop there. As a result of being involved with Marty's ordeal and the hard work to secure his freedom, my eyes had been opened to the tremendous injustices that take place on an everyday basis in courtrooms around the United States. The more I learned, the more shocked and horrified I became. I then decided to go to law school (while being a tenured professor), and I received my J.D. degree in 2012, and passed the NY Bar Exam soon thereafter. Since then, most of my teaching and research deals with criminal justice and prison reform. This past year I founded the Prisons and Justice Initiative at Georgetown, which has already established itself as one of the leading prison reform organizations in the country.

Potolicchio: What's it like to be a Professor at a maximum security prison?

Howard: I'll admit that it took some getting used to at first. Going inside a prison is always a complicated and slightly dehumanizing experience, even as a visitor who knows he will be walking out later in the day. But once I entered the classroom and got to know my students on the first day, the walls, bars, uniforms, and other trappings of prison life melted away. What I encountered was a group of intelligent, committed, dedicated, and hard-working students. They don't hide from their past and the mistakes they've made. But they want to learn, grow, and improve. They also have terrific sense of humor, are very engaged, and the class time flies by. I have to say that it is extremely inspiring and uplifting—yet also simultaneously depressing—to teach in a prison.

Potolicchio: What has surprised you the most about your time teaching in prison?

Howard: Teaching in prison has made me realize that formal education and intelligence are not always correlated. Georgetown students are very highly educated, of course, but not all equally bright. In contrast, many of my students at the Jessup Correctional Institution dropped out of school in 8th grade, but when they're given a chance, when they’re treated with respect, when they’re encouraged and supported, when they have someone who believes in them, they can shine and they can soar. And while I know that some people think that prisoners don't deserve an education, or any positive life experiences for that matter, it's important to remember that 95% of prisoners will eventually be released, and we all have a responsibility to society (to ourselves and our children—and to future possible crime victims) to help make those former prisoners less likely to return to a life of violence or crime, and more likely to become productive contributors to society.

Potolicchio: You have an Oxford University Press book due out in 2017. Can you give us a sneak peak?

Howard: The book is called Unusually Cruel: Prisons, Punishment, and the Real American Exceptionalism. It explores the different stages of the criminal justice “life cycle”—including plea bargaining, sentencing, prison conditions, rehabilitation, parole, and societal reentry—and shows how the U.S. has harsher and more punitive practices than other comparable countries. I argue that the American criminal justice and prison systems are exceptional—in a truly shameful way. By comparing the U.S. to France, Germany, and the U.K., the book provides the first sustained comparative analysis that shows just how far the American system lies outside of the norm of established democracies. But at the same time, although Unusually Cruel paints a grim picture of the American system, it also provides a hopeful message. I try to identify practical and proven solutions from other countries that are less punitive and more productive, as well as models that could help the US get out of its criminal justice quagmire. I hope that the book will help to influence the debates on criminal justice and prison reform that are raging today, by providing a different (comparative) perspective and pointing the way toward positive solutions.

Potolicchio: How do you respond to those who say that prisoners don't deserve your time and attention, or our sympathy?

Howard: That's a great question, because there's no shortage of “haters” out there who will accuse me of “coddling criminals” and not taking into account the victims of crime. This is completely false, but it's hard to argue against people who are coming at this question with raw emotions and anger. Ultimately I think it's crucial to be able to convince people who have opposing views but are still open-minded and willing to listen. I really wish I could bring those people into my prison classroom, because I guarantee that they would look at the issue differently—and look at the “criminals” as human beings—if they had this experience. 

The first thing is to remember that the vast majority of incarcerated people are not serial rapists or child molesters or sadistic murderers. Many of them are imprisoned for non-violent crimes, and many of those who committed violent crimes were either on drugs or seeking to obtain drugs at the time. Nothing excuses their actions, of course, but the question is whether these people must be defined by the worst thing they have done in their lives, and whether one or a series of terrible actions committed in the past constitute who they are on a continuing, unchanging, daily basis. In some cases maybe the answer is yes, but I've found that most people who have committed crimes live with deep regret for what they've done, and with a strong desire to redefine who they are and what they can do. That's not to say that everyone should be let out early, or at all, but we need to open the door to the possibility of personal improvement and reform—and we need to encourage that process. I've seen it happening before my own eyes, on a regular basis, and it is powerful to behold. 

When I'm in prison, I can't control the crime a person committed, the sentence he received, or the likelihood that he will get out. But what I can influence is the person who will emerge on the other end, if and when that does happen. And wouldn't everyone agree that we will all be better off if the people who get out of prison are not caged monsters, but human beings who have become better prepared to live and function safely and productively in society?