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The Prisons and Justice Initiative at Georgetown University was founded in 2016 by Marc Morjé Howard, one of my favorite professors at Georgetown (and one of my advisors on my dissertation). The Prisons and Justice Initiative (or PJI) focuses on the problem of mass incarceration in the US today, particularly the issues of recidivism (returning to jail after release due to repeat offenses) and wrongful convictions (when people serve time for crimes they didn’t commit). Marc’s work as the Founding Director of the Prisons and Justice Initiative, as well as the 2017 publication of his book Unusually Cruel: Prisons, Punishment, and the Real American Exceptionalism and his founding in 2020 of the Frederick Douglass Project for Justice, showcases why he is considered “one of the country’s leading voices and advocates for criminal justice and prison reform.” 

To prevent recidivism, the Prisons and Justice Initiative runs a Prison Scholars Program that focuses on educational programs and classes for incarcerated people. It also runs a Pivot Program that provides business and entrepreneurship training to newly released people. Both of these programs focus on skill-building (and confidence-building) to support the transition from incarceration to a positive reentry into society. As the PJI website states, these are “​​people who have previously made mistakes, served their time, and are committed to becoming successful leaders and role models in their communities.” I really appreciate the mindset of rehabilitation over punishment, and I believe in the idea of supporting a second chance for those who have served their time and are committed to doing better in the future! 

Exonerations are another important part of the work of the Prisons and Justice Initiative. As the PJI notes, more than 2,700 people have been exonerated since 1989. Collectively these wrongfully accused people served almost 25,000 years of their lives for crimes they didn’t commit. Every year, Georgetown University undergraduate students have the opportunity to take a PJI course entitled “Making an Exoneree,” in which the students research and advocate for incarcerated individuals with strong claims of innocence. The work in this class has led to real results: Valentino Dixon was wrongfully incarcerated for 27 years before being freed, thanks to the work that students did to highlight his case!       

Marc is a personal inspiration to me, not only because of the work he does, but because of the academic path he took to get where he is today. Marc began his academic career as a comparative political scientist, focused on civil society in post-Communist countries, European Union citizenship, and elections in non-democratic countries. Then, in part because of his academic interests in the challenge of modern-day democracy, and in part because of his childhood friend’s wrongful 18-year incarceration (and exoneration), Marc pivoted to a focus on mass incarceration and criminal justice reform in the United States. I think there’s an argument to be made that a comparative lens can bring a useful perspective to the study of American politics (like Robert A. Dahl’s work on the US Constitution). Certainly Marc’s latest book makes a convincing argument that the US prison system is “unusually cruel” when compared to all other established democracies in the world—and uses this comparison to suggest ways that we could improve our system, based on other countries’ experiences. 

I love that Marc has been able to take his academic background in the comparative study of other countries and apply his knowledge and skills to our own country—and that his work delivers real results and makes a real impact on the lives of many people!

Thank you, Marc Morjé Howard and the Prisons and Justice Initiative, for making this world a better place!