Incarceration and Education: Professor Marc Howard on Georgetown’s Prison and Justice Initiative

Marc Howard onstage with students, Halim Flowers and Sekwan Merritt, at TLISI 2019

Marc Howard onstage with students, Halim Flowers and Sekwan Merritt, at TLISI 2019

In 1988, on the first day of his senior year of high school, Professor Marc Howard (Government and Law, Director of the Prison and Justice Initiative) awoke to the news that the parents of his best friend since age three, Marty Tankleff, had been murdered in their own home. By that same evening, Tankleff was arrested. And by the subsequent summer, Tankleff was sentenced to 50 years to life in prison—even though the physical evidence at the scene didn’t corroborate Tankleff’s involvement in the crime. In the 1990s fewer people talked about wrongful convictions and so although Howard believed in his friend’s innocence from day one, he felt helpless in the face of a criminal justice system which swiftly swept Tankleff up and carted him away. Howard was forced to go on with his life, attending college at Yale University—today the two make the joke that “Marc went to Yale, Marty went to jail.” 

Nearly a decade later, the two childhood friends reconnected. Howard began to write letters to Tankleff and those letters soon turned into frequent phone calls and visits to Tankleff in prison. With a renewed determination to prove Tankleff’s innocence, Howard dedicated his time to trying to find loopholes and cracks in the case with the hopes of getting his friend out from behind bars.

In 2003, Howard began working at Georgetown University. He audited a course in criminal justice that sparked his desire to seek justice for the wrongfully convicted, and so he went on to pursue a law degree at Georgetown Law. Ironically, in the 19th appeal, Tankleff was exonerated from the crime he did not commit and released from jail 6,338 days after first incarcerated—and merely days before Howard began his first year of law school. While his friend was now free, Howard was well aware that there were many other people like Tankleff who were sitting behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit. From the racial disparities in the composition of jails, to the inequities of the system of parole, to mandatory minimums, to the physical and social conditions of prisons, to the limited options for re-entry that the formerly incarcerated faced, Howard’s career trajectory shifted to examining the system of incarceration in the US and helping those impacted by incarceration.

Professor Marc Howard at 2019 TLISI Plenary Professor Marc Howard presenting at the 2019 TLISI plenary.

Howard’s work in criminal justice at Georgetown continued, and during the 2014-2015 academic year he was a Doyle Faculty Fellow through CNDLS’ Doyle Program where he redesigned his GOVT 219: Prisons and Punishment course. The course asked students to analyze issues of the US’s criminal justice system through the lens of race. Through the Doyle Program, Howard restructured his course to more thoroughly engage with and center race in the course. For example, Howard expanded upon the course’s exploration of (histories of) race and incorporated documentaries, guest speakers, and a field trip to a local prison into the curriculum to better accomplish his learning objectives for the course.  

Today, Howard is Professor of Government and Law and the founding Director of the Prison and Justice Initiative at Georgetown University. Launched in 2016, the Prison and Justice Initiative was created to make space to bring together scholars, practitioners, faculty, and students to critically examine and think through mass incarceration. Now in its third year, the Prison and Justice initiative runs a variety of programs.

In January, 2018, the Prison and Justice Initiative launched the Georgetown Prison Scholars Program at the DC jail. The idea? To use Georgetown’s vast resources to provide educational opportunities for a cohort of men and women incarcerated in the DC jail to attend non-credit bearing courses, taught by Georgetown faculty. Faculty taught courses in subjects ranging from English to music to debate to government. Many of these courses, called “inside-outside” courses brought Georgetown undergraduate students to the DC jails to learn alongside the incarcerated students as part of their curriculum. This makes the Georgetown Prison Scholars Program the only coeducational prison education program in the nation. Just two semesters later, in fall 2018, thanks to a generous gift from donors, two of the courses taught at the DC jail per semester are offered as credit bearing courses—meaning that Georgetown’s incarcerated students are earning college credit which will count towards a college degree upon their release. 

The Prison and Justice Initiative also launched the Morca-Georgetown Paralegal Program, a program designed to train highly experienced and formerly incarcerated people to work as paralegals. Launched in October of 2018, the initial cohort of fellows are currently working as paralegals throughout the DC metro area. 

During Howard’s plenary presentation, Howard brought two formerly incarcerated men—Halim Flowers and Sekwan Merritt—on stage with him. These two men, released from prison in 2019 and 2017 respectively, are two of Howard’s best students ever. Both of these men participated in the Prison & Justice Initiative’s programs while behind bars. Today, Flowers is an Echoing Green Fellow to develop his project Unchained Media Collective, a project which seeks to empower currently and formerly incarcerated people to amplify their voices and experiences through multimedia storytelling. Merritt, a graduate of the Morca-Georgetown Paralegal Program, now works full-time as a paralegal for Arnold and Porter in DC, runs a contracting business on the side, and is a leading voice in criminal justice reform. Flowers and Merritt are the very embodiment of the power of prison education, Howard says. 

Howard and Tankleff co-teach a course at Georgetown where they work with a group of Georgetown undergraduate students to examine, what they believe to be, wrongful convictions. The staggering statistic that exonerates, collectively, have spent a total of more than 20,000 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit motivates Howard and Tankleff to work with students to examine—and hopefully overturn—these cases. 

While the rates of incarceration in this country are high—with 2.3 million Americans in prisons or jails, another four million on probation, and yet another million people under parole—Howard points out that 95% of people currently behind bars will eventually be released and returned to society. Our task, then, is to think about what kinds of people and community members we want them to be, Howard says. The single most determinative factor of success upon reentry is education while incarcerated. One higher education course while someone is incarcerated reduces recidivism by an astonishing 43%. “When you treat people with respect and humanity they will not go back to a life of crime,” says Howard.

To view the full recording of Howard’s presentation at this year’s Teaching, Learning, and Innovation Summer Institute (TLISI), as well as presentations from our other plenary speakers, please visit the TLISI web page.