Marc Morjé Howard has become one of the country's leading supporters of criminal justice and prison reform. His very first exposure to prison came as a 13-year-old juvenile delinquent sitting in a London jail cell, having just been arrested for shoplifting. Fortunately, he received a "second chance," made a decisive change, and his earlier foolish choices did not come to define him. The main spark and inspiration for his passionate involvement with criminal justice and prisons came from his work to free his childhood friend, Marty Tankleff, who was wrongfully convicted and spent over 17 years in an upstate New York maximum security prison before being exonerated in December 2007.
In addition to visiting Tankleff in prison, meeting with his attorneys, helping him with various research tasks related to his appeals, writing an amicus brief on behalf of their high school classmates that was mentioned in the final decision to overturn Tankleff's conviction, Howard also wrote op-eds in the New York Times and Newsday. And the two have remained close friends and stay in regular contact since Tankleff's release. Tankleff's experience and ordeal inspired Howard to pursue a J.D. degree, which he received in 2012, and to devote his professional energy to criminal justice and prison reform.
In 2011, Howard began teaching a course called "Prisons and Punishment," which has grown to become one of the most sought-after courses at Georgetown. Many of his former students have gone on to focus on criminal justice reform in their careers and at law school, citing Prisons and Punishment as their inspiration. One key component of the course was a tour of the Jessup Correctional Institution (JCI), a maximum-security prison in Maryland, which included a meeting and conversation with a group of "lifers" called Positive Change.
As he was well into the research and writing of Unusually Cruel, Howard wanted to better understand the inner workings of life in prison, which would require more direct interaction with prisoners. In 2014, he began to volunteer teach for the Prison Scholars Program at JCI. Since then, he has taught at JCI every semester, first a version of his "Fascism and Extremist Movements" class (which the Jessup officials asked him to rename "World History"), then a comparative criminal justice class based on Unusually Cruel, and now several semesters of an ongoing "World Politics" colloquium, where he brings in colleagues and guest speakers who lecture and lead discussions on their topics of expertise. Every time he leaves the prison, Howard feels amazed and inspired by the intellectual curiosity and engagement of his students—and many of the guest speakers have referred to it as "the best teaching experience I’ve ever had."
In the Spring 2016 semester, Howard also taught an "inside-outside" class called "Prison Reform Project," which brought together 15 of his best Georgetown students with 16 of his top Jessup students. They all worked side-by-side on informative and engaging multi-media criminal justice and prison reform proposals that were presented to several hundred people (including family members of the incarcerated students) at a public event held at Georgetown, entitled "37th and Jessup." The Washington Post Sunday Magazine covered the class and featured it in this cover story.
In February 2016, Howard established the Georgetown University Prisons and Justice Initiative (PJI), a nonpartisan organization that brings together leading scholars, practitioners, and students to examine the problem of mass incarceration from multiple perspectives. The PJI hosted its launch event in the ornate Gaston Hall, with 700 people from Georgetown and the Washington area in attendance. It has a first-rate advisory board, organizes many programs within and outside of prisons, hosts numerous engaging events at Georgetown, and is developing future projects to help contribute to prison reform. Within a very short period of time, the PJI has established itself as one of the leading prison reform organizations in the country.