Julia Chaffers, the president of the American Whig-Cliosophic Society—Princeton University’s debate and political union—believes that “the best way to engage with politics is to hear from people who experience these systems firsthand.”
It is with this sentiment that Whig-Clio teamed up with Students for Prison Education, Abolition and Reform (SPEAR), a student organization at the John H. Pace, Jr. ‘39 Center for Civic Engagement that aims to uplift voices directly impacted by mass incarceration, to host Jarrett Harper for a virtual conversation on March 18 about his journey from an inmate to the criminal justice advocate that he is today.
Harper spent 20 years locked in a California state prison. It was only about a year and a half ago that he was released. In order to understand how his life has unfolded like this, Harper emphasizes, it is necessary to understand his past.
“I’ll be saddened if I learned that a large number of you didn’t know your mother,” Harper solemnly said to the audience at the beginning of this event. “And I say that because I did not know my mother growing up.”
Harper was placed in the foster care system when he was 13 months old, and over the span of his adolescent years, he saw the inside of 38 different foster homes. He remembers himself as a troubled child, who stole things because he felt that it was what he had to survive, and who broke “things and people’s property because [he] was broken.” Finally, after years of being the victim of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, Harper ran away.
He thought that he was running to safety, but when his friend turned into another abuser, Harper, as he puts it, “finally snapped.” He ended up taking the life of his abuser, and after being tried, he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Harper was 16 years old.
In addition to his race and his lack of a parent or advocate, Harper believes that he “can go down a long list of things that [he] did not have that made it easy for our criminal justice system to run me through the pipeline from foster care to prison.”
While in prison, Harper began to read endlessly, and he found that the more he learned about life through these books, the more he wanted to live, and the smaller his prison cell became. Determined to grow, he started attending self improvement programs and working through the anger that he had internalized over the course of his life. But he did not stop there; he then gave back to the programs that he had attended by facilitating them. Although Harper believed at the time that he was never getting out of prison, he was set on educating the men who would be getting out.
It is with a great sense of pride that Harper announced to the attendees at this event that “the person that [they] see here today is not the person that [he] was twenty years ago.” After his life sentence was commuted thanks to the help of advocates, he went home with a mission to continue doing the good work that he did in prison. Today, Harper is an ambassador for Represent Justice, an organization that works to change the narrative around people who are incarcerated. He also works with Human Rights Watch as an officer working for positive change in the foster care system.
In regards to what people can do in order to make a difference, Harper encourages people to educate themselves on issues that they deeply care about. And especially for Princeton students—who Harper believes will ultimately become leaders whose decisions will impact other people’s lives—he urges them to be constantly aware of how these decisions impact the people at the “very bottom.”
Coming from someone who has personally seen multiple facets of the criminal justice system, Harper’s advice is all the more compelling. It is Chaffers hope that, by hosting this event alongside SPEAR, those who attended “walked away with a better understanding of the criminal justice system and how our society often leaves people behind, as well as people's capacity to persevere despite these injustices.”