Professor and advocate Marc Howard’s work in criminal justice reform began after his childhood friend was wrongfully convicted of murder. Now, he’s aiming to reform the prison system on a national level.
Marc Howard curated college courses within the D.C. Jail, created programs for people incarcerated to develop careers, and was featured on Oxygen’s “Kim Kardashian West: The Justice Project.”
Still, his work in criminal justice and prison reform is somewhat of a second career for the author and political science professor at Georgetown University. His journey began when a friend he first met in preschool was arrested for murder.
“I had this personal connection to a childhood friend,” Howard told Oxygen.com in a video interview. “His name is Marty Tankleff.”
“Marty, on the first day of our Senior High School, woke up to find his parents brutally murdered." — Marc Howard
“I believed Marty was innocent,” Howard said. “At the time, I advocated for him. I wrote in our high school newspaper that I was the editor of about the presumption of innocence.”
“We always joke he was the first journalist who got it right,” Tankleff told Oxygen.com.
Tankeff was wrongly convicted of his parents’ murder, and spent 17 years in prison. The pair later reconnected and Howard pledged to fight for him.
“He made a commitment to go to law school and join the defense team,” Tankleff said. “Fortunately, I was free before he actually started his first semester.
Tankleff was exonerated and released in 2007, but it wasn’t the end of their work together.
They created and now teach a course called “Making an Exoneree” at Georgetown, which focuses on helping free other people who may have been wrongly convicted.
The class has already helped secure the exoneration of artist Valentino Dixon, who spent 27 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.
Dixon and his case is known, in part, for artwork he created while in prison, according to Howard. Two of Dixon’s hand drawn pieces adorn Howard’s wall.
It's not just about wrongful convictions
Although Tankleff was part of his initial catalyst into learning about the system, Howard’s work does not only focus on helping innocent people get out of prison. It has expanded to include improving prison conditions, creating support systems for personal or professional development, and helping incarcerated people who have committed crimes have a pathway to reform and education.
In 2016, he helped found the Prisons and Justice Initiative at Georgetown, which offers some programs aimed at easing reentry. The “Pivot Program” gives training to incarcerated people who want to pursue a career in business and sometimes helps them land a job when they’re released. In addition, the initiative has a paralegal program that offers previously incarcerated people certification and paid fellowships with law firms.
Howard’s latest book “Unusually Cruel: Prisons, Punishment, and the Real American Exceptionalism” focuses on what he refers to as the different stages of the “criminal justice lifecycle.”
“Whether it’s plea bargaining, sentencing, parole, or prison conditions of course and societal reentry, at every stage our country is more punitive than other countries,” Howard said. “There also tremendous racial disparities because you can’t talk about the criminal justice system without talking about race and so much of that goes back to slavery, and then convict leasing, and Jim Crow, and now mass incarceration.”
Prisons amid the pandemic
Howard refers to the COVID-19 pandemic as a “humanitarian catastrophe” for people in prison.
“Prisons make cruise ships look safe,” Howard said of the COVID-19 crisis.
Scholars program featured on 'Kim Kardashian West: The Justice Project'
Howard launched a prison scholars program at the D.C. Jail in 2018.
“Within a month, I had the director of the Department of Corrections saying this is completely changing the culture at the jail,” Howard said.
A former student in the program, Momolu Stewart, was serving a life sentence for a murder he committed at 16. His sentence was suspended in 2019, when he was 39 years old, and his story was featured within “Kim Kardashian West: The Justice Project."
The program is part of the broader Prisons and Justice Initiative at Georgetown and allows people in prison to take courses, including some for college credit.
Halim Flowers, a former incarcerated scholar, told Oxygen.com: "I just wish that other people could have that opportunity, especially those who have served long sentences…”
In addition to participating in the scholars program, Flowers published books while he was incarcerated. He was released from prison in March 2019.
Howard says he sees greatness in so many people behind bars.
“I just see so much potential and unfortunately that potential was quickly wiped away when they were young,” Howard said. “They had no educational opportunities. They went down a road where it led them to crime, it led them to incarceration, but we shouldn’t give up on them because the potential is there.”
“They’ve aged out of criminal activity. They’re not going back,” Howard added.
“I would absolutely bet anything that people like Halim, Momolu, who spent a lot of time, who completely changed their lives and transformed themselves, they’re not going back to prison,” Howard said. “We need to find ways to support them and to support others like them because there are so many just like them with that same potential and I think they are trailblazers for so many others who deserve the same chance.”
The Frederick Douglass Project for Justice
In January 2020, Howard launched the Frederick Douglass Project for Justice, a nonprofit organization, which is aiming to create a national prison visitation program. Once COVID-19 restrictions have passed and it’s safe, the program is aiming to allow community members to visit prisons.
“You can’t demonize someone when you’ve met them, when you’ve humanized them,” Howard said of the program.
Howard says we need to find inspiration for a better model of the prison system.
“We need to think about alternatives to incarceration and we need to think about productive incarceration,” Howard said. “When there are people who are dangerous, who are hurting other people, they absolutely should be separated from society. I believe that and agree with that and I’m not in any way soft on crime by the way. I’m in favor of public safety, but what I do think is when someone is incarcerated, we should be supporting them. We should be providing them with opportunities to learn, to grow, and we should be in favor of successful reentry. We should want people to come out and succeed so that they don’t go back in. So that there aren’t more victims.”
To learn about Howard’s work more stay with Oxygen.com or stream “Kim Kardashian West: The Justice Project.”