Harvard’s rejection of murderer divides USA

Jones on prison: “I’ve already graduated from the toughest school there is.” © Marshall Project

Should convicted murderer Michelle Jones have been given a place at Harvard? When it was taken away, her extraordinary story triggered a furious debate about crime and punishment in the USA.

Among the new students arriving at New York University (NYU) last month, one stood out. She was 45. Her glasses came from Indiana Women’s Prison, where she had spent the last 20 years. And she was a murderer.

Michelle Jones may not be like other college kids, but then she was not a typical prisoner. As The Marshall Project reported last week, she was found guilty of killing her four-year-old son in the 1990s, and given 50 years.

In prison, Jones started studying history. She eventually wrote a highly regarded paper on the history of women’s prisons in Indiana. Her sentence was reduced. As her release approached this summer, Harvard’s history department offered her a place to study for a PhD.

But then senior administrators overruled the decision. Professors were reportedly concerned that Jones had “misrepresented” her crime to them. Rejected, she went to NYU.

Jones’s case crystallises a big question in the country with the world’s largest prison population. When has a criminal been punished enough?

With the internet, it is easy to check a job or college applicant’s criminal background. Facing discrimination, former prisoners often find it hard to reintegrate into society. Three quarters are arrested again within five years of release.

Jones’s story puts the spotlight on these issues. Did Harvard do the right thing?

Take no prisoners

“No,” say some. Rehabilitating prisoners gives them a purpose in life and keeps the crime rate down. Everybody wins. Yet Harvard is signalling that a criminal should never be fully welcomed back into society. Good on NYU for disagreeing.

“Hang on,” reply others. Jones murdered her son, remember. It is immoral to accept a vicious killer over another highly qualified candidate. She has done her time, but some privileges should be kept from her forever.

You Decide

  1. Was Harvard right to reject Jones?


  1. You run a prison. In groups, design a programme aimed at helping inmates develop skills for the outside world.

Some People Say...

“He who opens a school closes a prison.”

— French saying

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
In 1992, Jones’s four-year-old son Brandon disappeared. She later confessed that she had beaten and abandoned him, found him dead, then hidden his body. Jones says she herself suffered abuse in her youth.
What do we not know?
What drove Jones to kill her son. The extent to which her actions were influenced by the abuse she suffered has been hotly debated.

Word Watch

The Marshall Project
A respected non-profit online publication focusing on the issue of criminal justice in the USA.
Highly regarded paper
The paper, which she co-wrote with another inmate under the guidance of a former professor, won a prestigious award.
World’s largest prison population
The USA has 2.15m prisoners, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies. China comes second with 1.65m.
Three quarters
According to a Bureau of Justice study which followed 404,638 prisoners released in 2005.

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