Tue. Jul 23rd, 2024

Just look at Jennifer Lackey

By Vaseline May31,2024
Just look at Jennifer Lackey

Professor Jennifer Lackey with NPEP students at the Epistemic Reparations and Carceral Injustice Conference. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Lackey

When Professor Jennifer Lackey was just 11 years old, she chose to volunteer with incarcerated people as part of her class’s community engagement work. She wrote a letter to the warden of the Cook County Jail, asking for permission to visit and volunteer with the incarcerated women there, and received it.

Decades later, she returned to working with incarcerated communities. Now, her work as the founder and director of the Northwestern Prison Education Program (NPEP) has made history, with NPEP graduating its first class in November 2023, the first incarcerated students to earn their degrees from a top 10 university.

Lackey graduated from Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana and went on to earn a master’s degree from the University of Chicago, where she studied philosophy in both her undergraduate and graduate careers. After receiving her Ph.D. Lackey studied philosophy at Brown and taught at Pomona College and Northern Illinois University before arriving at Northwestern in 2007. She specializes in epistemology, the theory of knowledge, and is particularly interested in applied epistemology. Last year she published a book about obtained testimony in the criminal justice system.

“I’ve looked at all these different ways in the criminal justice system where what people say doesn’t come from the exercise of their own agency or autonomy. It is due to various coercive tactics, coercive systems or manipulative policies or laws,” she said.

With two children and a steady job, Lackey said she spent the first decade of her career focusing on raising her children, publishing and teaching. Ultimately, she knew she wanted to work with incarcerated people again.

“If I wasn’t in charge of the Northwestern Prison Education Program right now, I don’t think being a professor would be enough for me,” Lackey said. “I have to be involved in the world. And I have to deal with people who experience injustice.”

NPEP works with incarcerated students at the Stateville Correctional Center, Logan Correctional Center, the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice and the Cook County Department of Corrections.

Current NPEP intern Joy Zhao (Weinberg ’23) first met Lackey while taking her The Philosophy of Punishment and Incarceration class in the winter of 2023. Lackey brought ten students to Stateville each week to co-teach the class at incarcerated NPEP students.

“What came to my mind was that she is an incredibly hardworking and busy person. I feel like she is doing what eight people do every day,” Zhao said. “She really prioritizes including the voices and perspectives of people directly affected by the justice system.”

Participants in the conference Epistemic Reparations and Carceral Injustice. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Lackey

Lackey also co-leads the Epistemic Reparations Global Working Group, which is supported by the Buffet Institute. Former NPEP students Benard McKinley and James Soto both now work as research assistants for the project.

Earlier this month, the group hosted the three-day Epistemic Reparations and Carceral Injustice Conference, with one day spent at the Stateville Correctional Center, one day at the Pritzker School of Law and the last on the Evanston campus. Faculty participants came from across the country and from countries such as South Africa and Canada. The conference also featured a panel of formerly incarcerated students, an original song by a current NPEP student, as well as an art exhibit by NPEP student artists.

In terms of teaching, Lackey said NPEP has made her more aware of the importance of flexibility, noting how teachers often have one-size-fits-all policies for all students.

“I think the Stateville students and the Logan students have just taught me so much about navigating the world with care, love and courage,” she said. “It has made me much more forgiving, patient and understanding of all the people in my life.”

Lackey reflected on her journey from volunteering individually at Stateville and Logan on her own time to expanding into a degree-granting program. Having the right people at the right time in positions of authority and influence, she noted, made all the difference in the world.

“Right now, we have a provost who is very supportive of NPEP and who really takes Northwestern’s commitment to expanding what it means to be a Northwestern student,” Lackey said. In 2021, Provost Kathleen Hagerty approved a petition to have NPEP become a degree-granting program.

NPEP deputy director Michelle Paulsen describes Lackey as having “the tenacity of a bulldog.”

“When it comes to providing opportunities and advancement for the NPEP students, she doesn’t take no for an answer. She finds a way to get around any barrier that any person or organization puts in front of her,” Paulsen said.

NPEP now receives hundreds of applications every year for 20 places in the upcoming cohort. It is difficult for Professor Lackey to balance the intense demand for NPEP, the limited spots in the program, and the close-knit community that defines the program. While her dream would be to care for every inmate in the state of Illinois who is ready for college-level work and wants to do so, she recognizes that NPEP’s size plays a key role in its success.

This also places a sense of responsibility on released NPEP students, who understand that their choices are a reflection of a community.

“One of the things that makes us so unique is how community-oriented we are. And by that I mean I know every student,” Lackey said. “I know their strengths. I know their challenges. I know who they get along with and who they don’t get along with in the community. And that feeling of just being present for each other is what makes us so successful.”

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