Michelle Jones recently headed back to school along with millions of other American students to New York University’s doctoral program in history. Unlike most other students, Jones carries far more baggage than a book bag—she served 20 years in the Indiana prison system for murdering her 4-year-old son.(Image: iStock/Bill Oxford)
The New York Times, in collaboration with The Marshall Project—ran a fascinating profile on the formerly incarcerated African American woman’s quest to earn her Ph.D. in history from an Ivy League school and finding a school that would accept her.
During her incarceration, Jones worked in the prison law library, becoming a paralegal. She went on to obtain her bachelor’s degree and audited graduate courses from Indiana University.
She became interested in the history of the prison where she was doing her time and unearthed a treasure trove of information about women in prisons in the state of Indiana, aided by a college professor of history. The Times reports;
With no internet access and a prison library that hewed toward romance novels, she led a team of inmates that pored through reams of photocopied documents from the Indiana State Archives to produce the Indiana Historical Society’s best research project last year. As prisoner No. 970554, Ms. Jones also wrote several dance compositions and historical plays, one of which is slated to open at an Indianapolis theater in December.
An obviously talented woman, she was given time off her sentence due to good behavior and her academic achievements. She was recruited by New York University to enter its doctoral program in history. Jones also was accepted into Harvard University’s history Ph.D. program.
Harvard rescinded its acceptance. The Times reports that several professors were disturbed by what they perceived as Jones downplaying the seriousness of her crime to get into the program. Yale University also rejected her application.
University of California, Berkeley; the University of Michigan; and the University of Kansas also offered Jones admission. She just started the semester at N.Y.U.
The Times, along with The Marshall Project—a nonprofit organization that deals with matters related to the justice system—offers a riveting profile of someone who has climbed out of the darkest, most remote corner society can place a pariah to become a celebrated academic.
Yet, the article also does not minimize the brutality of Jones’ crime and the terror she inflicted on her child. The article opens up a pathway for serious discussion about redemption and the crimes that a society is willing or unwilling to forget. It’s a must-read article and is available here.