#BUandBoston: Boston University Prison Outreach Initiative

This post is part of our #BUandBoston series, highlighting the work and research of BU students, faculty, and staff throughout the City of Boston and the Greater Boston region. Interested in having your Boston-related work featured? Tag us on Instagram or Twitter (@BUonCities) using the #BUandBoston or send us an email at ioc@bu.edu.

By Dhruv Kapadia

BU Prison Outreach Initiative (BUPOI) is a newly formed student organization that has spent the last six months advocating for criminal justice reform and serving incarcerated communities, both locally and nationally.

Lecture by Associate Professor of Political Science Spencer Piston. Photo courtesy of BUPOI.

Founding President Caroline McCord, a junior majoring in Political Science in the College of Arts and Sciences, described BU Prison Outreach Initiative as an organization “dedicated to service and advocacy for incarcerated communities with a focus on educating the BU community about the carceral system.” McCord’s motivation for creating BUPOI stems from her personal experience growing up in conservative Alabama, a state that she claims has one of the most inhumane carceral systems in the United States. “I’ve been interested in progressive politics and criminal justice reform since high school,” said McCord, citing the story of a close family friend currently serving a life sentence in prison for a non-violent crime they committed at 18 years old. “I saw firsthand how conservative politics hurt the people in my community, and I [realized] that I have the resources and community here at BU to actually do something about it.”

At the start of her junior year at Boston University, McCord noticed the absence of a student organization dedicated to criminal justice reform and decided to make a change: “I spoke to a lot of my close friends who I knew also cared about social justice issues. We managed to create an Executive Board, and we just hit the ground running.” As the first and only student advocacy organization exclusively dedicated to serving incarcerated individuals, BUPOI has made significant strides in carceral justice on Boston University’s campus. The core tenets of the organization are represented by three main activities: educating, fundraising, and volunteering. 

Jesse Crosson speaker event. Photo Courtesy of BUPOI.

On an educational front, BUPOI hosted multiple guest speaker events aimed at raising awareness and educating the BU community about the carceral state throughout the fall semester. In October, the organization hosted a lecture by Associate Professor of Political Science Spencer Piston on race and class discrimination in America’s criminal justice system. Later, in November, BUPOI hosted a talk by Jesse Crosson, a social media influencer with more than 700,000 TikTok followers, who gained notoriety after his release from prison after 19 years. Crosson discussed his experience in prison, focus on restorative justice, and plans to decrease recidivism. The profits from ticket costs for these events were donated to local prisons and re-entry programs in Greater Boston.

BUPOI’s fundraising efforts did not stop at ticket sales. At the start of the Fall semester, BUPOI hosted a book drive for Massachusetts prison libraries, collecting more than 300 new or gently-used books. These books were donated to the Prison Book Program, a local non-profit in Quincy, Massachusetts which supports people in prison by sending them free books and print resources that meet their specific needs and interests. Later in the semester, BUPOI collaborated with BU College Democrats to host a Blaze Pizza fundraiser, with all proceeds going towards re-entry programs in Greater Boston. “We’ve been able to give back in a lot of tangible ways,” said McCord, “both with our time and with supplies and financial donations.”

BUPOI members tabling at book drive. Photo courtesy of BUPOI.

In terms of volunteering and activism, BUPOI has facilitated numerous direct action events open to all undergraduate students. In collaboration with BU College Democrats, members discussed prison reform and abolition and wrote letters to Congressional and state political representatives regarding criminal justice issues. One month later, in November, Executive Board members Caroline McCord and Alessandro Sitaaras visited a local carceral facility in conjunction with BU’s Race, Prison, Justice, Arts Project, a service program dedicated to sharing artwork and stories between BU students and incarcerated individuals. Lastly, to close out their first semester, BUPOI completed a volunteer trip to Quincy to work directly with the Prison Book Program. Volunteers helped sort, package, and drop off books to be distributed throughout prisons all across the country. “We have a very passionate spirit of action,” said McCord, “we’re not content with just help[ing] people in prison, we want to actually restructure the whole system.”

BUPOI volunteers at the Prison Book Program in Quincy. Photo courtesy of BUPOI.

On a broader scale, BU Prison Outreach Initiative hopes to push the university to standardize, subsidize, and expand its criminal justice reform efforts. “There’s a lot of different kinds of criminal justice groups that BU works with,” said McCord, “but there’s no department or singular organization that is actually making a tangible change.” She continued, “BU needs to be a strong supporter of the many passionate individuals and groups who are already trying to support those in Boston who are incarcerated, as well as connecting these groups together to form a stable, long-lasting, and strongly subsidized Prison Outreach department.”

For the coming semester, BU Prison Outreach Initiative has plans for a supply drive, speaker events, and volunteer opportunities open to all students in the coming months. If interested, follow their Instagram to stay up to date on the latest opportunities to get involved.