Why support the Admissions Opportunity Campaign?


Why support the Admissions Opportunity Campaign?

The United States criminal justice system is inequitable and ineffective. In light of the racial and economic discrimination perpetuated by U.S. justice institutions, we believe that past involvement with the justice system should not be used to evaluate personal character or academic potential. We call upon Princeton University to remove the question about past involvement with the justice system from applications for undergraduate admission.

Sign the petition here!

There are so many reasons we feel passionately about the need to change Princeton's admissions policies.  Below are just a few reasons you might have for choosing to support the Admissions Opportunity Campaign.

  • The United States justice system is racially and economically discriminatory. Targeted policing strategies result in disproportionate arrests and convictions of residents of predominantly inner-city, impoverished areas, largely for drug crimes. According to the National Institute of Health, white youth use drugs more frequently than black and Hispanic youth.[1] Still, incarceration rates are much higher for the latter groups. Moreover, economically privileged youth have greater access to superior legal counsel and thus a higher chance of having their record expunged.

  • Students on our campus differ from those we are discriminating against in circumstance, not in character. Many Princeton University students commit offenses for which the Common Application question screens, but are not apprehended due to luck or privilege. Given that nearly everyone has violated the law in some way, involvement with the justice system largely reflects external factors and not aberrant behavior.

  • Education provides opportunities for success and creates a more equitable society. While the national recidivism rate is greater than 43%, a study that looked at the effect of education on recidivism found that with a bachelor’s degree recidivism rates drop to 5.6%, and with a master’s degree to less than 1%.[2]

  • Previous involvement with the justice system is not an accurate prediction of a student’s on-campus behavior. There is no empirical evidence to indicate that criminal history screening increases safety on campus.[3] Furthermore, a 2013 study found that nearly 97% of students who engaged in misconduct as undergraduates did not report criminal records on their admissions application.[4]

  • Individuals with past involvement with the justice system would bring distinct perspectives to Princeton. Approximately one-quarter of U.S. adults have a criminal record.[5] A lack of interaction with this stigmatized population fosters deep misunderstandings about the nature of the criminal justice system and those affected by it. We believe that by eliminating questions related to past involvement with the justice system, Princeton can open the door to increased diversity of experience and perspective among the student body without compromising its academic quality or moral character.

  • The Box not only facilitates discrimination against the formerly incarcerated, it actively discourages people from completing the application. A report done on the State University of New York (SUNY) system, whose application asks about history with the penal system, demonstrated the effects of the box on application attrition rates. The report found that for every one applicant denied admission after checking "yes" when asked about past convictions, 15 other applicants who checked "yes" failed to complete the application form. Moreover, the median attrition rate for those with felony convictions was found to be three times higher than the median attrition rate for the general applicant pool. [6]

Sign the petition here!

{1] “Race/Ethnicity and Gender Difference in Drug Abuse Among College Students,” McCabe et al., May 2008, Journal of Ethnicity in Substance Abuse, <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2377408/>.

[2] “State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of America’s Prisons,” Pew Center on the States, 2011, <http://www.pewtrusts.org/uploadedFiles/wwwpewtrustsorg/Reports/sentencing_and_corrections/State_Recidivism_Revolving_Door_America_Prisons%20.pdf>, p. 2, and “Review of various outcome studies relating prison education to reduced  recidivism,” C. Tracy and C. Johnson, Windham School System: Huntsville, TX. pp. 6-7.

[3] “The Use of Criminal History Records in College Applications: Reconsidered,” The Center for Community Alternatives, Nov. 2010, <http://www.communityalternatives.org/pdf/Reconsidered-criminal-hist-recs-in-college-admissions.pdf >.

[4] “Can student-perpetrated college crime be predicted based on precollege misconduct,” Runyan et al., Feb 2013. Injury Prevention, <http://injuryprevention.bmj.com/content/early/2013/02/22/injuryprev-2012-040644>.

[5] “65 Million ‘Need Not Apply’: The Case for Reforming Criminal Background Checks for Employment,” Michelle Natividad Rodriguez and Maurice Emsellem, National Employment Law Project, March 2001, <http://www.nelp.org/page/-/65_Million_Need_Not_Apply.pdf?nocdn=1>, p. 3.

[6] "Boxed Out: Criminal History Screening and College Application Attrition," The Center for Community Alternatives, March 2015. <http://communityalternatives.org/pdf/publications/BoxedOut_ExecSum.pdf>



LB Eisen '97!


LB Eisen '97!

Yesterday, LB Eisen '97 of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, came to speak to SPEAR about the history of the War on Drugs, and ways in which the United States can reform funding to reduce mass incarceration.  

It's so inspiring for us to see Princeton alums doing great work in the field of criminal justice! 

LB Eisen


To learn more about our events and meetings, email bdiehl@princeton.edu to get on our listserv!



Five Omar Mualimm-ak

SPEAR was honored to welcome Five Omar Mualimm-ak, solitary survivor and prison reform activist to Princeton University.  He shared with us his stories of abusive use of solitary confinement in American prisons, and joined us for a dinner conversation.  



7x9 Reflections


7x9 Reflections

Before and after taking part in our 7x9 performance, student participants were given the option of reflecting on their decision to participate, and their experience in the box. What follows are their unedited responses:


Dixon: Hour 4

I don't feel comfortable talking about prison reform and advocating for substantive change without first trying to understand what the actual experience of being in prison would be like (as if this is actually commensurate to the real experience). Basically, I wanted to get some sense of the emotional experience of solitary confinement.

I imagine the experience will be very difficult. As someone who is used to being mentally engaged and stimulated by things all the time, just sitting still for an hour seems hard. (In prep, I memorized part of Wallace Stevens' "Sunday Morning" so my mind has something to latch onto for the hour).


Damali: Hour 10

I'm interested in participating in the demonstration because I think a physical display will be a way for students to see exactly how confined the spaces are. Seeing one of their peers in the 'cell' might make it easier for them to imagine themselves in that same position and gain a better appreciation for how unjust the practice is. I find that many people here would show great support for increasing cage sizes for animals in labs or shelters, but not address the caging of human beings with the same fervor. Hopefully the demonstration can make an impact and cause some students to stop and think about the issue.


Nicole: Hour 12

I am writing this exactly one hour before it is my time to occupy the cell. There are a lot of different thoughts running through my head, but most of them revolve around how being in solitary confinement will affect me mentally (in addition to my love for conceptual/performance/modern art and wanting to learn more about the issue, this new mental exploration is what made me want to participate in 7x9) . I often enjoy time alone, but my alone time is usually spent in my room where I am very comfortable in the space. While performing in 7x9, I will be outside in the public where people can observe me and even attempt to interact with me in some way. It is almost as if I will be a specimen inside of a cage, and I can imagine that this will not elicit many positive feelings. Unlike when I am alone in my room, being alone in the cell will draw attention to the fact that I am by myself, and I have no possible way to interact with anybody in the outside world. For the prisoners who spend 23 out of the 24 hours in the day in these small, isolated cells, I can only begin to imagine how mentally trapped they must feel. I believe that human interaction and human touch are as necessary as food and water. It is easy to see why many of the prisoners in solitary confinement deal with issues revolving around mental illness.

A central idea to this performance is time and as I think more and more about occupying the space, I can't help but wonder how long the hour will "feel." An hour seems like hardly any time. I can spend hours and hours browsing the internet or watching YouTube videos when it feels as though no time has passed. However, when in solitary confinement, I will have no access to any "distractions." I imagine that this will force me to continuously think about my presence in the space, and my utter aloneness. I will try to keep myself somewhat occupied by doing small exercises and moving around, but there is only so much you can do before you go crazy in such a small space.


Grace: Hour 23

This morning, at 6am, when the first performer went in, I suddenly panicked. We set up, the sun was still down, and out of nowhere he said he was going in. Without a goodbye or a hug he entered and there he was, silent, not noticing me, and there I was, less than seven feet away and feeling shockingly distant. It was as if he had gotten on a boat to cross some wide sea. It was dizzying. I took some photos.



Brett: Hour 1

In the moment between when the moon sank behind the trees and when the sun rose, I was alone. As the first participant in 7x9, I was assigned the 6-7amshift. A stray squirrel shuffled by and a bike whizzed along in the distance, but nothing was there to distract me, to interest me, to entertain me, or to comfort me. I imagined this must be how it feels to be alone for 23 hours of every day. But then I was brought back to reality, remembering that I was surrounded by a beautiful fall morning with the prospect of returning to my warm comforting room before heading off to breakfast with friends. I was nothing like the victim of solitary confinement, faced with the prospect of nothingness. Hour after hour of solitude. I had a misty fall morning. They had a concrete cell. I had twenty-four hours to go wherever I wanted. They had one hour to see the natural blue of the sky overhead while wandering around a walled dog run. No, I was nothing like them, and saying that I experienced what it means to be in solitary confinement would be a lie.


Jen: Hour 2

A few thoughts during and after my time inside:

1. an hour is a long time. how much longer is 23? and then multiply that by the number of days in a year and however many years you are locked up for...

2. and that was in an open space, being able to see people walking by and look at buildings and posts, although I wasn't sure if it was okay for me to be doing that... so mostly I just stared at the ground.

3. 7x9 is actually quite small, to the point that I started getting dizzy when walking around the boundaries.

4. I spent most of the time thinking about how much more space I had in the box without the presence of a cot/chamber pot, how easy it was for me distract myself by looking around at my surrounding (and it was actually quite difficult), how just one hour could feel so long. I tried to imagine what it must actually be like in solitary, and although being in the taped lines today helped me imagine it a little better, I still can't really conceive of somebody in there for years and years. It blows my mind.


Nicole: Hour 12

From start to finish, I occupied my mind and body by formulating tasks that allowed me to explore the perimeters of the box, to keep myself moving, to play with the idea of time and rhythm and to try to understand what it would feel like to be a prisoner in solitary confinement. I performed each task for no more than about a minute or so (though it is difficult to know exactly how much time I spent doing each), but before dwelling on any particular activity for long, I would always be thinking about what I was going to do next. While at first, I felt a little bit awkward, after a few minutes, I was able to easily tune out everybody else and only focus on myself. I found myself in a strange haze where I did not know what was going on around me. Instead, I kept my mind solely focused on my presence in the box and how I was going to spend my hour in solitude. I tried my hardest not to pay attention the the photographers around me or to the group of rugby boys who tried to gain my attention by asking me questions. Instead, I kept focused the various tasks that I was doing.

I sat down to meditate for a minute, I did 50 jumping jacks, I stretched in various yoga positions, I measured the size of the box with my hands and feet, I swung my arms around, I ran in circles, I clapped out rhythms with my hands, I tried to touch both ends of the box simultaneously, I rubbed my legs over and over, etc, etc.

In this sense, my time in the box became much more about the performance aspect and as soon as I was out of the box, I realized that there was so much more to this in terms of how it relates to the larger issue of solitary confinement. I thought more and more about the relationship between myself being in the box and prisoners who are in solitary confinement cells. The most important difference between me in the box and the prisoner in the box is that I chose to place myself in solitary confinement while prisoners are forced into it. This freedom and the knowledge that I would only remain in the box for an hour allowed me to enjoy my time in the box and before I knew it, my time in the box was up.

I did enjoy my time in the box, which is something I did not expect at all. I am now very curious as to how long I would be able to stay in solitary confinement without going insane. I can wonder what it feels like to be forced into such a situation. While I was constantly making the decision to not interact with others while in the box, it is a completely different situation for all human interaction to be taken away from you.

Another thought I had while in the box was about the lack of walls and the exposure to the public. At times, I attempted to force myself to believe walls were there by placing my hands on and leaning against imaginary walls, but it was impossible to get rid of the idea that I was in the open public. Because I knew that people were watching me at all times, this led me to think more about my time in the cell as a performance and less so about being in solitude. Although I tried hard to only engage with myself and to not let any observers affect my actions, I am sure that if I were put into a room closed off to the public, my time in the box would have been a completely different experience. While I believe that this set up was the most effective way to reach a broader audience in order to spread awareness, from the performers perspective, I think being in a room may render a more powerful experience.


Damali: Hour 10

Firstly: I was amazed at how many times I could sit, stand, and walk around a box in one hour. Trying to judge time was very difficult, especially in dull moments. I think if I spent 6 hours in solitary confinement, I would fully crack.

Secondly: I realized how little some students cared. One girl bumped into me, a boy skateboarded right through the middle of the box, several bikers rode through parts of the box. I found myself angry that they didn't notice what I was doing. I wanted people to care about my "imprisonment" and at least show some respect. I could only imagine how angry I would be if I were truly incarcerated and no one responded.

Next: performing was difficult sometimes when friends tried to distract me. someone stood outside of the cell and danced provocatively. Very difficult to ignore.


Claire: Hour 8

I don't really know where to start so I'll just start. It was certainly powerful. I started out walking around the cell, just trying to figure out how many steps it took me to get from one end to the other. After a little bit of that I just sat down and stared at the ground for a significant amount of time and eventually started to tap my hands together while counting. It was amazing how quickly my brain wanted to be able to think about something or do something and had a very hard time sitting perfectly still. It made me wonder how our hour compares with someone's actual first hour. There are so many differences and that it what I kept coming back to. I tried my best to keep my eyes focused within the cell but I was able to have so much more outside stimulation because I was outside. I had the urge to do it in a more real way and I questioned why that was -- did I want to feel like I had really experienced it? Did I want to be able to have real empathy for people who have actually experienced it? It's hard to know.

I think the project was a brilliant idea. It was so interesting as the person in the cell to hear the comments of passerby - it seemed that almost anyone who was seeing the cell for the first time today felt the immense urge to stop and figure out what was going on. People who seconds before were babbling with their friends fell silent. Others said "oh that's something spear's doing" which made me excited that people who knew who we were.

I also realized that for whatever reason, it was really hard for me to not be critical of myself while in the box. It's not a very supportive setting and it makes you realize what proportion of your daily level of self-worth is reflective of how much outside validation you've received that day.

When I began to feel numb to my emotions about 40 minutes in, I was frustrated by my inability to stay focused on the activity but also wondered how much of that was some sort of self-preservation reflex. I thought about what it would be like if I was told I had to stay another hour and then tried to think about a day but really couldn't imagine what that would be like.

I'm really happy that we're doing this project and it clearly raised a lot of awareness (and eyebrows) in the process.


Grace: Hour 23

Maybe I should have written immediately after, but I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me - and dizzy. When I got there at 3am, I saw Amanda curled in child’s pose praying, in her pink puffy coat. I entered the cell and touched her shoulder. She moved so softly, got up and said, Hi, Grace, good night.

I was barely prepared. I felt manic in trying to get done everything I had thought about: shaking, hitting myself, crying. I only had an hour. I realized that this was closer to their hour outside than their twenty-three inside. This wasn’t at all the experience of someone in solitary confinement, and I had been shocked that the onlookers had compared it to that at all. I had seen it as a performative outward experience - for awareness by others on our campus. But I now felt it was an experience for me too.

The first thing that I wanted to do was write everything down. How could I record this accurately? I suppose if I had been there indefinitely it may not have mattered. Who would have read it? Would my thoughts change fast enough for it be important to write? I lost femininity early on. I thumped and pumped my arms like a man, but what was a “manly” way to pump one’s arms anyway? One must lose one’s genderedness so easily in solitary. How do they gain it back when they reenter society?

I noticed the squares that made up the ground. They were one foot by one foot - so neat, but two feet of the cell were made of smoothed concrete without blocks. I tried see the dimensions of a 6x9 and 6x8 cell. It was incredible how little space there was. I could not even complete one skip across the box.

I touched all the “walls,” the front wall from top to bottom, and slid my fingers along the middle around the room. I tired of activities quickly. I tried to do the movements I had imagined, but I couldn’t bring myself to complete them. I couldn’t see the point.

I looked around at the dusty sky, Frist Student Center in all of its glorious detail, the lights, the soft soft paths. I was overwhelmed, and vowed in that moment that when I ended up in solitary confinement in the future I would remember all the details I saw now. The sky’s color made me sad because I can never remember the right shades of blue.

A couple walked by on their way home from a party. They both got quiet and read the sign. The girl said to the boy, “You gonna cry now? You gonna cry like a baby?”

I watched in anticipation the path I knew my best friend would take, feeling hopeless that maybe she had already gone home. When she finally came I was ecstatic beyond control and felt a sense of homecoming. When she left I clapped hoping she would turn back.

There was a time when I just wanted to run home. The feeling had come out of nowhere. All of a sudden I felt trapped. I wanted to throw myself against the imaginary walls. The imposed constraints felt so arbitrary and senseless.

When the alarm rang I wasn’t ready. I stepped out and felt estranged. I had grown to love my cell. The squares had been so neat and pretty. I had been comfortable. I packed up our sign, the spotlight, and our information sheets. Walking home took a lot of effort. In the seven minute walk, I felt I was traveling so far and there was so much to see.




7x9 is a performance art project done by Students for Prison Education and Reform (SPEAR) to raise awareness about the use of solitary confinement in American correctional facilities.   It will take place from 6 am on November 21, to 6 am on November 22, outside of Princeton University's Frist Campus Center.  

Incarcerated people in solitary confinement spend 23 hours per day in their cells. In the remaining hour they may choose to go outside or shower.  The average solitary confinement cell in America is 7'x9'.

Each hour, for 23 hours, a student will be present in a 7'x9' cell. In keeping with the restrictions on incarcerated persons in solitary confinement, they will have no books, music, or other forms of entertainment.  They will not interact with the outside world.

We hope that 7x9 will facilitate the conversation on campus about solitary confinement, motivate individual interest in learning more about the experiences of solitary confinement, and inspire students to take action to against the abuse of solitary confinement in American facilities.

To learn more about solitary confinement, you can read this New Yorker piece, and take action by signing the following petitions: 

ACLU: Stop the Abuse of Solitary!

National Religious Campaign Against Torture: End Prolonged Solitary Confinement Now



*Post edited on 09/25/14