Grace Li ’14, left, and Shaina Watrous ’14 helped to found Students for Prison Education and Reform at Princeton. Today, both are working in public-interest law: Li is a fellow at the New York Civil Liberties Union, and Watrous is an appellate public defender.
Courtesy Grace Li and Shaina Watrous

In their sophomore year at Princeton, while driving back to campus after tutoring prison inmates through Princeton’s Petey Greene Program, Grace Li ’14 and Shaina Watrous ’14 would discuss all they had learned at the prison.

They might talk about a man whose friend was sent to solitary confinement, or an inmate abused by correctional officers for no good reason. They admired the work Petey Greene did but wanted to more directly address systemic problems in the U.S. prison system.

Li, who had little interest in criminal justice when she arrived at Princeton, was struck by the sense that good fortune was most of what separated her from many of the inmates. “They had grown up very close to where I had geographically,” Li says. “But due to different life circumstances and opportunities and other things that had happened by chance, they were incarcerated and I was a student.”

Watrous, who first became interested in human-rights issues during a year she spent in India through Princeton’s Bridge Year Program, felt similarly. “We started talking about how many systems had to have failed these people, and we realized that there really wasn’t very much dialogue at all on Princeton’s campus about these issues,” Watrous says.

To spark dialogue, and to agitate for change, the two of them, together with Joseph Barrett ’14, started Students for Prison Education and Reform — commonly referred to by its acronym, SPEAR.

The organization sought, among other things, to raise awareness about the inhumane nature of solitary confinement through performance art protest. Members drew a 7-by-9-foot box on the ground in front of Frist Campus Center, and a different member sat in the box every hour for 23 hours, representing the 23 hours per day that some inmates are locked in solitary confinement. (SPEAR still protests this way every year. Last year members handed out pamphlets explaining that the 4 percent of the inmate population subjected to solitary confinement accounts for 50 percent of prison suicides.)

Li and Watrous sought not only to raise awareness about criminal justice issues, but to effect change on Princeton’s campus. Through SPEAR, they advocated for the University to inform prospective students with criminal records about the application process and financial aid, and to support current students who might need accommodations related to their criminal histories.

They also began a Ban the Box campaign to remove the check box on the Princeton application that asks if applicants have a criminal record. According to Li and Watrous, this part of the application has a “chilling effect,” discouraging students with criminal records from applying. They also question the value of the information this question provides. “Research shows that people who have been incarcerated tend to be less likely than the general public to commit crimes or get in trouble on campus,” says Li, arguing that such students tend to be more mature and determined to capitalize on opportunities. Li further contends that this binary question gives admissions officers a racially influenced view of applicants. “The criminal justice system disproportionately impacts people of color,” she explains. “It's less likely that white students or more affluent students who were doing the same things would have been arrested and convicted and sentenced.”

After graduating from Princeton, both Li and Watrous were awarded Root-Tilden-Kern Public Interest Scholarships to attend NYU Law School, where they continued to advocate for broader acceptance of people with criminal records in academic institutions. “We tried to ask the NYU Law School to put its admissions where its mouth is,” Watrous says. In response to their efforts, the school established programs to support such applicants, along with a scholarship for formerly incarcerated people.

Li and Watrous graduated from law school last spring. Watrous now works as an appellate public defender at the Center for Appellate Litigation, helping people who have been convicted at trial appeal the result. Li, a Kirkland & Ellis fellow at the New York Civil Liberties Union, is working protect the constitutional rights of people on parole in New York.

Li and Watrous, whose offices are located two blocks apart, still regularly meet up for lunch. Watrous and Barrett married last February.

“Princeton generally, but SPEAR in particular, provided me with my closest friends,” Watrous says.