The following was published on UChicago News on December 12, 2023.
After two years of leading creative writing workshops in the Cook County Jail, University of Chicago student Ethan Ostrow said there is one moment he thinks about often.
He recalled how one participant shared that he had been charged with manslaughter after killing his best friend in a drunk driving accident.
“Watching him blink back tears while telling us how deeply he missed his friend and how badly he wanted to make things right, I wondered in what world jailing him means justice,” said Ostrow, a fourth-year student in the College.
Experiences such as this one have made Ostrow a vigorous advocate against local and federal incarceration.
On Dec. 11, it was publicly announced that Ostrow received the prestigious Marshall Scholarship, which will enable him to study at the University of Oxford, where he will advance his work on incarceration reform by pursuing a graduate degree in socio-legal studies next fall.
He is the 29th person affiliated with UChicago, since 1986, to win a Marshall Scholarship, which recognizes academic excellence, leadership and ambassadorial potential.
Finding an alternative to incarceration
Ostrow said he is guided by a belief that “if the goal of incarceration is to correct human behavior, the institution of prison is a failure.”
His resolve is anchored in a stark reality: 90 percent of incarcerated individuals in Chicago re-offend within a year, which Ostrow said reflects the failure of prisons to rehabilitate. His ultimate goal is to expand restorative justice—a method for repairing harm that uses dialogue to achieve accountability and reconciliation—as a viable alternative to incarceration.
The Marshall Scholarship, Ostrow said, helps prove that imagining new responses to harm besides criminalization is realistic. Additionally, he said that the opportunity to study the U.K.’s historical national uptake of restorative justice will help teach him how to intervene and institutionalize a similar system in the U.S.
"Ethan's willingness to question the status quo and apply problem solving to the complexities of our justice system is inspiring, and exemplifies so many of the unique qualities that distinguish students here at UChicago," said Melina Hale, dean of the College. "We are so proud of Ethan, and this well deserved honor."
Associate Dean of Undergraduate Research and Scholars Programs, and Executive Director of the College Center for Research and Fellowships Nichole Fazio said, “Ethan’s courage of conviction and his integrity have earned him one of the most prestigious national fellowships available to American students. His selection as Marshall Scholar affirms his exceptional leadership and future promise as he continues to stand up for the rights of others. We are proud of Ethan for his evident compassion and his enduring pursuit of what is just and true.”
A Law, Letters & Society major in the College from San Francisco, Ostrow will finish his bachelor’s degree in the spring, as well as a master’s in political science.
When he returns from Oxford, he plans to pursue a law degree and continue developing connections with legislators, law enforcement and restorative justice practitioners to build upon the relationships he forges in the U.K.
Together with fellow student Harley Pomper, Ostrow has written multiple op-eds, including one in the Chicago Sun-Times last spring that spurred public and media attention to a paper ban at the CCJ, which was imposed after drug-laced paper entered the jail.
Concerned that the policy denied prisoners reading material and made it difficult for lawyers to represent their incarcerated clients effectively, both students sought the guidance of Jamie Kalven, an award-winning investigative journalist and founder of the Invisible Institute, who met with them over several months, ultimately helping them land their opinion piece in the Sun-Times.
Following the publication of the op-ed, both students’ security clearances were subsequently denied, which ended their ability to lead workshops at the jail.
“The sheriff’s department retaliated against Ethan and his collaborator for the op-ed by denying them security clearances to participate in the writing workshop in the jail that they help lead," Kalven said. "A disappointment, but also, I expect, a defining moment early in a career in which Ethan is destined to make significant contributions to criminal justice reform.”
In addition, Ostrow has also written research papers arguing that federal institutions fall short of their goals of upholding public safety. Most notably, he contributed to a groundbreaking report on pretrial jailing from the UChicago Law School’s Federal Criminal Justice Clinic, which analyzes the shortcomings of the federal jailing system.
Having worked in and observed conditions at the CCJ and the Cook County bond court, he said he has seen firsthand how incarceration can upend lives.
“Conducting writing workshops alongside people experiencing incarceration has shown me how mass incarceration progressively detracts from our collective safety, economically and politically disenfranchises entire communities, and exacerbates our nation’s mental health and housing crises,” he said.
Ostrow said that his work participating in and studying the efficacy of restorative justice has shown there is a compelling alternative to the criminal legal system as it currently exists.
Eventually, he said he hopes to dismantle the prison pipeline by creating an offramp and working toward a future in which restorative justice is used to mend the socioeconomic causes of violence, repair interpersonal relationships and build engaged, supportive communities.
“I can’t describe the extent of my gratitude for the myriad of people in my life who have encouraged me to advocate for healing and restoration and against institutional violence, including my mentors, teachers, professors, and friends inside and outside of prison,” Ostrow said. “Finally, I want to thank my family for their love, support and inspiration.”
Ostrow secured University nomination and received application support from the College Center for Research and Fellowships, which guides candidates through rigorous processes for nationally competitive fellowships. Additional support is provided by the Marshall, Mitchell, and Rhodes faculty nomination committee; its ongoing service is a critical part of student success at the national level.