Most applications to educational institutions around the world include a box to check if a student has a criminal history, but there is now a ‘ban the box’ movement. Last year, the UK University and College Admissions Service (UCAS) – which manages applications at all British universities – dropped its criminal-history question. And in August, the US Common Application, used by 800 colleges and universities, removed the question — though individual institutions can still ask it.
A 2013 study by RAND Corporation 1, a think tank in Santa Monica, California, found that imprisoned individuals who participated in correctional education programs were 43% less likely to return to prison after release than those who were not.
Although 2.3 million people are currently in US prisons, less than 5% hold a university degree – making them 8 times less likely to complete their education than the general public. Few are still doing PhD. Nature spoke to three American researchers who moved from prison to PhD programs in senior positions in education, and who now want to help others find their academic status.
I grew up poor in rural southern Illinois. By my mid-twenties, I had been arrested five times—mainly for drug possession. In total I was behind bars for 1.5 years. Once I got out of jail, an uncle encouraged me to go to university. I attended Lincoln Trails College in Robinson, Illinois. I struggled with my drug addiction, but school hooked me up and headed toward my goal of earning a bachelor of science degree, which I eventually received from the University of Minnesota at Duluth.
I was gay, and had been laid off my whole life, but now I was far enough away from my hometown that I could make a fresh start. In Duluth, I stopped taking drugs and regained emotional stability. I became an organizer for the campus queer community and became involved in public policy.
Psychologist Lara LaCalle at the University of Minnesota encouraged me to go to graduate school. I was so intimidated by the research—I didn’t think I had enough grades, skills, or experience—that I paid extra to go to a private school, Roosevelt University in Chicago, Illinois, that required a master’s degree.
There was no arrangement. I ended up writing one anyway, once I realized that research is only a way to answer questions. I then attended laboratory meetings at DePaul University in Chicago, where researchers study addiction and recovery. I began to see that I was able to become what I admired the most – a university professor. After receiving an F31 predoctoral fellowship from the US National Institutes of Health, I graduated with a PhD from DePaul in 2013.
When I was at DePaul, I actively sought out other university graduates who were in prison, which was very challenging. Many of these people hide their past because there is too much shame involved. In 2014, I started a Facebook group to provide these people with a safe, comfortable place to interact without shame or stigma. My first faculty position was at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, a small liberal institution.
Last year, the Facebook group became a de facto non-profit organization, the formerly imprisoned College Graduate Network. We currently have 1,000 members in 43 states. Of these, about 118 have earned or are pursuing doctoral degrees. Think of it as an alumni network without an institutional affiliation.
In Maryland, I realized that I always wore long sleeves to cover my tattoos, to hide a part of my life from my captivity. Such cover up involves the same kind of emotional labor that goes into trying to disguise being a gay man.
After some self-discovery, I turned my line of research to study what kind of career prospects formerly in captivity envisioned, and how university can help with change. There are less than ten empirical studies on the transition from prison to university. Traditional researchers do not think about this topic because they have not gone through this experience.
In 2017, I moved to the University of Washington in Tacoma to work on social justice and prison education and co-founded a consortium of community colleges, universities, and social-service professionals to support people in the state who are transitioning.
Were were We want to build a community, change society’s views about our community, and develop public policy around education. While this may seem like a lot, there are at least 200,000 people with bachelor’s degrees who have spent time in prison. We have only explored the surface of the network and this area of research.