Accessing Higher Education in an Era of Mass Incarceration

Twenty-nine years ago, a young man driving with friends, was stopped by the police. After searching the car, he was arrested for having an unloaded gun under the seat. As a result of this arrest, he served three days in jail, several months on probation and the last 29 years negotiating the far-reaching consequences of having a felony conviction.

Today this young man has become a respected manager in a large corporation. However, when he recently applied for a graduate degree, he was again faced with the box on the college application, asking, “Have you been convicted of a crime?” He was shocked learn that after all these years, he is still facing punishment for an old mistake and, in fact, can still lose his job if word of his prior conviction becomes known. This is but one example of how criminal history screening on college applications is a counter-productive barrier to college admissions and remains one of the most hidden and overlooked consequences to rebuilding the lives of thousands of formerly incarcerated college applicants.

In the documentary, Passport to the Future, the gentleman described appears with his face blurred. Fearing exposure, he originally asked to be removed from the film entirely - but was convinced to remain in place as Mr. Anonymous - because his decision not to pursue a degree at any college that screens for criminal justice information is an important part of the “barriers to higher education” story told in the film. Current data shows that, in fact, there are 100 million people in the U.S. (one in four adults) with criminal records, disproportionately men of color who are living in impoverished communities. These are the people who could benefit most from engaging in the life-changing experience of a solid college education. In addition, research shows that there is virtually no evidence to suggest that past criminal histories of students are relevant risk factors on campus.

During the past thirty years, I have experienced, first hand, the often miraculous and always transformative nature of college for incarcerated and formerly incarceration people. In the early 1980’s, I began by designing, creating, and directing college degree programs in prison and then, in 2002, founded College Initiative, a reentry education program to help formerly incarcerated people transition from prison to college.

In recent years, I began to see a growing number of colleges request criminal justice information as part of the application process (now over 60 percent of all colleges) and became alarmed. In 2011, I was fortunate to receive a Soros Justice Fellowship to examine, articulate, and engage allies and policy-makers in the process of dismantling barriers to college admissions for people with records.

Passport to the Future: Accessing Higher Education in an Era of Mass Incarceration, the documentary film I co-produced with filmmaker, Jeremy Robins, is the result of a year working with The Education Inside Out Coalition, the dedicated staff at the Center for Community Alternatives - authors of the ground-breaking report The Use of Criminal History Records in Admissions Reconsidered, and interviewing both formerly incarcerated students and experts working at the intersection of education and criminal justice. I think Passport to the Future makes a strong case for removing the box from college applications.

Please view the film and let me know what you think. Also, please check out the Passport page online for more information about how we can join together around this important issue in support of education for everyone.

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