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 Transcript: Passport to the Future

Produced by Benay Rubenstein and Jeremy Robins

Education is our passport to the future,
for tomorrow belongs to the people who
prepare for it today. - Malcolm X

Vivian Nixon: People who are getting released from prison have so many things they have to deal with.

Gary Reese: Sometimes it's like you wear it like an invisible coat, you know, you feel it and you wonder if anybody else can see it.

Alan Rosenthal: There is a punishment that people endure long, long after the sentence is over.

Christina Nankervis: And it feels like you're not ever going to be whole again, you're never going to a person, and you're not worthy of a place in society. And that kind of defeats the purpose of being released.

Jeremy Travis: I'd like to feel that higher education can play a very critical role - and critically important role - for people coming out from prison. Ultimately this is a role we haven't yet explored adequately.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad: Today we have found mechanisms to filter out those who, because of their prison experience, might be most desiring of changing their lives and a quality education. And that's a tragedy. But it's one that we can fix.

Passport to the Future: Accessing Higher Education in an Era of Mass Incarceration

Alan Rosenthal: Initially, as we did reentry work it was primarily focused on the barriers to employment. About 5 years ago, an area caught our attention that had literally gone unnoticed, unwritten about. One of the local community colleges in upstate New York that we had been referring students to had created an absolute bar to admission, to the effect that if you have a felony conviction "you need not apply."

Quite frankly, I doubted that that could be true. And I said, well, I'd like to see the policy. And sure enough, they came back to me with a written policy. And it was the first time that my eyes were open to the fact that there may be this much larger problem.

It led us to look at the policies around New York State and then nationwide. What we found was that about 60% of all colleges engage in some sort of screening, sometimes with very little training. And it began us on this path of asking a lot of questions about what this is about. Could it really be about public safety or campus safety? Or were these counterproductive policies as we suspected?

Personal Stories

Lettisha Boyd: I was incarcerated for 16 years and in that time I was able to obtain my associate degree from an in-college program.

Manny Oliveras: Well, I went in as an 18 year old, and you can say that my mind was really like a 16 year old. I just was not really fully mature, though I thought I was.

Gary Reese: I went into prison when I was 16, so I never had a chance to graduate from high school. But I was always interested in archeology.

Anonymous: I got locked up on a Friday night. I was released on Monday morning. That was enough of a prison sentence for me!

Ronald Day: And I remember my mother telling me "Son you have a good head on your shoulders, you have a good head on your shoulders." So I used to ponder, if that's the case, how did I get here?

Henry Smith: Because I experienced in the criminal justice system a lack of ability to operate or to deal with my lawyers, because my educational level was so low that I couldn't even help myself. Because I was innocently incarcerated for 25 years. And so I saw education - it was like mandatory.

Christina Nankervis: I've always wanted to go to law school since I was in my early twenties, maybe like 21 or 22 years old. I finished my associates while I was out on bail, and from the standpoint of having been through what I've been through, having been in an abusive relationship and having gone to prison for it ultimately, I remained interested in law despite my own case.

Alvaro Cumberbatch: And it wasn't until about six months into my incarceration that there was an older gentleman who approached me and talked to me about getting involved in the Youth Assistance Program. I said, "I don't really know – I just came upstate." And he said, "You know what? I understand you have to think about it. But here's what you really have to think about: Do you want to be part of the problem? Or do want to be part of the solution?" And he left it just like that and walked away. And it was that question that literally changed my life.

Manny Oliveras: It started with my GED, and I obtained that. And once I obtained my GED, I was like Wow! I stuck toothpaste to the back of the GED and put it on my wall, and I couldn't stop looking at it.

Gary Reese: And once I went to the program at Auburn that was the moment, that was my "Ah ha" moment. Because I felt like I was able to actually to do college level work.

Ronald Day: And it didn't actually happen overnight, it wasn't like an epiphany. I can recall sitting and doing some serious introspection on my life - how I had deprecated my community and what I can do differently so that I would be asset to my community once I made the transition.


Christina Nankervis: My first challenge was to find a job. It was very challenging! A lot people are not willing to hire ex-felons.

Manny Oliveras: Many of us, we come home and we don't have a birth certificate, we don't have a social security card, we don't have a place to live.

Henry Smith: Just getting on the bus and knowing how to turn your MetroCard. You're holding up a line, people behind you, "What's wrong with you?"

Christina Nankervis: I had a rejection applying to live in an apartment complex because I had a felony and they did criminal background checks on every tenant.

Glenn Martin: Public housing: if you have a criminal conviction you can't live in public housing. Section 8: if you have a criminal conviction you can't have access to section 8. Certain types of employment, licensure, and certification; there's absolute bars based solely on whether or not a person's been to prison.

Anonymous: I guess I kinda knew the reality that my record was tainted. I guess didn't know it would be as far-reaching as it was.

Christina Nankervis: After a few months, and another month passed, and another month passed, and I was just like, "Oh my God, I'm never going to find a job."

Lettisha Boyd: When I got out, I knew that I wanted to pursue business again. You cannot achieve any type of great success without education behind you in this day and age, especially in this economy.

Henry Smith: I knew that school would be a place for me to adjust back to society in a healthy environment. And all I needed was to get into the school, because after that, I was going to put my mind, heart and soul into my work.

The College Application Process

Ronald Day: I had to fill out the application of course. And the application required me to check off the box.

Alvaro Cumberbatch: You have the infamous conviction question. And, I mean, who knows how to answer that correctly?

Gary Reese: That box, "The Box".

Lettisha Boyd: I think that that box is the most damaging box possible in society.

Anonymous: When I saw it, it was, "OK, there it is." It's been 29 years, and it took me right back to the officer saying to me, "Just move over, inmate." Soon as I was arrested I became an "inmate."

Glenn Martin: It was such a chilling effect to think that I wanted to go to college, and here as I'm on my path to change my life, I'm still being asked these questions.

Some schools have absolute bans on applications from felons; most others have additional screening processes for applicants who check the box.

Alvaro Cumberbatch: I was told initially by my college mentor of the process, that it would be lengthy, and that it could be deterring. Even though I was given the heads up what it would be, I was still blown away at all of the things they asked for: complete criminal history; authorization forms for release of information; a letter from my parole officer on top of two recommendation letters.

Lettisha Boyd: I happen to have this parole officer that's great. She was all for writing this letter for me to get back into school. But they're all different – they range from all different aspects – there are some who wouldn't be as willing to help out.

Anonymous: I would say, "No, I'm not going to do that, I'm not going to fill it out. And that's it. I'll find something…I'll find somewhere else to go."

Gary Reese: That's what really amazed me. Right? I wouldn't think that educational institutions would hold that against somebody after they see somebody's trying to improve themselves.


Susan Sturm: It's understandable that people who have no exposure to this issue other than what they see in the media would be afraid. If you however work with and study the dynamics that actually occur when a formerly incarcerated people enter an institution, you get an entirely different picture. First of all, these are the most motivated students. They have the most to lose and the most to gain.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad: It's ironic that the outward perception would be that this is your population that is not deserving, that won't take advantage of college education, when in fact, many of those men would be much more likely to be extremely successful as they take individual ownership of that opportunity.

Jeremy Travis: We know over time that the recidivism rates of people who have records diminishes to the point where they're just like the general population. People age out of crime.

Alan Rosenthal: What's important for policy makers to understand is that if there is one thing that we know about, particularly about the criminal behavior of teenagers, is that the vast majority will be one-time offenders. One and done, partly because they age out, mature out. What the American Bar Association has had to say about adolescent behavior is important: that the brain of a young person is different than that of an adult. It leads to higher risk taking, a willingness to follow one's peers, rather than some other social restrictions. It is that knowledge that has led our courts, and more recently the Supreme Court, to tell us that the behavior of teenagers is not predictive of future misconduct.

Scott Ochs: And our officers will be the first to tell you that they have not had problems with some of - I use the word "ex-offenders" - who have come in. They need to deal with day-to-day situations that come up with any campus with college students. You know, a young student, 18 years old, is coming right out of high school and is coming onto a residential campus for the first time. That's what they're spending their time on.

To date no study has ever shown that students with criminal records are any more likely to commit crime on campus.

Susan Sturm: And the fact is, that people who go through the process of getting into college after they come home from prison, have shifted identity, and have extremely low recidivism rates and higher graduation rates than their peers.

Vivian Nixon: The truth is, that the person who chooses to enroll in school after incarceration is the least likely person to commit a crime on campus. And we need to educate all school administrators about that.

Alan Rosenthal: If the driving force is to make our campuses safer by screening out certain students, perhaps a modest proposal that they might consider would be that perhaps we should only admit women to our colleges and universities, since their male counterparts offend at three times the rate that they do. Now we wouldn't of course adopt that as a policy. But it does make one re-examine - is the goal to make college campuses safer? Or do we need to look at the context in which this is happening?

The Historical Picture

Glenn Martin: As we think of people with criminal records, often folks in their minds think that this some very small segment of the population. But the truth is that while the United States is only 5% of the world's population, we have over 25 % of the world's prison population. There are over 100 million records on file with repositories around the country.

Jeremy Travis: The big trend that we should keep in mind is that starting in 1972, we have quadrupled the per-capita rate of incarceration. This is unprecedented in the history of the human race; unprecedented in our own national history. Now, that phenomenon is not evenly distributed across the country. It has fallen most harshly on communities of color and is driven a lot by the increase drug arrests.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad: We now know since the 1990's with federal survey data, that blacks and whites and others consume drugs at roughly the same rates based on their proportion of the population. And yet, in states across the country, those who have been convicted of non-violent drug offenses have been black and brown at rates of 80 to 90 percent of prison admissions. This is roughly described as the onset of the War on Drugs, a moment that really intensified and exacerbated existing practices, that included the disproportionate focus on policing black communities, what we call "Stop and Fisk" and "Discriminatory Enforcement."

Jeremy Travis: The African American male today has a one in three lifetime chance of spending at least one year in prison. This just cuts across everything we're trying to do as a society in terms of promoting democracy, pursuing racial justice, trying to help people get out of poverty and into the middle class.

Glenn Martin: Any policy that's based solely on having a felony conviction, unfortunately is going to disproportionately impact people of color and low income communities of color. And many of the colleges are actually charged with targeting these communities to help them get access to higher education.

Vivian Nixon: If our public institutions are going to fulfill their mission, they have to consider that the large majority of people who are impacted by our criminal justice system are the very people that they have a mission to serve. And unless they make that connection, they're going to miss the mark in achieving their very own mission.

Impact on Colleges

Susan Sturm: What's often overlooked is the profound benefit that the higher education institutions, their students and their faculty receive when formerly incarcerated people enter an institution.

Jeremy Travis: There's a big benefit to us to have people on our campus and in our classroom participating in our discussions who bring into those discussions the personal experience of having been incarcerated.

Susan Sturm: These are the students who, given the support that every first generation college student needs, who excel not only in their academics, but also and most importantly what they do when they leave. People who come into college from an experience of prison disproportionately participate in human services, community development, leadership and public problem solving fields.

Manny Oliveras: Unfortunately, you committed a crime and, you know, it's something that's going to stay with you forever. You can't erase it, especially when it's something serious, you know. However, how can I use that in a positive way? Many of these social organizations right now are hiring individuals just like myself, who have transformed their life, who have gained an education.

Alvaro Cumberbatch: A lot of people who were formerly incarcerated that go on to being in human services have a deep sense of "this is not enough." OK, so I'm working as a case manager and I'm assisting people, but that's not enough. I'm a mentor for College Initiative, but that's not enough. And I'm going for my CASAC, and that's not enough. Because I owe this to myself, I owe it to it my family. I have an understanding of what my role and position is in society.


Jeremy Travis: I think admissions officers, and counselors, and faculty, and student groups and the like - we need an education of the education community to think about this particular population.

Glenn Martin: To bar people from accessing education - from access to high education - is really fear driven unfortunately, and not based on any sort of research or risk assessment.

Vivian Nixon: For me, in an ideal world, the question "have you been convicted of a crime" would not be an appropriate question to have on an application to college.

Alan Rosenthal: Since there is no empirical evidence anywhere to support the notion that campus safety was improved by this screening process, the first and foremost of our recommendations would be that the question, "have you ever been convicted on a crime," would be removed from the initial application completely. The second of our recommendation was that if a school was going to do this, they really need to do it in a transparent way. They need to train their staff and they need to let applicants know exactly what the process is.

Henry Smith: Education represents life to me. It represents growth and development. It represents a free mind. We're not playing. I didn't suffer all those years to come out here to waste it and to give my freedom away.

Ronald Day: I went to school in the summer. I went to school in the winter. If they had another season I would have been going to school during that season. I can't catch up. I can't get back the 15 years that I lost while I was in prison.

Manny Oliveras: My mother got the opportunity to see me graduate with my associates. One of the best things for me was seeing that she was at peace, you know, she didn't have to worry about her son no more.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad: If you just pause and think about the emergence of mass incarceration and the war on drugs and the collateral damage that now we simply throw away people who have served their time, it's an outrage. In the same way that we look back comfortably, with the distance of time, and say "Slavery was a moral evil, it's a stain on the American story, I didn't have anything to do with it," future observers of our time will look back on this moment and say," It's a shame what we allowed to happen." And we all bear responsibility for that.