Formerly Imprisoned Students Struggle to Shed Their Past

The stigma of incarceration often complicates admissions, membership in academic organizations and professional licensure, restricting individuals for years after their release from prison.

March 10, 2022
Few formerly incarcerated individuals go on to earn a bachelor’s degree.
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When Ryan Flaco Rising took his first college class in New Folsom State Prison, he didn’t know basic math concepts like fractions or multiplication or “how to write with periods and commas,” as he puts it. Soon he’ll graduate with a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Now, as Rising nears graduating with a degree in sociology, he has a grade point average that hovers around 4.0. He has also published several articles and heads a group on campus dedicated to helping formerly incarcerated students.

“My journey through education has been a roller-coaster ride,” Rising said.

Rising had a troubled childhood, spending his teenage years in and out of juvenile detention. His early adult life was beset with addiction, criminal behavior and run-ins with law enforcement. On his first night as a free man, after being released from prison, Rising slept on a bench by San Diego City College. He awoke to students walking by, backpacks slung over their shoulders. And when Rising went to see his parole officer the next morning, he told him he wanted to go to college. Rising expected his parole officer to laugh; instead, he offered encouragement.

Though Rising has turned his life around, challenges related to his criminal history still linger. For Rising and other formerly incarcerated students, higher education is an aspirational path, yet one that comes with social pitfalls, skeptics and the need to keep proving themselves as scholars.

Navigating the System

Inspired by the work that Berkeley Underground Scholars does for formerly incarcerated students at the University of California, Berkeley, Rising started a similar organization when he enrolled at UCSB: the Gaucho Underground Scholars.

According to its website, Gaucho Underground Scholars provides “peer-driven support, assistance, and guidance to formerly incarcerated” students at UC Santa Barbara. But the organization—which the university describes as a “student-led program that is jointly coordinated between current UCSB students and the Office of Student Engagement and Leadership”—has clashed with administrators.

The friction began last July, when Michael Miller, assistant vice chancellor for enrollment services at UCSB, asked the Gaucho Underground Scholars to meet regularly with campus police.

“They said that we needed to sit down with the police every quarter and have meetings and that the police needed to know all of our membership,” Rising said, adding that the request raised red flags for the members from marginalized communities, many of whom have experienced discrimination by law enforcement or come from neighborhoods where meeting with police can be dangerous.

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“I told them I’m not willing to put any of my membership in meetings with the police,” Rising said.

Ultimately, he believes such meetings are intended to surveil and keep tabs on the members of the Gaucho Underground Scholars, a notion that university administrators deny.

“One meeting between the Underground Scholars and members of the campus police department was proposed to discuss potential opportunities for collaborating on community outreach efforts such as toy drives,” UC Santa Barbara spokesperson Shelly Leachman wrote in an email. “UC Berkeley’s Underground Scholars and campus police department have partnered in that way with great success. The idea did not come to fruition here, and no such meeting ever took place. After students voiced concerns over this approach, the concept was never revisited.”

Members of Berkeley Underground Scholars flatly deny ever working with campus police, and UC Santa Barbara did not respond to an email seeking more information on this discrepancy.

Rising clashed with Miller over the request and later sent an email to faculty members questioning how Miller treated the Gaucho Underground Scholars. Because of that, Rising feels he has been blackballed from graduate admissions at the university. He and two other members of Gaucho Underground were denied entry into UC Santa Barbara’s graduate program in sociology, a move they feel was retaliatory.

“They denied us [admission], and we truly believe the reason is because we stood up for our program—we stood up for our community in our space here, we refused to meet with the police and get rubber-stamped by the police on this campus, in order for our program to be solidified,” Rising said.

Administrators suggest the situation is more complicated and boils down to a competitive application process that saw only 10 doctoral students selected out of 140 applications. The competition was even greater this year because UC Santa Barbara closed graduate admissions last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The UCSB Sociology Department has a very strong record of diversity, equity, and inclusion and takes diversity of backgrounds and life experiences very seriously in the graduate admissions process,” sociology professor and department chair Verta Taylor wrote in an emailed statement. “It is always difficult to disappoint students who would like to gain admission to our program and, unfortunately, we had to turn away dozens of highly qualified students.”

Rising—who applied to various other graduate programs—just learned that he was accepted at the University of California, Irvine. But the acceptance is bittersweet, as he feels he is being forced off the campus where he worked to build up Gaucho Underground Scholars. He questions what will happen to the program after he leaves and harbors suspicions that higher education is a place where people like him are treated like research subjects—not scholars.

“Formerly incarcerated and gang-involved individuals are research subjects,” Rising said. “We’ve been locked out of ever becoming researchers. When we try to step up and become researchers into our own experiences, into our own communities, they try to marginalize us out of that. They don’t want us to unlock things that they want to unlock for themselves.”

Now distrustful of the sociology program, Rising has urged other students to boycott it.

Persistent Challenges

The difficulties of navigating higher education are commonplace for formerly incarcerated students and professionals alike, say those working in academe. Though a prison sentence may end, the stigma attached often follows people throughout their work and personal lives.

Terrill Taylor, a Ph.D. student in psychology at the University of North Dakota, said he was convicted of crimes as an undergraduate and expelled from the college he attended at the time. Getting a second chance proved challenging.

“Having been expelled from an institution, one of the first challenges I endured was having an institution give me that second chance,” Taylor said.

But the hurdles didn’t stop there. Taylor said he transferred to the University of North Dakota after the program he initially selected, at a Louisiana college, pulled the fellowship it offered him without explanation—a move he attributes to program administrators having issues with his past.

Taylor was recently accepted into an internship program in Texas, yet concerns persist.

“There’s this additional layer of worry, anxiety, concern regarding how this background check process is going to go, given that there have been experiences where I have been given an offer and that offer has been rescinded after the background check was complete,” Taylor said.

Formerly Incarcerated Faculty

Uncertainty for the formerly incarcerated also extends to the faculty ranks.

When Christopher Beasley—now a psychology professor at the University of Washington—got his first tenure-track job at a prior institution, he tried to keep his past quiet. He hid his tattoos under long sleeves and tried to avoid showing any signs that he had previously spent time in prison.

“It’s similar to being closeted as a gay man,” Beasley said. “What we know when you’re closeted as a gay man is you not only hide the fact that you’re gay, but you also hide all the signs that you might be gay. There are all these ways in which you present yourself to try to mask that identity.”

When he became more comfortable discussing a past that included drug addiction and incarceration—even bringing it up in a lecture to students—Beasley said he was explicitly silenced. Administrators at the college told him the topic was inappropriate for the classroom.

Beasley also experienced challenges gaining membership to the American Psychological Association, which until last month asked applicants if they had a felony record.

Beasley first joined the APA as a student affiliate in 2008, but when he tried to apply for full membership in 2015, he encountered the felony question. Beasley said once he checked the box, he was asked to provide various documents such as a narrative statement and letter of recommendation. Instead, he backed away from the APA, minimizing its role in his career.

“It kind of hit me that that I was being asked to justify my existence in the association. I was being asked to justify that I wasn’t a threat,” Beasley said. “I was going to have to reach out to colleagues, talk about my past, talk about my experiences and talk them into writing letters of recommendation. And it was going to be this big, long, extended thing. I think even more importantly to me, I just decided that I wasn’t going to justify my existence and safety.”

After persistent lobbying, the APA dropped the felony question from the application in late February. According to the APA, 93.5 percent of members voted to remove the question.

Beyond membership in professional organizations, formerly incarcerated graduates also face licensure challenges. Given that requirements vary by state, licensure is essentially a bureaucratic maze they must work through. And concerns over licensure trickle down into admissions, Beasley said, citing graduate programs that screen formerly incarcerated applicants out of fear that they’ll be unable to get practicum placements or professional licenses, which would harm program success rates.

Hanna Stotland, an independent educational consultant from Chicago who has worked with formerly incarcerated students, notes that similar challenges exist at law schools, where administrators are wary of accepting applicants who may be ineligible to sit for the bar exam.

“The bar has not just an academic component, this standardized test that would-be lawyers need to take, but there’s also a character and fitness component,” Stotland said. “Typically, you need to pass the character and fitness component before you’re even allowed to sit for the academic or intellectual component. And every state does this differently, but they tend to be extremely searching. I compare them to a kind of lifestyle colonoscopy.”

Creating a Welcoming Environment

According to a 2018 report from the Prison Policy Initiative, fewer than 5 percent of formerly incarcerated individuals go on to earn a bachelor’s degree. The same study notes that this disparity exists even as educational demands for employment are rising in the U.S., adding further economic pressure on formerly incarcerated workers and leaving them stuck in low-wage jobs.

The question of criminal history in higher education is a common one, appearing on applications for colleges, professional memberships, licensure and beyond. But a “ban the box” movement has made progress in getting institutions to drop questions about criminal history, with numerous colleges doing so. Likewise, the Common App dropped the criminal history question from its portal in 2018.

For colleges that do continue to ask the question, Stotland said it’s important to emphasize that applicants will not be denied for how they answer, noting that the question itself is often a barrier. Many prospective students forgo applications rather than answer the question, she notes.

She adds that colleges shouldn’t be afraid to admit formerly incarcerated students, arguing that their experience as someone within the criminal justice system brings a valuable perspective to many conversations.

“The U.S. has the largest prison and postprison population in the world,” Stotland said. “We need professionals in all of these fields, who can serve them, who can understand them, who can guide government policy, especially in fields like medicine, law and sociology.”

Beasley, who now advises formerly incarcerated students, said that creating a welcoming environment for such scholars is something colleges already have the framework for; it’s just a matter of extending the work around diversity initiatives to another student population.

He also notes that “incarceration is often the intersection of multiple marginalities converging on one another,” meaning students may also be low income, first generation or minorities in some way. In the absence of a clear road map for such students, Beasley said it’s important to create one.

“Navigators are critical,” Beasley said. “Some people may have been locked up or institutionalized for a long time. We’re often first generation and don’t understand the process or may feel discouraged with processes, so having somebody there as a welcoming person that will help walk you through the process can be really critical.”

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