John Jay studies the “narrative identities” of ex-felons

Accustomed to living quarters no larger than a bathroom cubicle and gleaning snatches of the real world through newspaper clippings, former inmates emerge from prison existentially disoriented and at a loss to perform even simple functions like swiping a MetroCard. The stigma of a criminal record, like a hovering rain cloud or forehead tattoo, bars the formerly incarcerated from work, higher education, and even interpersonal relationships unmarred by suspicion and distrust.

Researchers at the Prisoner Reentry Institute at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice are constructing “narrative identities” of those in its Prison to College Pipeline, or P2CP, pilot program to evaluate the effectiveness of offering for-credit, college-level coursework to inmates at Otisville Correctional Facility in Orange County.

Admitted participants must possess a high school diploma, pass a reading and writing assessment, and be due for release in five years or less. The pipeline helps to funnel former convicts into undergraduate, postgraduate, and doctoral degree programs upon completing their sentence.

Its cutting-edge component is the researchers who interview study participants to qualitatively map every phase of their reintegration, from housing to marginalization, family life, and the often wintry reception from admissions, faculty and other students at colleges and universities.

By treating former inmates as more than just a statistical conglomerate, and amassing first-person accounts of everything from interrogative college admissions interviews to the humiliation of a former inmate’s host family announcing, “This is Matthew, he just came out of prison” to an entire church congregation, the study feeds P2CP’s other efforts to help anticipate the needs of soon-to-be-released inmates.

A group of 10 researchers working closely with John Jay compiled the autobiographical findings into “Higher Education and Reentry: The Gifts They Bring,” billed “Reentry research in the first person.”

“This report offers a compelling story about the power of education for people with criminal records. They are trailblazers—another group of historically marginalized ‘others’ entering the academy,” the study authors write. This feedback is turned into reentry case plans for each participant, who is mentored by a case manager from the community.

Elements of the pilot include weekly academic coursework for college credit, biweekly workshops to teach the skills and behaviors needed to succeed in college and in life, and college placement guidance. Case studies are based on focus groups featuring snowball samples of prospective, enrolled, and former students with criminal records.

Leslie, last name omitted for privacy, was arrested for drug abuse before she graduated high school. Her story, visualized in her childlike crayon drawing published in “Higher Education in Reentry,” begins with a coffin symbolizing her father’s murder before she had even started grade school.

“You know—I came from a family of hustlers—including my dad and my mom,” her narrative reads. “No one in my immediate family believed in me or wanted to support me. My aunts were really negative: ‘You ain’t going to college. What you talking about college for?’ I guess it wasn’t realistic for them since no one on the maternal side of my family had ever gone to college. It was really tough.”

Community-based organizations such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Impact Services Corporation cater to at-risk groups with support services such as job placement, online tutoring or assistance with applications for college admission and financial aid.

Despite a rocky domestic life, with her daughter also grappling with drug addiction, Leslie attributes her post-prison success to these resources. “I always keep myself in a network… That’s a lit up support sign [in the map],” she says, indicating the beaming light bulb in her drawing. “Even though I’m going through a lot right now, I’ve still got a lot of support.” She has her bachelor’s degree in Forensic Psychology and is pursuing her master’s in Forensic Mental Health Counseling.

Multiple interviewees in the study cite renewed, even ferocious, vigor and determination to complete their education after being locked up. “I know the value of just walking down the street. I probably walk down the street in way that you just couldn’t imagine,” reads the narrative of another former inmate, Henry, who served 25 years from a crime he says he did not commit. “I know the value. I know the value of opening a refrigerator. When I go to school, I go to school. Everything I do—I believe is at another level from the average person.”

In a July interview with PBS, P2CP Founder Baz Dreisinger explained how the pipeline program capitalizes on this thirst. “Part of it is that you have been in an intellectual void for so long, that you’re hungry for this knowledge, and the other part of it is that the stakes are very high, as they see it.”

The paradigm of college as a fresh start and an opportunity to construct an all-new identity is even starker to the former inmate, whose enrollment is often hedged with conditions and restriction clauses including supervision requirements and restricted access to student services.

“Education represents life to me. It represents growth and development. It represents a free mind. It represents critical thinking—deep thought. It represents all the things that allow a person to make a good decision,” Henry’s narrative continues. The admissions process for a former felon can include convincing deans, campus security personnel, legal counsel, and mental health professionals, and providing supplementary documents and rigorous in-person interviews.

PRI plans to use this richly empirical research to push for higher college acceptance rates based on positive correlations between in-prison education, labor market potential and “safer, more robust communities.”

In a cost-benefit analysis conducted by the University of California at Los Angeles, researchers found that investment in education generates manifold returns. “A $1 million investment in incarceration will prevent about 350 crimes, while that same investment in education will prevent over 600 crimes. Correctional education is almost two times as effective as incarceration,” researchers state.

PRI hopes that the case study-based report could help inform policy, generate discussions with college administrators about the barriers presented during the admissions process, conversations with faculty and students about the effect of excluding students with criminal backgrounds, and create dialogue with professional organizations about barriers to eligibility for internships and professional training.

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