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The prison credential dilemma

College Inside
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A biweekly newsletter about the future of postsecondary education in prisons. By Charlotte West.

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Welcome to College Inside, a newsletter about the future of postsecondary education in prisons. I’m Charlotte West, a national reporter for Open Campus.


Terrance Simon

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t

Since Terrance Simon got out of the Louisiana State Penitentiary last year, he’s mentally prepared himself for the fact that his record might mean he doesn’t get the job when talking to prospective employers. “I go into a job interview with the mindset that they’re going to know, and they’re going to tell me no because of it,” he said. “That’s the worst case scenario.” 

Simon is always honest about his conviction – but only if interviewers ask. “I don’t lie,” he said, “But I won’t tell you the truth if I don’t have a reason to. If I see someone hinting at the possibility that I have any criminal record, I’m gonna be forthcoming with it, and give it all to you.”

He explains why he went to prison, but also what he’s done since then. “Yes, I’ve been to jail but this is who I became because of it,” he said. “I don’t want to just leave you with the fact that I’m a convicted felon, and leave you restin’ on your own assumptions.”

In Simon’s case, he was hired as a reentry specialist at the Louisiana Parole Project, a nonprofit in Baton Rouge, precisely because of his background. But that’s not the case for everyone who has been to prison.

New research out of Cornell University looks at the conundrum that many formerly incarcerated job seekers like Simon face, which sociologist Sadé Lindsay calls “the prison credential dilemma.” They have to decide whether to share the job training and educational certificates they did in prison – or not. 

“Credentials acquired in prison may not be perceived by others as purely positive qualifications,” said Lindsay, who is a postdoctoral associate in policy analysis and management at Cornell. 

In her research, Lindsay found that formerly incarcerated people often have little insight into employers’ perceptions of prison credentials, which can include GEDs, college degrees, industry-recognized programs, and vocational certificates. That is what makes navigating the labor market so difficult for this population, she said. 

“Imagine trying to make an important decision with no information to work with,” she said. “For formerly incarcerated people, this lack of information about employers’ perceptions is even more costly.”

If formerly incarcerated job seekers don’t list relevant work and education experience acquired in prison, they may not have other qualifications that make them attractive as candidates. At the same time, employers might use prison credentials to screen formerly incarcerated people out of the applicant pool, Lindsay said. 

The study, “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t: How formerly incarcerated men navigate the labor market with prison credentials”, was published in Criminology in February. Lindsay interviewed 50 formerly incarcerated men in Ohio about how they used their prison credentials in their job searches.

The study draws heavily on existing research about racism, criminal records, and employment. “Black and Hispanic populations, regardless of a criminal record, face an immense number of barriers to employment due to historical structural racism and racial discrimination,” Lindsay said. 

In the article, Lindsay cites previous research that shows that white men with a felony are as likely to be called back by an employer as Black men without a felony record. 

“When thinking about prison credentials, they are supposed to signal job readiness, desistance from crime, and other positive qualities,” Lindsay said. “However, the very fact that Black and Hispanic returning citizens deal with racial discrimination in addition to criminal record discrimination means that prison credentials may not help them overcome these deeply ingrained stereotypes.”

Lindsay also looks at how the men did – or did not – share information about their prison credentials with prospective employers. Many listed degrees and other certifications they earned while incarcerated, but did not state where they earned them. 

Mark, one of the interviewees, assumed that employers wouldn’t see a degree earned inside as good as one earned on the outside. Another formerly incarcerated job applicant, Thomas, said of his resume, “What I’m putting on there is …‘Perryville College.’ I’m not saying ‘in prison’.”

Others said they’d talk about it when they had a chance to sit down with an employer face-to-face. “What it look like when you going to have a prison written down?” Nick said. “Nah, we’ll talk about that during the interview.”

Lindsay argues that the prison credential dilemma highlights the limitations of policy solutions such as ban the box, fair chance, criminal record expungement, and concealment laws. Even in places where employers are prohibited from doing background checks, criminal records can still come out through job applications and interview questions about employment and educational histories. 

“By focusing on ‘the box’ and formal background checks, we miss how prison credentials themselves can inadvertently work to maintain ‘the box’ throughout the job search process in these oft-overlooked ways,” Lindsay said. “Our solutions must account for these possibilities to see meaningful change.”

Lindsay will be giving a webinar on the prison credential dilemma on Thursday, April 14th at 12 pm EST. More information here

A second chance for a juvenile lifer

Within a few months of his release from what had been a lifetime imprisonment, Andrew Hundley, then 34, enrolled at Louisiana State University (LSU) and founded the Louisiana Parole Project, a nonprofit focused on advocacy and reentry for former juvenile lifers. Hundley, who’d been sentenced in 1997 at the age of 15, was released after serving 19 years in the Louisiana prison system due to the 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Montgomery v. Louisiana. 

Hundley has had the chance to start over, finish college, and start a family. But many of the men and women he works with through the Parole Project are older and entered the Louisiana prison system at a time when there were no educational opportunities, especially for lifers.

Last week, I sat down with Hundley at a cafe in New Orleans to discuss his journey from the Louisiana State Penitentiary to Louisiana State University. Read the full interview here

Q. Where does your story begin?

A. When I was 15 years old, I was arrested for second degree murder, and subsequently convicted and given a [mandatory] life without parole sentence. I went straight to an adult prison, and I was scared to death not only of my surroundings, but also at the prospect of spending the rest of my life in prison. Early on, I wanted to try to make my parents as proud of me as they could and relieve their anxiety about me being in prison.

Within months of being there, I was able to earn my GED. This was 1999-2000, there were no college courses that were offered within the prison.

About 10 years into my incarceration, there was a local community college that started offering basic college courses, one or two a semester. It was a pilot program and the prison administrators selected a handful of people who were able to participate.

Q. How did you end up getting out of prison so much earlier than expected?

A. So after the Montgomery decision in 2016, I was fortunate to be the first juvenile lifer in Louisiana to have a parole hearing. Not because I had served the most time, not because I was the most deserving, but because my family could afford to hire an attorney for me. 

I found out at 10:30 am on June 9, 2016 that I was getting out of prison. I woke up that morning, not thinking that I would be going home. And at 4:30 pm that same day, I walked out. 

My aspiration when I first came to prison was to come home before my parents died. To be frank, you may daydream about what ifs, but you never really think about it seriously. What reason did I have to believe that I would get out? I saw most lifers die in prison and the ones who did get out were very old. So this idea of I’m going to be 34 and I’m going to go to college, and I’m going to start a nonprofit and I’m going to start a family, those are things I never allowed myself to believe. I was going to be maybe 60 if I got out and 60-year-olds don’t start college, start nonprofits, and start families.

So I’m home. And I’m like, ‘Okay, what now?’ And I had this survivor’s guilt that I needed to do something with. 

Q. What did you do next?

A. Leaving Angola, I had a lot of guilt, because I was getting out based on Henry Montgomery’s Supreme Court decision and he was still there. And there were approximately 300 juvenile lifers in Louisiana at that time, about half of those had served more time than I had. Most of them were people of color. Coming out, while I felt like I was very deserving to get a second chance, I realized that I was no more deserving than so many other people. That was my motivation to help found the Parole Project. 

I came home in June of 2016. In August of 2016, we incorporated the Louisiana Parole Project with the state. That same month, I started at Baton Rouge Community College.

Q. How did the community college classes you took inside help prepare you for reentry?

A. The most compelling thing about my story as it relates to prison education is that even though I didn’t earn a degree while I was incarcerated, being able to earn those hours put me on a path to go to college.

It was such a great feeling to have them do my degree audit and to see on the transcript all the things that I’d already taken. I ended up getting my degree from LSU, after transferring, in three years. Then I went on to get a master’s degree. That all started with having an opportunity. If someone didn’t give me a head start, I don’t think I would have gotten as far as I did.

Read the full interview here. And congrats to Andrew who welcomed his daughter into the world this week!!

A lack of education for incarcerated students with disabilities

Recent lawsuits have drawn attention to the failure of some corrections departments to provide special education services to students incarcerated in both juvenile and adult facilities. Being able to complete secondary education and earn a high school diploma or GED is key to accessing higher education opportunities. 

In early March, a federal court found that students in New Jersey, who were not provided with special education services while incarcerated between 2015 and 2020, are eligible to receive up to $8,000 per year in “compensatory education” benefits, which allows them to make up missed instruction. Disability advocates said the landmark class-action settlement will reform special education in the state’s prisons, reported NJ Spotlight News.

The Washington Post also reported that a federal judge found the District of Columbia in contempt of court in February for failing to provide adequate special education to students with disabilities incarcerated at the D.C. jail. 

Elsewhere, Gale Grover, a juvenile court judge, held the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice in contempt of court in October 2021 for its treatment of a teenager who had not received education, substance abuse counseling, and prescribed medication, reported the Marshall Project. The teen was incarcerated at the Acadiana Center for Youth at St. Martinville, which opened in July 2021. (I highly recommend reading the full story about the harrowing conditions at St. Martinville.)

Resources & opportunities

PEN America is distributing 75,000 copies of The Sentences That Create Us, a book on writing behind bars. A free copy can be requested online at https://t.co/ST7zHTQawK, or by writing to: Prison Writing Program c/o PEN America, 588 Broadway Suite 303, New York, NY 10012.

The Alliance for Higher Education in Prison is seeking a new executive director, with a preference for someone with lived experience from being system impacted. Read the full job description here

UC Berkeley Underground Scholars: On The Tier podcast is producing a five-part series on featuring the stories of people who survived solitary confinement in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Here’s the latest episode, Pelican Bay SHU: Confidential Information and Merger Yards.

Let’s connect

Please connect if you have story ideas or just want to share your experience with prison education programs as a student or educator. Right now, I’m especially interested in speaking with anyone incarcerated at a facility without academic or vocational education beyond high school. I’m also looking for information on how prison education programs are accommodating students with disabilities

You can always reach me at charlotte@opencampusmedia.org on JPay/Securus/Connect Network/Corrlinks or on Twitter at @szarlotka

To reach me via snail mail, you can write to: Charlotte West, Open Campus Media, 2460 17th Avenue #1015, Santa Cruz, CA 95062. 

— Charlotte

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