Helping formerly incarcerated people get into respectable graduate programs in Criminology/Criminal Justice

Earning a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university in the United States is, in many respects, no small feat.

This is especially true if you are the first person in your family to go to college, are a single mother, a foster child, are of limited financial means, and were formerly incarcerated or have a criminal conviction.

Even more challenging is when people with criminal records want to enter a graduate program to pursue a masters or a Ph.D. in criminology or criminal justice. Most people in this position are poorly equipped to make this kind of leap. Among numerous concerns is that many of these individuals have unrealistic expectations and are often poorly prepared for what awaits them.

Fortunately, members of the Convict Criminology network, including those who are part of the American Society of Criminology’s Division of Convict Criminology (DCC), are frequently approached both by instructors who reach out to us on behalf of their formerly incarcerated students, or students themselves requesting our assistance regarding getting into an appropriate graduate school and identifying whom among our colleagues might be good mentors. Our response is that we are here to help.

Convict Criminology was established in the mid 1990s, by scholars (mainly those who had earned a Ph.D. or were on their way to completing one), who were previously incarcerated, justice impacted/involved, and those who shared our central goals. CC’s primary mission is to elevate the convict voice that was frequently ignored or marginalized in scholarly research and policy circles. We also wanted to assist convicts and exconvicts in a mentoring capacity, and to weigh in on public policy decisions concerning the field of corrections by engaging in activism or policy work.

In many respects, providing advice to formerly incarcerated students about how to prepare for a graduate program, which ones to choose from, and which professor/s to work with (and whom they might want to avoid), is no different than what we would advise our typical students at the places we teach.

But the path for formerly incarcerated students wishing to pursue a masters or a doctorate in criminology/criminal justice is a little more complicated. Formerly incarcerated students have more challenges including selecting graduate programs that are truly ex-convict friendly, and finding appropriate mentors in that program.

We point out that just because some universities or university systems no longer require prospective students to check a box indicating that they were either convicted of a crime or formerly incarcerated (part of the ban the box movement), doesn’t mean it’s a good place to start and complete a post-baccalaureate degree.

Similarly, even though an academic department mentions on their web site that they are inclusionary, promote social justice, and have professors who specialize in areas of study that align with the student’s major interests, does not necessarily mean that they are good places for a formerly-incarcerated person to get an appropriate graduate education.

Moreover, although a graduate program may be easy to get into, be relatively frictionless to receive instruction, of access, and “affordable, as with some for-profit universities, these options are frequently inappropriate educational institutions as places to study and earn ones masters or doctoral degree.

There are countless other issues to keep in mind. For example, some formerly incarcerated individuals decide to apply to graduate school some years after they earned their bachelor’s degree. Thus, they may not know any of the professors in the program from which they graduated. Alternatively, their degree may not be in the fields of criminology or criminal justice, and could very well have been a professional degree (e.g., law). Thus the academic field of criminology and criminal justice seems attractive, but untested for them. One of the questions formerly incarcerated people inevitably ask is how open they should be about their criminal past; should they disclose it, if so, when should they disclose, to whom should they disclose, and how should they disclose? Sometimes this decision is made for them in the application process where they are asked if they have any prior criminal convictions.

Because of our collective experience and our network, we generally know which universities, programs, and scholars are best suited for prospective formerly incarcerated graduate students. Not only do we suggest the person, but we often reach out to them, and sometimes make introductions.

One of the first questions we ask formerly incarcerated students interested in pursuing graduate school is why they want to make this kind of investment of resources? Many students, regardless of their background, have unrealistic ideas about the costs and benefits of a graduate school education. We also ask why they don’t want to do it at the place where they already earned their undergraduate degree. For some they want or need to spread their wings, including the possibility that the program from which they graduated/are graduating from may no longer serve them well, while others have alienated people at their home institution.

The CC network and the DCC believes in the power of mentorship. Thus, we help to put directly-impacted students in touch with supportive people in our network. We freely give our opinion(s) on respective programs, whom to work with, whom to avoid, and how to improve their chances of getting selected into a program, including whom to ask for letters of recommendation and what those letters should emphasize.

Graduate school, just like a bachelors can be a great experience for formerly incarcerated students. It may also be a pathway to open up more doors in terms of jobs and a career. This will insure that the person can put bread on the table, refrain from criminal activity, and create opportunities to engage in prosocial change.

Photo Credit: Alan Levine
Education is All
University of Manitoba