11 Ways You Can Support and Advocate For Formerly Incarcerated Students

Did you know that Americans collectively have as many criminal records as college diplomas?

Formerly incarcerated students are those who have been in prison or jail or have been under the supervision of the Department of Corrections. 

Sadly, researchers have found that formerly incarcerated individuals rarely get the chance to make up for the educational opportunities from which they’ve been systematically excluded — which harms their chances of becoming employed and living healthy lives once they regain their freedom.

Data from the National Former Prisoner Survey shows that approximately 33% of those in the general public attain a college degree in their lifetime, whereas the rate among formerly incarcerated Americans is less than 5 percent. Addressing this gap is key to lowering rates of recidivism and helping formerly incarcerated students find meaningful careers.

So, I consulted Dr. Matt Connell  — or as he’s known to his students, Dr. Matt. He’s the program director of Goodwin University’s Business Administration program and of the Entrepreneurial Network (ENet), a business mentoring program and 18-credit-certificate course for students who are formerly or currently incarcerated.

ENet recently graduated its first cohort of over a dozen students and is now in its second cohort. 

“This program created an avenue to generate alternative streams of income, and I am grateful for the opportunity to channel my energy constructively.” — Wilfredo, an ENet graduate

Read on as we dive into how Matt has thrived in his mission to uplift formerly incarcerated students in pursuing their dreams through entrepreneurship. Discover small and large ways you can make a difference for formerly incarcerated students on your campus.

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Education can be a gateway to social and economic mobility.

Matt’s not sure if his dedication to serving formerly incarcerated students is truly “advocacy.” His work is grounded more in his belief in second chances; he believes that no one deserves to have their entire life judged by their darkest moment. Having escaped criminal sentencing early on in his life, Matt has experienced first-hand how much luck and social privilege can influence whether or not someone serves time under the criminal justice system.

Having an incarceration on your record adds a tremendous amount of obstacles and challenges toward gaining meaningful employment and education. Matt believes that people grow from their mistakes and hates that society often does not allow them to move on. 

So, he decided to start ENet in order to directly address the challenges that formerly incarcerated students face. He’s seen first-hand that entrepreneurship is the most powerful way to take control over one’s financial autonomy. 

One graduate of ENet went on to start his own barbershop, others have enrolled in further education, one has started a nonprofit mentoring and workshop service, and another founded the Peace Center of Connecticut. So, Matt’s work has not only propelled formerly incarcerated students towards financial independence but has also inspired many to give back to their communities.

It’s no secret that formerly incarcerated students will face numerous challenges if and when they decide to return to formal education. As Matt puts it, “When you’re inside, your life stops and the world moves on with you.” 

So how can student affairs professionals and their campus colleagues help advocate for formerly incarcerated students?

Consider these options.

11 Tips

1. Technology education

Educate students on using the latest technology, especially Zoom and Microsoft Office. Keep in mind that some students may have never used a computer before, so have paper copies of admissions forms available and be ready to help students learn essential tech skills.

2. Technology access

Provide students with internet access, as many halfway houses do not have WiFi. Additionally, loan laptops or tablets to students who do not own any of their own. For resources to support students with their tech needs, the US Department of Education has provided tons of information on their website about grants, funds, and the CARES act.

3. Addressing readiness

Be prepared to have difficult conversations with students to decide if taking on education is the best choice at this time in their life. Overwhelming these students with stress may inadvertently lead to the same negative coping behaviors that lead to their incarceration(s).

4. Logistics

Create an emergency fund prepared to help students pay for childcare and transportation. Additionally, record all lectures and offer web conferences whenever possible so that students without reliable transportation can still attend. Communicate with parole and probation officers to make sure students can attend class and that, if they ever need to miss a session, they can make up the work.

5. Personal growth and mentorship

Host workshops on topics — such as anger management and financial literacy — that teach vital skills to formerly incarcerated students. Additionally, provide opportunities for students to learn from formerly incarcerated mentors or other community members who have worked with or advocated for incarcerated individuals.

6. Addressing food insecurity

Provide lunches and takeaway bags from the campus food pantry. Food insecurity can be a large source of stress and attrition for students who are faced to choose between attending class or working an extra shift to put food on the table.

7. Advocacy

Connect students with local nonprofits aimed at helping the formerly incarcerated navigate challenges such as securing housing and employment. Additionally, identity and connect students with campus resources, such as tutoring, mental health counseling, and career counseling.

8. Accessibility

Be mindful of invisible disabilities and potentially triggering situations specific to formerly incarcerated students. For example, individuals in prison have an estimated 13-24% lower rates of literacy compared to the general population. 

It is also estimated that 6% of male prisoners and 21% of female prisoners experience PTSD, so being enclosed within a small admissions or advising office may be triggering to some students. Ask permission before closing your door, be mindful of potentially triggering questions, and have information on accessibility and counseling services readily available.

9. Addressing housing insecurity

Formerly incarcerated individuals are nearly 10 times more likely to lack housing. Reconsider housing policies to be friendlier to those who have served time. Remove policies that bar students with criminal records and add flexible leasing terms for formerly incarcerated students seeking temporary housing as they save up and search for permanent homes.

10. Affordability

Share with formerly incarcerated students grants and scholarships they may apply for during the financial aid processes. Additionally, revisit any hiring restrictions that may prevent formerly incarcerated students from applying or being hired as student employees.

Thanks to a campaign called “Ban the Box,” 10 states have already mandated the removal of conviction history questions from job applications and 30 states have limited these questions on employment applications.

11. Continue your own education

Getting involved in advocating for formerly incarcerated students may seem intimidating at first, but it’s a worthwhile endeavor. Great educational resources for SApros include:

  • NASPA’s Formerly Incarcerated Students & System Impacted Families Knowledge Community: The community is committed to uplifting student affairs educators to learn, share, and collaborate on tactics and strategies in support of formerly incarcerated college students and their families. Anyone with a NASPA membership can join.
  • The Prison Policy Initiative provides the latest research and data on the outcomes of formerly incarcerated individuals. Educators can stay up to date on  graduation rates, unemployment rates, income trends, and more. The initiative also provides learning materials for educators who are looking to support formerly incarcerated students.

You can also read about other amazing programs that SApros have worked on to advocate for formerly incarcerated students —  such as Rutgers’ Mountainview Program, Wesleyan’s Center for Prison Education, and Yale’s Prison Education Initiative.

ENet has seen great success so far, and Matt has visions of accomplishing so much more.

Matt’s dream is to expand ENet across Connecticut and eventually the entire country.

Additionally, he would like to:

  • Support social justice efforts to address the racial inequities in the criminal justice system.
  • Expand ENet to work with more nonprofits as a solution to a variety of social issues, such as homelessness and domestic violence.
  • Receive referrals from the Department of Corrections to start the ENet program earlier in a person’s incarceration.
  • Provide greater support for students who do not meet the readiness standards for college English or math.
  • Build ENet to offer courses in psychology, machining, sociology, and more.
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I hope that reading about Dr. Connell’s experiences and suggestions has inspired you to start or continue advocating for formerly incarcerated students on your campus.

Although individual colleges and universities may not be able to directly change racial disparities embedded within the criminal justice system, by providing educational opportunities to those affected by the system, they can reduce recidivism for this population and support students in achieving their dreams.

For more ways to support students with access barriers to higher education, check out 8 Ways You Can Help First-Generation Students Access Cultural Capital.

What great advocacy programs for formerly incarcerated students are happening at your institution? Connect with us on Twitter @themoderncampus.

Special thank you and shout out to Dr. Matt Connell for letting me interview him for this piece! Matt is truly an inspiration in his passion for working with students and encouraging entrepreneurship no matter the circumstances of one’s life.

Corinna Kraemer

About the author: Corinna Kraemer (she/her) works in ed tech and loves painting, running, and hanging out with her cat, Mr. K. She hopes her posts will finally help her dad understand what her career in student affairs is all about. Learn how we can help get your students involved.