By Shawn McWeeney with Nadia K. Raza
Fall marks the return to higher education for approximately 17 million students across the country. This year, the federal government is investing in a demographic that has been disenfranchised, underserved and overlooked: currently and formerly incarcerated individuals.
Access to higher education is a profound right that supports societal progress, economic stability and vibrant communities.
It is estimated that 600,000 to 700,000 people return from state and federal prisons each year. In Oregon, 3,756 people return each year, and the single most effective rehabilitative service to prevent recidivism is access to education and employment.
I am one of those Oregonians who transformed my life with access to education while incarcerated. Yet my experience with education has not always been a good one. As a young person, ostracization, isolation and suspension characterized my time in schools. Granted, I was rough around the edges and obnoxious in class, yet punishment by isolation led to expulsion at 16. I was an example of the “school-to-prison pipeline,” locked up for 25 years at the age of 18.
Research consistently demonstrates that exclusionary disciplinary practices in schools, such as suspensions and expulsions, contribute to higher rates of “push out” and involvement in the criminal legal system. Punitive responses in schools do not effectively reduce or remedy harm.
Two years after being expelled, I was facing a life sentence. In the face of the unfathomable, I found resilience in education. Driven by a need to understand the events that led me there, reading for the first time, learning about the world outside myself, I began connecting the dots to my experience. Learning became pivotal to my ’habilitation. Kids can not be rehabilitated as they are not yet ’habilitated.
Unfortunately, as if there’s a good time to go to prison, I went in in the late ’90s, before access to federal Pell Grants was revoked in the 1994 Crime Bill. In the last two decades, as the prison population went up, funding for rehabilitative programming went down.
Still, I was so drawn to learning that, with the persistence that comes with long-term incarceration, I helped to create pathways for associate’s degrees in what became the Inside Program at Chemeketa Community College and bachelor’s degrees through the University of Oregon Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program.
With no access to state funding, I became one of the few to get an education while in prison in Oregon. I was fortunate to earn an undergraduate degree while still inside, and in July 2020, after finishing my 300-month sentence, I returned to society as a capable adult wanting to succeed and give back. This time, I took the prison-to-school pipeline as I entered into a graduate program and later graduated with a master’s degree in prevention science.
From Second Chance Pell Grants to Second Chance Employers
As of July, funding for incarcerated people and those with convictions history was restored through the Second Chance Pell Grant. The Second Chance Pell Pilot Program was established in 2015 by the Obama administration to study the recidivism of and the impact of access to higher education on people in prison. The experiment was a response to those tough on crime policies in the 1994 Crime Bill that stripped away access to rehabilitative services in federal prisons.
In April 2022, the U.S. Department of Education concluded that “providing education in prison is proven to reduce recidivism rates and is associated with higher employment rates, which will improve public safety and allow individuals to return home to their communities and contribute to society.”
A 2018 study by the RAND Corporation, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, found that incarcerated individuals who participated in correctional education were 48 percent less likely to return to prison within three years than incarcerated people who did not participate in any correctional education programs.
However, access to education is just one part of the solution. With educational opportunities for formerly incarcerated people, the next challenge is to address exclusionary hiring practices. In May 2023, Oregon had 122,000 job openings. The drastic workforce needs are in part the result of outdated policies that disqualify eligible skilled workers.
Jason, a formerly incarcerated low-voltage electrician, cannot get hired as an electrical maintenance installer because it is too customer-facing to go into people’s homes to install HVAC, media or security. He is “off paper,” no longer on probation or parole, yet still serving his — what, punishment? The bottom line is that he is not trusted because he at least once broke the law.
Another friend divulged his criminal history during three separate interviews to be hired at a large health insurance company. He was a great fit and the department wanted him, and despite his criminal conviction offered the hire. He told his friend and family, bought new clothes, and was genuinely excited by the opportunity of professional salaried employment. Then one person in human resources, acting on their own accord or perhaps according to company policy, rescinded the offer of employment.
Here is the critical question: When does someone’s sentence end? For people in the re-entry community there is a saying, “Do the crime and do the time, and do the time, and do the time and do the time.”
After people serve their sentence, they are still punished — all the while perpetuating the cycle.
The legislative progress in Oregon is shifting the landscape. The Second Chance Employers Bill provides a nominal tax credit to employers who hire qualified individuals with a criminal record.
In 2023 the Oregon Legislature passed Senate Bill 517, a reform measure, allowing a person with a criminal record to petition a licensing board, commission or agency for a review and determination if the conviction will prevent a person from receiving occupational or professional license. While this is a step in the right direction, navigating the bureaucratic process may pose a barrier.
Employers can take several steps to create fair hiring practices to reduce biases and stereotypes and ensure that all applicants are evaluated fairly. These steps can include individualized assessments that consider the nature of the offense, its relevance to the job, the time that has passed since the conviction and the individual’s rehabilitation efforts.
Agencies working to solve workforce needs in Oregon can and should collaborate with re-entry job placement programs like Opportunity Oregon and community organizations like Oregon Justice Network. These partnerships can provide access to a pool of qualified candidates, offer support and resources for successful reintegration, and help employers navigate any concerns or challenges.
Employers can also promote policy changes that remove barriers to employment for formerly incarcerated individuals. One such effort is SB 397, which reduces wait times for expungement eligibility and makes more people eligible.
Policy makers should revise the expungement and record sealing laws to make it easier for people with criminal records to have their records cleared. This can significantly improve a person’s chances of finding employment and reintegrating into society.
Last, policy makers can encourage employers to adopt fair chance hiring policies by providing resources, guidance and best practice examples. This can include promoting the benefits of hiring formerly incarcerated individuals such as the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, raising awareness of the legal obligations and protections in place, and offering support in implementing these policies.
Work to Be Done
We are faced with a significant problem as a result of the overuse of incarceration. A large population of individuals who have been incarcerated, often for non-violent offenses, faces a stigma that makes it extremely difficult for them to find employment, even if they have completed their sentences and are genuinely committed to turning their lives around.
Education plays a crucial role in the successful reintegration of those returning, both juvenile and adult. Education not only gives individuals the knowledge and skills necessary for employment, but it also fosters personal growth, self-confidence and a sense of purpose. By investing in the education of returning citizens, we can create a more just and inclusive society.
We must no longer systematically reduce people to the ascribed status of felon. We must see to it that people with conviction histories are truly — not just in word but in action — equal members of the community.