Student Group Fights For Equal Opportunity Admissions
Should a run-in with the law be a permanent burden for those who served time? The Incarceration to Education Coalition thinks not.
The IEC is a student-led group at NYU working to end discrimination against formerly incarcerated college applicants. Their current efforts center around pressuring NYU to abolish “the box,” a part of the application for admissions that asks the following two questions:
1) Have you ever been found responsible for a disciplinary violation at any educational institution you have attended from the 9th grade?
2) Have you ever been adjudicated guilty or convicted of a misdemeanor, felony, or other crime?
An applicant that checks “yes” in either box is requested to write a statement that explains the incident. The justification given by the administration is that such inquiries are necessary to keep the campus safe.
Citing the prejudice of the United States justice system, the IEC alleges that these questions perpetuate institutional racism. “Systems of policing and criminal punishment discriminate against and target people of color,” IEC member Gina Hong explained. Thus, relying on criminal records for information about an applicant is “an inherently discriminatory practice.”
The IEC sees “the box” as a manifestation of a larger problem: the lingering effects of criminal punishment and the institutional forces that prevent rehabilitation. High recidivism rates in the United States are, in part, due to the difficulty formerly incarcerated individuals face when they attempt to rejoin central aspects of society. Social institutions like universities can play a key role in providing opportunities for those with criminal records.
And criminal records aren’t exactly rare. The aggressive policing strategies of the United States have lead to a situation in which about one-in-four adults (65 million) have arrest or conviction records, according to the National Employment Law Project.
Organizers have approached similar problems from other angles as well. Across the country, many have begun campaigns to encourage states to pass “ban the box” legislation, initially designed to prevent employers from asking about criminal records. Many see questions such as these to be extensions of punishment far beyond an individual’s sentence. A letter from the IEC to the NYU administration reads: “By requiring formerly incarcerated students to justify and explain their desire to attend college within the context of their conviction, we have concluded that NYU is intentionally participating in the expansion of the criminal punishment system.”
Motions within the NYU community have shown some interest in reforming how the school understands and relates to the criminal punishment system. Early in March, the school announced the creation of a new program offering classes to inmates at Wallkill Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison in Hudson Valley. Gallatin professor Byronn Bain spoke to NYU Local, saying that the Prison Education Program will “offer an example of how a university can serve its community while advancing new models for education and citizenship.”
In a post supporting the announcement, the IEC noted that although the program will offer access to college education for dozens of incarcerated people, “other NYU policies and practices perpetuate the system of mass incarceration, prevent access to education, and discriminate against currently and formerly incarcerated applicants.”
Although most schools use the box on their applications, there is precedent for its ouster. The City University of New York (CUNY) does not use “the box.” In October 2014, three other New York colleges dropped inquiries into the criminal records of applicants.