Perpetuating Mass Incarceration at New York University: An Update From The Abolish THE BOX Campaign @ NYU

For the past 24 months the Incarceration to Education Coalition has organized to Abolish THE BOX at NYU. NYU’s response to our efforts has been shrouded in secrecy as it pushed for control of our campaign. With this kind of administrative manipulation THE BOX will never actually be addressed. Without an abolitionist framework, any effort to reform THE BOX simply legitimizes it and protects the ability of the institution to enact administrative violence. As a matter of fact, NYU’s reformist approach to addressing THE BOX perpetuates administrative violence.

In the past two years, through dialogue with senior level administrators and governing bodies at NYU, as well as through our comprehensive writings on this topic, we have provided empirical evidence to deconstruct the myth that people with documented criminal records are threats to campus safety. In fact, research suggests that admitting students with documented criminal records drastically reduces recidivism. “Of the 700,000 people released each year, 43.3% will return to prison within three years of release; this rate drops dramatically with access to higher education: 13.7% for individuals who earn an Associates degree, 5.6% for individuals who earn a Baccalaureate and less than 1% for individuals who earn a Masters degree will recidivate (Education from the Inside Out Coalition).” Equitable access to education promotes public/campus safety, strengthening individuals’ abilities to contribute to society, and empowering communities directly impacted by mass incarceration. Furthermore, an analysis of the actual evidence reveals that crimes committed on campus are more likely to involve students who have no criminal records than students with criminal records.

Racist policies such as THE BOX only serve to further institutionalize the criminalization of poor black and brown communities while privileging white middle and upper class communities. Safety in this context has no foundation to stand on–historically or empirically; safety is a stand-in for white middle and upper class anxieties, a violent act of exclusion, and a tentacle of the criminal punishment system. This notion of safety is not a valid argument nor an ethical stance to maintain a BOX that perpetuates harm.

Our initial engagement with the university began when we presented a letter of recommendations for equitable admissions at NYU to senior level administrators, including President John Sexton and Vice Chancellor of Admissions, Linda Mills. After we delivered our recommendations, NYU took the following actions over the next seven months, in an attempt to control our campaign:

  • Two Deans were assigned to meet with us as administrative contacts. Although having point people may appear to be a generous or collaborative gesture, once the Deans were assigned to our campaign we began to experience quite the opposite. Each time we reach out to administrators at NYU to discuss the importance of Abolishing THE BOX and the ways in which NYU might better address mass incarceration, we are told that Deans Glied and Wofford are the only people we can talk to about this issue. Their efforts to control who we meet with and how we develop our campaign at NYU–as NYU students, alumni and community members–are silencing and authoritarian.
  • Despite our organizing efforts being absolutely fundamental in bringing  THE BOX  to the attention of the NYU Board of Trustees, IEC was totally excluded from the meeting at which the Board addressed our work. This practice is not only atypical at NYU, but further illustrates how our campaign has been deliberately co-opted. We were not notified that the issue was even going to the Board until after the Board’s recommendations were reflected upon and processed by NYU’s administration. The secrecy of this process irresponsibly ignored the importance of a public conversation about THE BOX, a conversation that should have engaged the NYU community and included the directly impacted people who have been spearheading this campaign from the beginning.

NYU must take responsibility for the manner in which it perpetuates a system of mass criminalization, racial discrimination and educational inequity through the presence of THE BOX. However, in response to the organizing efforts of the Incarceration to Education Coalition, university officials have drafted the following statement to be published on NYU’s website:

NYU understands that there are many who harbor deep concerns about whether our justice system fairly and equitably serves all members of our society. At the same time, NYU must be able to make judgments regarding the safety and welfare of our University community.

NYU is one of 500 colleges that uses the Common Application, which asks students if they have been convicted of a crime.

We do not automatically deny admission to those with a criminal record. At NYU, we believe in second chances, and we review candidates for admission holistically, trying [to] understand the whole person, and his or her circumstances.

First of all: what is up with your horrid gendered language, NYU? “His or her circumstances?” Transphobia, homophobia, and gender discrimination are inextricably linked to criminalization.

Second of all: our indictment of the “criminal justice system” is not based on “deep concerns” but rather on knowledge, lived experience, and a prioritization of Human Justice. We are not “deeply concerned;” we are furious. NYU’s statement is nothing more than an attempt to normalize the presence of THE BOX and reproduce its  institutional violence. It in the face of an overwhelming body of evidence that proves time and time again that THE BOX is in no way related to or indicative of campus safety.

Whether or not NYU automatically denies admissions to “those with a criminal record” is not an indication of fairness. The practice of gathering this data is itself oppressive. THE BOX sends the message that people with a “criminal record” should be monitored by educational institutions, and legitimizes their ongoing surveillance and criminalization.

Although NYU officials have tried to control our ability to mobilize at NYU and refused to incorporate any of our research on this issue, they have simultaneously requested our support and endorsement of all policies they have considered adopting in response to this issue. Most recently, NYU made three changes to their admissions policy, outlined in a meeting between IEC and NYU administrators on February 20th. NYU’s changes are the following:

We will seek to structure a process to examine all applications without regard to whether the box is checked.

After preliminary admissions decisions are made without regard to the checkbox — but prior to send[ing] out admissions notifications — we will determine who among the group of accepted applicants checked THE BOX.

We will form a special group of professionals within the admissions office that will receive training in performing non-biased assessments about whether a criminal record warrants rejection; they will read the files of those candidates who have been preliminarily admitted and have checked THE BOX and make a final admissions determination. (Official Statement from NYU)

IEC rejected NYU’s request to support these steps, which instead of addressing educational inequity, institutionalizes it further. There is no version of THE BOX that does not criminalize and dehumanize through categorization.

Lastly, we recommend that researchers, policy analysts and community organizations assert abolition within their recommendations for educational equity. More and more institutions will seek to reform their relationship to mass incarceration as the movement for justice continues. We must make it impossible for them to integrate, co-opt and water-down our knowledge and organizing efforts without actualizing our demands.

As Audre Lorde said in 1984 when tokenized by white feminists at an NYU conference, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” We must learn to think outside THE BOX.