“We aren’t judged by the worst mistake we ever make."
March 2, 2015 4:37 PM   Subscribe

The country’s largest state university system says it doesn’t discriminate against former prison inmates. Applicants say otherwise.
Cadwallader had taken classes while behind bars in the Mt. McGregor Correctional Facility near Saratoga Springs, and hoped upon his release that a college degree would get him off the path that had taken him in and out of prisons for eight years.

When he checked the box on the New Paltz application owning up to his felony record, the demands began. The school wanted letters from the prison psychologist, the prison superintendent and his parole officer, and his full criminal record. Cadwallader replied that Mt. McGregor did not have a psychologist and that he never interacted with the superintendent. He submitted letters from his current psychologist, psychiatrist and parole officer, and braced for the screening committee. There, he says, he was grilled about his record — including arrests for misdemeanors and for charges that had been dismissed.
“They kept asking me about my rap sheet,” said Cadwallader. “It doesn’t tell my full story. Those things were done by a person that is no longer me.”
posted by holborne (33 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
The thornier issue, which nobody wants to mention: Even if he can get into college, and graduate with a degree, is there any realistic chance of him ever getting a job in his field? Most employers looking for professional and semi-professional positions won't consider anyone with a serious record, to say nothing of a new graduate with one.
posted by Mitrovarr at 5:19 PM on March 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


I think it's just the opposite: people with a criminal record are much better off in the job market if they have a degree. Nothing says "reformed" like a BA, and it seems that many employers at that level are much more tolerant, where employers of unskilled labor can afford to discriminate.

(Full disclosure: I run a college program in a prison.)
posted by anotherpanacea at 5:29 PM on March 2, 2015 [18 favorites]


That's not really a criterion that public universities use to admit people, though, Mitrovarr. New York admits and offers in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants, for instance, and they also have trouble finding jobs.

I feel pretty strongly that once people have served their sentence, they're done, and they should be treated like anyone else.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:32 PM on March 2, 2015 [4 favorites]


If you have served your sentence, and are willing to put up thousands of dollars (in tuition or loans) to get a college degree, colleges should be lining up to accept you.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 5:37 PM on March 2, 2015 [4 favorites]


Well, I'm not saying he shouldn't get into college. I'm just not sure it's a good idea for him to go. I'm also not sure how he'll afford it; I doubt he's eligable for any kind of financial aid, probably not even loans.
posted by Mitrovarr at 5:38 PM on March 2, 2015


Why wouldn't he be eligible for financial aid or loans? (Serious question, I don't get how this works.)
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 5:49 PM on March 2, 2015


What makes you say that, Mitrovarr? The federal government disagrees, although things can be a little complicated for people who were convicted of drug-related offenses while they were receiving federal financial aid. Even they can eventually get eligibility.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:52 PM on March 2, 2015


Is this a New York thing? I attended a community college, a state university, and a very prestigious private university (all in California). None of the application forms for those schools asked about a "felony record" or criminal history. Even ethnicity information is voluntary--especially after all the hubbub about quotas and such. I suspect this fellow checked a box in a "voluntary" section? That's never a good idea....
posted by CrowGoat at 5:53 PM on March 2, 2015


I think it's a post-Virginia-Tech thing. I work at a university, and we're apparently adding the question for the first time this year, which is disheartening.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:55 PM on March 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


I think it's a post-Virginia-Tech thing. I work at a university, and we're apparently adding the question for the first time this year, which is disheartening.

That makes no sense. Why would this be a reaction to that? Cho wasn't a parolee.
posted by asockpuppet at 6:13 PM on March 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


Even if he can get into college, and graduate with a degree, is there any realistic chance of him ever getting a job in his field?

Indeed. "[A] survey of hiring managers ... showed that among stigmatized job applicants—including welfare recipients, the short-term unemployed, individuals with only short-term and part-time work histories—applicants with criminal histories were the least likely to be hired."

However, having a criminal record is not actually the most stigmatized applicant group. An experimental study from the same researchers found that "White men with a [six-month] criminal record had more positive responses [i.e. callbacks for an interview or a job offer] than black men with no criminal record."

So, yes, former criminals are discriminated against, but a black man with a clean record still has worse employment prospects than a white man with a six-month prison record.
posted by jedicus at 6:14 PM on March 2, 2015 [5 favorites]


From the article:
The Common App — a standardized application process accepted by more than 500 schools — asks applicants whether they have been convicted of a misdemeanor or a felony. The question was added to the application in 2007, the year of the Virginia Tech massacre.

"It reflects the needs of the very diverse group of colleges who use the Common Application,” said the company’s spokesperson, Aba Blankson. “The application is about getting to know the student from different perspectives.”

Historically, high-profile campus crimes have often led to more stringent screening of present and prospective students — along with more hiring of security personnel and stricter reporting of incidents on campus.

posted by gingerest at 6:16 PM on March 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


(I am not saying I agree with this. I am just quoting the rationale to answer the questions "Why would this be a reaction to that?" and "Is this a New York thing?")
posted by gingerest at 6:18 PM on March 2, 2015


"Ban the Box" is a civil rights movement to ban the "do you have a criminal record?" check box on employment application forms, which has been gaining steam in the US. My state just passed "Ban the Box" legislation which forbids employers from using criminal history as part of their pre-screen; they can't ask about it until the interview or conditional offer stage.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:32 PM on March 2, 2015 [14 favorites]


My state just passed "Ban the Box" legislation which forbids employers from using criminal history as part of their pre-screen; they can't ask about it until the interview or conditional offer stage.

In Ontario at least, it's simply flat-out illegal to ask about criminal history at any time in the process, to the point where one of the restaurants on my resume--which was a place predicated on helping people divert from the justice system or get back on their feet after release; I was a regular employee--tends to elicit a "uh so you worked there ummmm how... that is to say... ummmm...." (usually I put them out of their misery and say "I know you can't ask; I was just an employee, got the job through X and Y who run Z event business.)

Employers can ask if you're bondable, so there is an end-run around that, but you're only not bondable in certain circumstances I think. So it doesn't become a blanket way to discriminate, and unless I've totally misunderstood, being bondable only covers offences that bear in some way on the job; one wouldn't be bondable heading into an accounting job with convictions for embezzlement on one's record, I think, whereas a conviction for pot possession wouldn't affect you. Some jobs do require background checks performed by local police--e.g., I was helping out a friend a few times with catering school lunches, and had to get TPS to say I was okay to be around kids. Even then, I think there's only a very narrow range of offences that would render one's background check as unacceptable for the school board.

I'm kinda disgusted that schools are even allowed to ask in any way at all about someone's criminal history. Even if we were to stipulate that they should be allowed to, they should only be allowed to ask about a narrow range of offences. E.g. there's probably a reasonable argument to be made that universities should be allowed to not enrol serial rapists as students, for profoundly obvious reasons.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 6:46 PM on March 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


FFFM: When the cops came to my Ontario HS to do their employment law spiel, they said that everyone should just say yes to "Are you bondable?" They said it's a trick employers use to try to get people to reveal convictions because people think if you're convicted you're not bondable. But it's perfectly legal to bond anyone, criminal record or not, and the fact that it might cost more to bond you does not mean that you are not bondable.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 6:51 PM on March 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


So this is probably an aside, but this is why I'm proud to work for a company that hires ex-offenders, and I can say with absolutely no hesitation that some of our hardest workers, and most dedicated, innovative people are of that group that would never even be looked at by most other employers.

Their loss. A person who has lost it all knows exactly what they have to gain from hard work and opportunities. Unfortunately, society does not reward them because we suck. We suck so hard.

In fact, I think someone who has gone through shit and (maybe) made poor decisions that is trying to better themselves is awesome. And if colleges actually gave a fucking thought about anything, they'd realize that they can spin this so positively as giving those who have paid their debt to society an opportunity that they want.

That's the god damn American dream right there.

But most people are insane so the exact opposite is done. Huzzah.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 6:59 PM on March 2, 2015 [11 favorites]


Here's another article on the problem. As though the way we treat actual incarcerated people in this country isn't shameful enough, we continue to make it impossible for them even once they're released from custody.

This topic gets me furious. It's directly contrary to everyone's benefit -- both the formerly incarcerated and society at large, not to mention children whose fathers can't get jobs and therefore can't help support them -- but most people are more interested in being morally outraged and punitive than they are in being sensible.
posted by holborne at 7:02 PM on March 2, 2015 [5 favorites]


I could grind an axe all day about generational poverty, the cycle of poverty and our pipeline to prison system... it's so not an abstract term, it is legitimately how our society is set up right now... ugh. Just doing my small part and being super angry when conversations like this come up because it feels like the problem is impossible.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 7:04 PM on March 2, 2015


LET ME EXPOUND FURTHER I AM IN A MOOD! I would go so far as to offer ex-offenders, as part of their release and rehabilitation, government funded opportunities to learn valuable job and trade skills. Resume writing, interview techniques, etc. in addition to actual trade skills in job areas that needed filling in their area.

This would require a dedicated government that #1 looked at jobs needed in their municipality #2 treated their charges with tough but fair respect (if you do not want this opportunity, fine, we tried) #3 was actually funded and respected by job providers. It is a culture change but I am positive that a strong government in one city in this country could begin this and show everyone.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 7:09 PM on March 2, 2015


If you have served your sentence, and are willing to put up thousands of dollars (in tuition or loans) to get a college degree, colleges should be lining up to accept you.

There's actually quite a bit more to it than that, though. If only it were that simple, from the institution's point of view.

Last year, the program I work for had an applicant who had served (and finished) a sentence for a violent crime that involved the death of an elderly woman. He self-disclosed in his application essay that he was a convicted felon and had served a prison term. Someone Googled him and found the details of his crime.

The program faculty were deeply divided on whether to admit him. Academically, there was nothing that made him an automatic No. I should mention that the field these faculty members are in is, in a lot of ways, inextricably linked with social justice issues both in research and in practice. Even still, even considering their personal political opinions -- which would trend heavily towards equal rights for convicted felons -- it was a really, really difficult decision for them, and there was a lot of debate and agonizing about it.

Ultimately, he was not admitted, and it was ultimately (but not officially) because anyone who Googled his name could find out about his crime. The admissions committee decided that admitting him was going to require resources we didn't have. (This is a faculty committee, by the way. It has no involvement from administration.) They decided that we didn't have the kind of resources he would need (and deserve) if his fellow students learned about his past and treated him differently because of it. They decided that we didn't have the kind of resources our other students would need if they learned about his past and felt threatened by his past involvement in a pretty gruesome crime. They decided that we didn't have the kind of resources (or ass-covering) that might be necessary if a particular faculty member felt uncomfortable serving as his advisor, or meeting with him one-on-one, alone, in one of their offices.

I'm not saying I agree or disagree with any of those reasons, because I myself have really mixed feelings about their decision not to admit him.

It's just not as simple, though, as "Here's an ex-felon with financial support! Let's admit him without any further reflection!" Maybe it should be, but it isn't.
posted by mudpuppie at 7:30 PM on March 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


I would go so far as to offer ex-offenders, as part of their release and rehabilitation, government funded opportunities to learn valuable job and trade skills.

Oh, and PS: I also think it totally sucks that people who serve their sentences have such limited opportunities and inevitable burdens once they transition back into a world where you've got to support yourself somehow. Despite whatever skills you may have, they're going to be set aside in deference to whatever bad things you may have done or MIGHT do in the future.

That is deeply, deeply unfair, and I don't know what the solution is.
posted by mudpuppie at 7:33 PM on March 2, 2015


My husband went to school with Robert Baltovich (for TWO YEARS, and didn't clue in who he was...until a week before the end of school). In retrospect, he realised that is why Baltovich got the plumb field placements - the employers (museums, archives, and the Government of Ontario) had to be vetted that they would be able to accommodate him. Thank goodness he was able to go to school and later work after serving eight years in prison; y'know, after it was discovered the lead detective falsified his notes when he discovered three days after the murder that the forensic evidence proved Baltovich couldn't have killed his girlfriend.

Too many other people have records because they didn't have the money for a good lawyer, or circumstances beyond their control, and keeping them in the "convicted ex-felon" box is really not healthy for them or society.
posted by saucysault at 7:41 PM on March 2, 2015 [6 favorites]


You know, I don't think there's some sort of societal consensus to deny ex-cons jobs, or think everyone hates them, or anything. The reason it's so hard for the to get jobs is mostly the terrible job market. Unless the ex-con was already solidly established in a fairly uncommon career, there are going to be tons of equally qualified applicants with no record for the same position. So why wouldn't you take one of them instead? It's the same pressure that has made college degrees mandatory for jobs that don't really need them. It might not be necessary, but if you can get it for the same price, why wouldn't you? And for a reasonable-paying professional position, you can essentially guarantee you'll be able to pull in people with bachelor's degrees and no records. Like, hundreds of them.
posted by Mitrovarr at 8:45 PM on March 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


That is deeply, deeply unfair, and I don't know what the solution is.

Neither do I, but surely part of the solution involves not acting in a deeply, deeply unfair manner and maybe allowing judges to sentence people for their crimes and allowing parole boards to review cases and decide who it seems reasonable to parole and not leaving extrajudicial punishment up college admissions boards.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 9:42 PM on March 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


You know, I don't think there's some sort of societal consensus to deny ex-cons jobs . . . .

You then go on to describe some forms of this societal consensus.
posted by landis at 10:23 PM on March 2, 2015 [8 favorites]


"The admissions committee decided that admitting him was going to require resources we didn't have. "

Well, it's not as if that excuse hasn't used before, I mean we've been basing unfair and discriminatory practice on that one since we invented language. It's still disgraceful, unfair and a terrible excuse. But the entire prison complex is one act of vile injustice after another so they're all starting to blur together into a screaming human face.
posted by nfalkner at 10:30 PM on March 2, 2015 [6 favorites]


This type of stuff is going to affect more people as automation makes many workers redundant. I'm hoping I live to see critical mass where enough people can't find a job that society is forced to provide a decent safety net. Pipe dream, I know.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 11:05 PM on March 2, 2015


more like social justnotus.
posted by effugas at 12:16 AM on March 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


You know, I don't think there's some sort of societal consensus to deny ex-cons jobs, or think everyone hates them, or anything. The reason it's so hard for the to get jobs is mostly the terrible job market.

If that's the case, then you probably have some statistics to show how much easier it was for ex-prisoners to obtain jobs.

I have been hearing literally all my life how difficult it is for someone to reintegrate into society and get anything other than the most menial or soul-destroying of jobs once there's a conviction on their record in the USA. Your economy has gone up and down a couple times in that period, and the only thing that changes when the economy is bad is that 'ease of getting a decent job' for an ex-convict changes from a baseline of 'hard as fuck and you're lucky to be at McDonalds' to 'basically impossible.'
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:00 AM on March 3, 2015 [3 favorites]


I wonder how this impacts with Title IX requirements. I know that, for example, if a college admitted a known rapist, I would certainly find that they failed in their duty to protect women on their campus. While I don't think banning everyone with a felony would be rational, I think particularly for sex-related crimes, a lengthy process is admirable and even necessary.
posted by corb at 12:38 PM on March 3, 2015


The admissions committee decided that admitting him was going to require resources we didn't have. . . They decided that we didn't have the kind of resources he would need (and deserve) if his fellow students learned about his past and treated him differently because of it.
Sounds like a perfect example of why these questions should not appear on applications. It's unrealistic to expect faculty and admissions officers to ignore information that is presented to them. And, it's unfair to require that committee members risk their own reputation advocating for people who answer those questions incorrectly in order to give them a fair hearing. This story demonstrates that there is no way to ask a student if they're a felon and then claim that you've treated them fairly. Once you've opened the envelope, it's too late to be objective.

It's possible for a committee composed entirely of people of good will to commit a serious injustice. The trick is to build institutional systems that make that less likely. Claiming things are "not simple" after someone's gone out of their way to create an unfair system may be entirely true for the individual people involved, but it misses the bigger picture. It could be simple: one could not ask the question in the first place, and judge applicants on their merits just like everyone else. (Well, in theory.)

Sorry, mudpuppie, if my comment comes across as particularly mean. I don't want to pick on you in particular. If I were on that committee, it's not at all clear I'd act differently. And, that's a very real problem.
posted by eotvos at 1:17 PM on March 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


I know that, for example, if a college admitted a known rapist, I would certainly find that they failed in their duty to protect women on their campus.

But the whole notion of a rehabilitative (correctional) prison system is that the "known rapist" who's been convicted and done his time is less dangerous than he was before he was imprisoned. The tension between a correctional and a punitive justice system of imprisonment is part of the problem. If the system is only intended to punish, then your argument holds - if it's intended to correct antisocial behavior, then the rest of society's constructs are obliged to recognize that having served the time means that the former prisoner is trustworthy to function in greater society again.
posted by gingerest at 4:26 PM on March 3, 2015


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