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Report Details Challenges and Successes of Individuals with Criminal Histories Pursuing Higher Education

A Rare Look at the Barriers to Education Encountered by the Formerly Incarcerated

New York, November 7, 2013 – The Prisoner Reentry Institute (PRI) at John Jay College of Criminal Justice released a report today, titled Higher Education and Reentry: The Gifts They Bring, based on a Participatory Action Research study conducted by Michelle Fine, Alexis Halkovic (CUNY Graduate Center) and a team of research assistants. The report explores the lived experiences of people with criminal justice histories as they attend and contemplate enrolling in college.

People are coming home from prison in record numbers, and access to education upon return is one of the few clear roads to a more successful reentry. Research has established the value of education, and particularly higher education, as a key to lower recidivism and higher social mobility contributing to enhanced earnings, increased civic engagement, and stronger families. A major review of research conducted by the Rand Corporation found that inmates who participate in correctional education programs have a 43 percent lower rate of returning to prison than those who do not. They also found that a 13 percent increase in employment rates among prisoners who participated in academic or vocational programs and those who did not.

This report highlights the journeys of students with criminal history records and considers a number of important questions: What does it take for people with criminal justice histories to successfully transform the trajectory of their lives? What are the obstacles they face? What affirmative steps can we take to make our public and private colleges and universities more welcoming to this growing population of students?

“We believe that there is a great deal to learn from asking directly affected people about their experience. This is why we launched the series Reentry Research in the First Person.” said Ann Jacobs, Director of the Prisoner Reentry Institute.

The Gifts They Bring focuses on areas where students found encouragement and support as well as the factors that discouraged and, in some cases, blocked their transitions to college. Important findings of the report include:


  • Students confront a variety of structural, policy and programmatic obstacles to accessing higher education.
  • Connections to non-profit organizations and supportive faculty and learning environment can increase the likelihood of success in college for students with criminal justice histories.
  • These students bring gifts to the classroom through their enthusiasm to learn, desire to give back to society, diverse personal experiences and a determination to transform their lives.

One formerly incarcerated college student interviewed for the study described the extra hurdles he faced in the admissions process after disclosing his criminal justice history: “They called it an interview, but it felt more like an interrogation than an interview.… They wanted detail, and I didn’t know what kind of detail. I felt like it was a parole hearing—like it was an interrogation.”

The Gifts They Bring offers a rare glimpse into the experiences of people directly affected by the criminal justice system. This research has implications for progressive change both within the higher education community and the criminal justice system; implications that can help formerly incarcerated students reach their potential, colleges and universities improve diversity on campus and create safer communities.

The report is available for download here


About the Prisoner Reentry Institute: The mission of the Prisoner Reentry Institute (PRI) at John Jay College of Criminal Justice is to spur innovation and improve practice in the field of reentry by advancing knowledge; translating research into effective policy and service delivery; and fostering effective partnerships between criminal justice and non-criminal justice disciplines. To learn more about the institute, visit website.

About John Jay College of Criminal Justice: An international leader in educating for justice, John Jay College of Criminal Justice of The City University of New York offers a rich liberal arts and professional studies curriculum to upwards of 15,000 undergraduate and graduate students from more than 135 nations. In teaching, scholarship and research, the College approaches justice as an applied art and science in service to society and as an ongoing conversation about fundamental human desires for fairness, equality and the rule of law. For more information, visit www.jjay.cuny.edu.