Fighting for Public Higher Education in the Shadow of Criminal Justice Reform

To dismantle the world’s largest prison population, we must ensure educational access for all.
By Timothy Barnett and Erica R. Meiners

On April 3, 2016, after ten months without a state budget in Illinois, a classroom at Northeastern Illinois University was packed for a debate on prison reform in Illinois and the nation. At the table were three undergraduate alumni with influential positions, wide constituencies, and graduate degrees: Floyd Stanton, special assistant to Cook County Commissioner Toni Preckwinkle; Eddie Bocanegra, a founder of FORCE (Fighting to Overcome Records and Create Equality) and respected restorative justice leader; and Ashor Jajou, a social worker who works with young people with criminal records. Long before this day, the three had also spent several decades in Illinois prisons.

Their audience—first-generation students, immigrants, returning adults, students of color, the working poor, the formerly incarcerated—asked hard questions about the reality of our carceral, or punishing, state. How can we secure jobs for people with criminal records when few jobs exist for poor people of color without records? Will this wave of prison reform really change things for us? Is higher education the viable alternative to prison that so many claim? How did you make it? These are critical questions, yet this panel, with its setting at a four-year public university, also highlighted a key contradiction: While some on the right and left dive into prison reform and abolition movements (movements that admittedly have chilled under the new federal administration), public higher education for the working poor continues to be whittled down, restructured, and starved. We think the problem here should be clear: prison reform and mobilizations toward abolition cannot succeed without accessible and relevant and free public education.

Justice Reform Without Public Education?

Under the Obama administration, slices of prison reform were on the table. Obama was the first sitting president to visit a federal correctional facility, and his administration extended eligibility for Pell Grants to thousands of people in over one hundred prisons. Proposed legislation such as the 2015 Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act aimed to curb some mandatory minimum sentencing (although it would have augmented others, including for domestic violence convictions) and to support services for those exiting prison. While the current attorney general, Jeff Sessions, appears determined to reverse any progressive momentum, grassroots movements continue to highlight the violence of our carceral state.

In Illinois and a number of other states, including New York and Florida, reform initiatives are under way. Former Democratic governor Pat Quinn shuttered a number of correctional facilities, including the state’s supermax prison, between 2012 and 2014, and current Republican governor Bruce Rauner established the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform to reduce the prison population by 25 percent. In a 2016 editorial he coauthored with Democratic state senator Kwame Raoul, Governor Rauner called the Illinois prison system “overcrowded and expensive” and “an ineffective tool for controlling crime.”

Public higher education is at another crossroads in the United States. In Illinois, while committing time and resources to prison reform, Governor Rauner has been deeply hostile to public education. Before becoming governor he wrote that half of Chicago public school teachers were “virtually illiterate.” In early 2016, he complained that funding institutions like Chicago State University, NEIU’s sister school serving a primarily black population on Chicago’s South Side, was akin to “throwing money down the toilet.” In 2015–16, the governor denied funding for all public universities, student Monetary Award Program grants, and social services for ten months before imminent shutdowns forced the state to provide meager funds. In July 2017, after almost two years without a budget, and under the threat that the state’s credit rating would be downgraded to “junk” status, the Illinois state legislature overrode Governor Rauner’s veto to pass a budget that included cuts for public universities, along with increased university responsibility for pension expenses. (The 2016 budget year for public universities in Illinois is considered a “lost” year by many, as universities ended up receiving almost no state funding that year.)

CSU came within days of closing during spring 2016 because of Illinois’s budget crisis, but eleventh-hour funding kept it open and forced the university to lay off “only” about a third of its workers, tenure-line and non-tenure-track faculty included. Downstate universities such as Eastern Illinois and Western Illinois University, which serve large numbers of working-class and immigrant students, have laid off 250–350 workers each, while NEIU laid off 120 staff members this past summer—in spite of the fact that a budget had been approved. Furloughs, pay cuts, and other financial hardships continue to loom over all of Illinois’s public universities. Students and faculty are leaving Illinois because of the uncertainty while programs are being trimmed, questioned, and cut, especially those framed as “impractical,” such as philosophy, gender studies, and Latinx studies. While some have viewed the budget standoff as a temporary battle whose conclusion would bring back the status quo, many fear this precarious situation is the new normal. As a result, institutions increasingly prioritize their bottom lines, and serving students’ and faculties’ needs—including working for justice—becomes unsustainable.

With Rauner at the helm, Illinois is part of a national movement of states, including Wisconsin and Louisiana, seeking to diminish and control public higher education. Urban universities and those serving the working poor, particularly people of color, are especially in trouble.

Yet sentencing reform and shuttering prisons will not do enough to reduce the state’s prison population or our investments in criminalization. Public colleges and universities, particularly those that serve the working poor, offer opportunities for learning, critical reflection and professional training, and, as crucial as these individual opportunities are, these institutions are also capable of engendering collective cultural transformation. These spaces can support the development of new organizations and analysis, precisely because they engage smart, active students whose lives are directly affected by our current criminal legal system.

 Yes, leadership often emerges without academic credentials, but access to meaningful educational opportunities can support leadership development. And keeping postsecondary education accessible to those directly affected by our “prison nation,” to use a term created by activist scholar Beth Richie, ensures that public education stays tethered to liberatory movements for racial, economic, and gender justice. Students who live in overpoliced communities, or negotiate visits to a loved one who is locked up, in addition to those with lived experience inside such as Ashor, Eddie, and Floyd, can help to ensure that the knowledge produced within university and college classrooms is critical, relevant, and engaged.

However, while starving or eliminating public urban colleges and universities limits the possibility of building meaningful antiprison movements, institutions of higher education must do more than simply provide access. Just ask Lorraine J., a forty-year-old nursing student and single parent in Chicago. Lorraine has a record and works full time providing home health care while also attending Malcolm X Community College full time. She struggles to balance work, her studies, and parenting but has her sights set on a career in nursing.

Lorraine faced an early challenge; she needed a nursing school that would admit students with a criminal record—according to a recent study by the Center for Community Alternatives, 66 percent of all colleges and universities ask about records in the admissions process. While a dedicated faculty member at her community college helped her find one, the college also insisted she sign a statement acknowledging that the state might deny her a nursing license because of her record. Lorraine could complete her education (and, therefore, assure the institution of tuition money) but ultimately be denied the career for which she had trained. Decisions such as the one Lorraine’s nursing school made are unsurprising in the corporate and cautious landscape of postsecondary education, yet they implicate the institution in a wider carceral landscape. Access is not enough. Movements to remove these licensure barriers would be significantly more powerful with the backing of postsecondary institutions. Why not advocate for the student, rather than be a gatekeeper for the state?

To further complicate matters, public universities, fearful of taking a stance, rarely acknowledge their histories of serving students affected by the criminal legal system. Regional and urban universities, already marginalized, often want to move up the ladder in an educational system modeled on the corporate one. And for many, such movement does not involve working in significant and visible ways with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students, especially if their goals include attracting “traditional-aged” and middle-class students—where the money is. The national movement to “ban the box”—to prohibit questions about an applicant’s criminal history—in college and university admissions and employment has not yet garnered widespread support from public-sector postsecondary leadership. The recent controversy around Michelle Johnson, the PhD program applicant Harvard rejected because she “downplayed” her criminal history (Johnson is attending New York University instead), highlights the desire universities have to identify and control their student bodies, especially those “bodies” that might bring them controversy (and drive away donor dollars).

This dynamic—universities’ urge to be more “elite” and their failure to make visible or to create mechanisms that may support people with criminal records—also means that universities, wittingly or not, continue our nation’s assault on communities of color, African Americans in particular. Courting middle-class students who have a greater ability to pay rising tuition costs and “just happen” to be mostly white can camouflage embedded forms of racism that suggest that the currently and formerly incarcerated deserve to be ignored because they are lawbreakers. By pretending that the racial and economic status of these (disproportionately poor and non-white) students is inconsequential, racism becomes “inconsequential” as well for universities and others.

Histories of Resistance

In spite of these structural blocks and entrenched inequalities, some higher education institutions that serve the working poor have a strong history of engaging with people caught up in our prison nation. Illinois’s Lake Land College has provided access to education in some Illinois prisons for decades, even as its resources have been threatened. Rather than promoting redemptive or heroic narratives—the homeless young woman who made it to Yale University!—programs and initiatives at public institutions, even temporary or ad hoc ones, can illuminate important historical examples that have been whitewashed by or erased by wider postsecondary narratives.  

One such erased history of the intersections between public education and movements to challenge incarceration and support the people it affects can be found at our institution. Throughout the late 1970s and ’80s, Northeastern Illinois University’s Center for Inner City Studies (now the Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies, or CCICS) supported jailhouse lawyers, created opportunities for the formerly incarcerated, incubated radical black student organizations that monitored and pushed back on prisons and policing, and offered for-credit classes at the Cook County Jail. In the 1980s, students in prison enrolled in and successfully completed the University Without Walls Program and earned undergraduate degrees. In the 1990s, NEIU’s women’s studies department (the first such program in the state) developed a free library and anti-violence programs at the women’s division of the Cook County Jail. In 2001, faculty helped establish the first free alternative high school for the formerly incarcerated in Chicago: St. Leonard’s Adult High School, since renamed Sister Jean Hughes Adult High School in honor of one of its founders. The faculty roster at NEIU always includes community-based movement leaders, including Puerto Rican independence movement leader Jose Lopez, instrumental member and former head of the African American Police League Pat Hill, former Conservative Vice Lord Nation leader Benneth Lee, and others. And NEIU’s admissions application, unlike those of almost all the other universities in Chicago, does not ask about criminal records.

Even as budgets for photocopying and janitorial staff disappear, our justice studies department houses Stateville Speaks, a newsletter written in large part by and for people who are incarcerated, while the College of Education hosts and supports the Prison and Neighborhood Arts Project (P+NAP), a grassroots consortium (to which we both belong) that offers college-level arts, humanities, and social science classes in Stateville Prison. Two years ago, students started the group FIST (Formerly Incarcerated Students Together). Last March, NEIU’s Justice Studies Club and FIST organized a follow-up to the 2016 panel featuring Ashor, Eddie, and Floyd, which evolved into a full day of “Reflection on Mass Incarceration” with fourteen panels and roundtables and hundreds of participants. Finally, NEIU’s University Without Walls Program, in conjunction with P+NAP, began offering degree-granting opportunities for the first time in over twenty years this fall.

These initiatives did not always run smoothly, and they were not always immediately successful. Yet this short history suggests that many faculty, staff, and students at NEIU and similar institutions know, through firsthand experience as well as research, that the criminal legal system harms communities, and many are at the forefront of building support and resistance to our punitive prison nation. As there is a critical mass of a wide range of people doing various pieces of the work, without resources or fanfare, missionary zeal—of the knowledgeable and “blessed” (and generally whiter) few seeking to help the less fortunate—is less possible and therefore less prevalent at NEIU.

Many urban public universities and colleges across the US are doing similar work. Yet these programs and histories are rarely archived, lauded, or funded. While NYU’s acceptance of Michelle Johnson is national news, the routineness of graduating exceptional students such as Ashor and Eddie from community and regional four-year colleges across the US is not. In an environment where most students are a paycheck away from homelessness, where resources are thin and competition is fierce, to be formerly incarcerated (or to have a family member locked up) can be something students do not want to announce or address.

Claiming these linkages to our carceral state can create power, however. Take Ashor, from our panel. He came to NEIU seven years ago while waiting for trial and hoping his enrollment at the university would show “good faith” to his judge; he was skeptical about the benefits college held for him and about his ability to be an academic. The working-class attitudes and complex stories of students and faculty resonated with him, however. He was exposed to historical and cultural analysis that helped him understand his experience as an Iraqi immigrant whose American dream was tangled up in racism, colonialism, classism, and gang life. A natural politician, with skills honed in his early gang days, he became student body president, an honors student, and an activist. FIST was his brainchild and represented his need to connect where he had been with his life as a student. Denying where he had come from offered little opportunity for fighting against the tentacles of the prison regime, and Ashor was interested in fighting; the university, in turn, had given him some new tools with which to fight. After graduating from NEIU, he earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Illinois at Chicago and dedicated himself to working with youth and dismantling the carceral state.

Another member of our panel, Eddie, is currently studying for his PhD at the University of Chicago and was a central figure in the groundbreaking film The Interruptors, while Floyd is cofounder of the Alumni Association, which supports the formerly incarcerated, and has testified before the Illinois General Assembly on several bills related to incarceration. And current students continue the work: Colette Payne, a student enrolled at NEIU in 2017, is a leader and a community organizer with Cabrini Green Legal Aid/Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers. We could go on.

Our point, however, is simple. Public colleges and universities, especially in urban areas, have historically served those who manage to survive decades of engineered racialized disinvestment and punishment, without fanfare or attention. Our working-class, first-generation, and immigrant students have built organizations, transformed communities, and shaped our collective ability to resist the carceral state. But these histories of resistance are not enough in this complex moment. New movements are needed.

Building Movements

Campuses like ours, where diversity does not need to be encouraged because it is a fact of life (at least among students), have always been embedded in wider political movements. Yet the current moment continues to be full of contradictions that might easily be overlooked. In Illinois a governor touts the goal of reducing the state’s prison population while devastating public higher education. Hillary Clinton, pulled to the left by the Bernie Sanders movement, advocated for free community college education and “debt-free” college, while her husband’s administration was responsible for the unprecedented growth in incarceration, eliminated Pell Grants for those in prison, and contributed to the racist logic (and “superpredator” myth) needed to justify our carceral state. Ending our nation’s reliance on prisons and policing and producing real forms of public safety will require radical justice movements that include a robust and free system of public higher education.

Some states are getting at least part of it right. In 2016 the State University of New York removed “the box” on the application forms for all sixty-four institutions in the system. In 2017 New York governor Andrew Cuomo made $7 million available to public and private colleges and universities in the state to provide access to education in the state’s prisons. Despite opposition from private institutions, in 2017 the governor created the Excelsior Scholarship Program to provide free tuition to SUNY and City University of New York students from families with incomes up to $125,000 (if they stay in the state of New York for a time equal to the time they received the award). Overwhelmed with applicants, this plan does create some barriers for formerly incarcerated people, because it requires students to attend university full time and keep a high GPA. Such hard-fought gains come from the amazing work of organizations in New York led, and in some cases started, by formerly incarcerated leaders, including women such as Vivian Nixon, executive director of College and Community Fellowship and cofounder of the Education from the Inside Out Coalition.

These movements require leadership from those on the ground. Students like Colette, Floyd, Eddie, and Ashor—often closer to the norm than being “exceptions” at NEIU and similar institutions—represent the potential that exists to create and sustain meaningful political and social movements to end our nation’s reliance on punishment and policing. Their voices, analysis, labor, and leadership are central. And, at the same time, movements must attend to students like Lorraine. Is she eligible for full financial aid? Will she be able to be licensed, and compensated, as a nurse? Will her full self be acknowledged by the university, or only the parts that reflect well on the institution? How many “Lorraines” exist in the shadows even as we occasionally debate the high-profile and sensationalized cases of women such as Michelle Johnson—women who absolutely merit access to doctoral programs at heavily resourced private institutions but who cannot stand for the millions of other, non–Ivy League candidates who also deserve access, support, and opportunity?

Creating changes that hold the capacity to shrink the footprint of our carceral state, not simply create new mechanisms of confinement, depends on meaningful and free public higher education for everyone. That’s one part of the new movements. However, public higher education for the people also requires change. Sanctions for those with criminal records (on financial aid, admission, and employment) must be removed. Free tuition, and loan forgiveness after decades of skyrocketing tuition, is possible. Bans on professional licensure for those with criminal records must be challenged so that employment is possible after graduation. And the increase in and naturalization of campus policing must also be challenged and dismantled.

If we do not work for such changes, and others, we will be complicit in deepening the crisis. Politicians like Bruce Rauner in Illinois have made their agenda clear: public-sector higher education is not a part of the future that he, and too many others, are building. Ashor, Eddie, Lorraine, and Floyd are arguing for an alternative vision and building movements to realize it. And this is the future of public higher education for all the people.

Timothy Barnett is an Associate Professor of English, Women’s/Gender Studies, and Non-Traditional Degree Programs at Northeastern Illinois University. Erica R. Meiners is the Bernard J. Brommel Distinguished Research Professor at Northeastern Illinois University, and author of several books including For the Children? Protecting Innocence in a Carceral State. Both are members of the Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project and other initiatives to support access to quality and free public education for all. Tim can be reached at [email protected] and Erica at [email protected].