b'ing stigma-free


CCA_attrition ratePeople with criminal histories are all too familiar with having to answer questions about their backgrounds. These questions appear on applications for employment, housing, and most recently, college admission. In the context of employment and housing, people with criminal histories know that the relentless onslaught of questions into their past is designed to exclude them. And when they encounter a similar inquiry when applying to college, many reasonably make the same assumption about the intent of the questions.

In our 2010 study of this issue, “The Use of Criminal Records in College Admissions Reconsidered” the Center for Community Alternatives (CCA) found that two-thirds of colleges and universities across the country were asking applicants questions about their criminal history. We also learned that checking the criminal history box on the application typically prompted the college to ask for supplemental information and subjected applicants to additional screening and inquiries. To investigate this process further, we conducted a case study of the State University of New York (SUNY), which includes 64 campuses. Expecting to find high rejection rates for applicants with criminal histories, we were surprised by what we ultimately discovered.

All SUNY campuses are required by SUNY Central to ask applicants if they have ever been convicted of a felony. Applicants who indicate they have been, then receive a follow-up letter asking for information specific to their criminal record. This information is reviewed by an Admissions Review Committee that must be established and used on each SUNY campus for the specific purpose of considering the admission of people who disclose a felony conviction. CCA’s latest report (March, 2015), “Boxed Out: Criminal History Screening and College Application Attrition” found that the process itself of inquiry into an applicant’s criminal history was a more formidable barrier than outright rejection by the Admissions Review Committee.

Using admissions data, we compared the percentage of applicants who check the felony box “yes” and do not complete the application process to the percentage of overall applicants who do not complete the application process. We term this phenomenon “application attrition.” We found that the SUNY felony application attrition rate (62 percent) is three times higher than the overall application attrition rate (21 percent). We estimate that more than 2,900 applicants disclose a felony each year throughout SUNY and that more than 1,800 do not complete the application process and are never considered for admission. In other words, about two out of three applicants who disclose a felony are boxed out by application attrition.

In contrast, while some campuses do report startlingly high rejection rates for applicants who disclose a felony conviction, most exclude fewer than 10 percent of such applicants. Several, in fact, did not reject a single applicant who disclosed a felony conviction. We found that for every one applicant rejected by Admissions Review Committees because of a felony conviction, 15 applicants are excluded by felony application attrition. This suggests it is the questions about criminal history records, rather than rejection by colleges, that are driving would-be college students from their goal of getting a degree.

Part of what is pushing applicants away is the daunting supplemental process they are subjected to after disclosing a felony conviction. This gauntlet of requirements ranges from the absurd to the impossible. Some campuses require applicants to provide recommendations from corrections, probation, and parole officials who are reluctant to provide such information, unable to do so, or outright refuse to as a matter of policy. Other campuses require applicants to obtain documents that simply do not exist. Many require applicants who make it through the gauntlet to appear before the Admissions Review Committee, an experience that some applicants have likened to appearing before the Parole Board.

One of the people we interviewed for the “Boxed Out” report had this to say about the application process:

“At times I felt like the box and the supplemental procedures were put there to send a message from the admissions office: ‘Your kind are not welcome.’ The more they asked me about the offense, the more I felt embarrassed. It’s uncomfortable to have to relive this story over again. It’s traumatizing, but they didn’t seem to have a clue.”

For people who have faced barriers in virtually every important social domain, there is no way to make the criminal history question welcoming or less traumatic. The power of label and stigma, which shapes the life experiences of people with criminal history records in 21st-century America, discourages many from trying to push open doors that seem locked tight. For all of the reasons outlined here, CCA, in collaboration with the Education from the Inside Out Coalition, strongly recommends that all colleges and universities refrain from including the criminal history question on the application and prohibit the use of criminal history information in admissions decision making.


The Center for Community Alternatives (CCA) was founded in 1981 as the first alternative-to-incarceration (ATI) program in New York State. Its mission is to promote reintegrative justice and a reduced reliance on incarceration through advocacy, services, and public policy development in pursuit of civil and human rights. CCA has offices in Syracuse, Rochester, and New York City. Find CCA on Facebook and follow them on Twitter @CCA_NY.

Napier_EmilyEmily NaPier is the Director of Justice Strategies at the Center for Community Alternatives. Her work at CCA has been focused on increasing access to higher education for people who are incarcerated and those with criminal histories, reducing racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system, promoting alternatives to criminalization and incarceration, and removing barriers to reintegration for people with criminal histories. As an adjunct instructor at Syracuse University and Ithaca College, Emily taught courses on the criminal justice system, racial and ethnic inequalities, radical criminology, and research methods. She now teaches sociology at Auburn Maximum Security Prison through the Prison Education Program of Cornell University. Emily is also a community organizer and the current President of the Alliance of Communities Transforming Syracuse, a coalition of more than 30 congregations and agencies organizing around social justice issues in Central New York.

Alan RosenthalAlan Rosenthal, Esq. is the Advisor on Special Projects and Counsel at the Center for Community Alternatives. He is a criminal defense and civil rights attorney with over 40 years of experience. A graduate of Syracuse University College of Law, he has litigated cases involving police misconduct and violations of civil rights in both jails and prisons. Alan has written extensively on parole and sentencing and, more recently, on access to higher education for incarcerated people and people with criminal histories. He has served on the New York State Bar Association Special Committee on Collateral Consequences of Criminal Convictions and currently serves on the New York State Bar Association Special Committee on Reentry. In March 2006 he was honored with the Outstanding Service to the Criminal Bar Award by the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. He was the 2014 recipient of the Wilfred R. O’Connor Award presented by the New York State Defenders Association.

Marsha WeissmanMarsha Weissman, PhD is the founder and Executive Director of the Center for Community Alternatives. She is a leader in the field of community-based alternatives to incarceration; has developed pioneering services; and has done innovative research, policy analysis, and training. Marsha’s writings, advocacy, and the programs she has developed have had a special focus on the impact of incarceration on youth, women and communities of color. She works to further equal justice for people who are poor, people of color, and other marginalized populations while keeping human and civil rights issues in the forefront of all her work. Her book, Prelude to Prison: Youth Perspectives on the School-to-Prison Pipeline was published in 2014. In 2012 she was honored with the Sara Tullar Fasoldt Leadership and Humanitarian Award from New York State. She is the 2015 recipient of the Service of Justice Award from the New York State Defenders Association.


Recently, my daughter Laurin and I attended a tech conference in Boulder, CO: the T-3 Summit. As the conference began, we were asked to break into groups of four people for an icebreaker activity. The instructions given were – each person will present three statements to their group. Two statements will be the truth and one will be a lie. The group members will then try to figure out which statement was the lie. I felt pretty confident I could get away with the lie I had chosen, so I offered to go first and made these three statements:Prison Policy Initiative

  1. Pointing to my daughter in another group I said, I’m here with Laurin, and she is one of my 4 sisters,
  2. “I’ve been to prison,” and
  3. “I don’t know how to code.”

When it was time to guess, one person stated that Laurin and I were sisters; that assumption made me smile and my daughter roll her eyes. The other two guessed that I did know how to code. None guessed that I had gone to prison. To their defense, I was at a tech conference and most of the people in attendance could have probably built an App over the weekend; it might have been easier for them to believe that I could code, versus having once been 1 of 2.4 million[1] people who are incarcerated in either a prison or jail in America. (See pie chart above.)

The truth is, decades of media coverage and our own personal biases have helped many of us create mental images of what “those people” who go to prison look like. We then try to predict their future actions, and as a society, we have created many methods for locking them out of our communities. Many Americans who go to prison don’t fit the stereotypes, and are therefore not stigmatized at a cursory glance. For better or worse, I am one of “those people.”

My conflict with the judicial system began in 2001 and has lasted so long that it has consumed nearly one-third of my life. Initially, disclosing the fact that I went to prison was difficult. But eventually I found that, for me, it feels more authentic to share my experience, allowing me to fully present all of who I am. Even now there are days when I still can’t believe I went to prison. I know that might be difficult for some people to understand, but it’s the truth.

Transitioning into incarceration was very difficult for me. It was hard when the staff of Alderson Federal Prison Camp, where I served a 70-month sentence, spoke to any of us in a derogatory manner. My skin crawled when we were referred to as “inmates.” It was hard for me to identify with or accept that label, because I have always understood that words, titles and labels do matter. Regardless of what the correctional officers thought, I would never let “inmate” define me.

Transitioning from prison to freedom was also challenging for me. Even though I mentally fought to maintain dignity while behind the gates, when I was released from prison, I initially found it difficult to process and receive random acts of kindness, human decency and courtesies from strangers. Yet, I was filled with so much gratitude when I was treated as normal. At the same time, I was disgusted and infuriated when I would hear kind people refer to the formerly incarcerated as “ex-cons,” “felons” and “convicts.”

Now, stating that you’ve been to prison leads to discrimination from individuals, corporations and institutions; it makes “returning home” and pursuing a life of purpose and productivity seem, as Marc Mauer and Jeremy Haile of The Sentencing Project describe in a 2013 Huffington Post article[2], an impossible journey. As a result, so many are forced to live in shame as they hide their personal stories.

Each time I reveal to someone new that I’ve been to prison, I notice two general responses:

  1. Either they seem to have a stunned or puzzled look on their face, tilting their head as if they are trying to process this new information; or
  2. They take a sight step backwards signaling their dismay in a deeper way.

Fortunately, I get to authentically live it out in the organization that Laurin and I co-founded, Mission: Launch, Inc. and the community effort we manage, Rebuilding Re-Entry. It is here where we lead our teams’ efforts in improving the outcomes for the nearly 700,000[3] people who are annually released from prison or jails in America.

Many of us who have endured systemic and/or institutional stigmatization lead the charge of equality, fairness and inclusion. This work may not always be easy, but the timing is right. I’m especially committed to eliminating stigmas concerning how we view people exiting prisons and/or jails – our returning citizens.


[1] Wagner, P., and Sakala, L. Mass incarceration: The whole pie, March 12, 2014. Prison Policy Initiative. http://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie.html, Accessed 7/9/15.

[2] Mauer, M and Haile, J. The new assault on formerly incarcerated individuals, July 29, 2013. Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marc-mauer/the-new-assault-on-formerly-incarcerated-individuals_b_3659935.html, Accessed 7/9/15.

[3] The US Department of Justice, Office of Public Affairs, August 22, 2013. http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/justice-and-education-departments-announce-new-research-showing-prison-education-reduces, Accessed 7/9/15.



Teresa HodgeTeresa Y. Hodge, a passionate advocate for people with criminal connections, is committed to reducing the lasting harm caused by prison. It was a 70-month federal prison sentence for a white-collar, non-violent, first-time offense that introduced her first-hand to the justice system and mass incarceration in America.

Upon coming home, she and her daughter Laurin Hodge co-founded Mission: Launch, Inc. a non-profit focused on introducing technology and entrepreneurship to previously incarcerated individuals as a way of ensuring self-sufficiency. Additionally, the organization founded and manages the Rebuilding Re-Entry Coalition, a citizen-led movement committed to creating a more just and inclusive society for returning citizens (persons who exit prison or jail). The Coalition and its members desire to leverage its efforts within the greater Washington DC region to ensure a more efficient and safer re-entry for everyone.

As the Director of Strategy & Innovation for Mission: Launch, Inc., Teresa plays a critical role in building strategic partnerships and establishing social enterprise models for greater reach and sustainability. Prior experience as an entrepreneur allowed her to maximize her time in prison looking for best practices to help her and others get back on their feet upon release. Hodge is a certified life coach, with a specialty in prison re-entry. Her memoir and private coaching practice, Pearls & Prison, continues to bring meaning and closure to the time she spent in prison. In 2014 she was selected to be one of the initial cohort members of JustLeadershipUSA, an organization committed to ensuring that the voice of the formerly incarcerated is equipped to advocate for prison reform.

Teresa is available to speak to your organization or classroom. You can contact her for speaking engagements at: Teresa@Mission-Launch.org. If you’re active on social media please feel free to follow her on Twitter @TeresaYHodge or on Instagram at TeresaYHodge.


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