Michelle Jones is a talented woman. Despite lacking internet access and print material resources, she led a team in producing an outstanding research project on behalf of the Indiana Historical Society. She is also a playwright, specializing in historical plays, one of which ran in a live theatre. Jones’s talent doesn’t stop there. She also writes her own dance compositions, some of which were seen onstage in her historical drama Duchess of Stringtown. With those impressive credentials, it’s no surprise that Jones was accepted into Harvard University.
Whoops – not so fast. Harvard quickly rescinded Jones’s acceptance. Why? As Jones was accomplishing all those things, she was also serving 20 years in prison for beating her son to death and burying his body in the woods.
The crime is horrific, there is no disputing that. But when one strips away the horror and emotions around the crime, one is left with a cold but true fact: once someone is punished for their crime and released, they might expect – or at least hope – to be treated like any other member of society. They paid for their crimes with jail time, so access to schools such as Harvard to sustainable employment should be open to them.
The truth is, time served or not, prison time severely limits access to employment and higher education, no matter how smart and talented the person, or how many degrees and diplomas were earned in prison education programs.
There are a few factors at play here. First and foremost, the stigma attached to former inmates never ends. If you know only that Jones is a Ph.D. candidate at New York University, you would be impressed. But if you know she is a Ph.D. candidate and an ex-con who served a long sentence for infanticide, what do you think now?
She was put through the system the country deems necessary for her crime, and she is a success story in that regard. She is apparently completely rehabilitated and a contributing member of society. She’s been deemed not to be a danger to herself or to others, and she offers value to the community through her written and performing arts. But because she did hard time, that will be what defines her for life. And an Ivy League university such as Harvard doesn’t want to be touched by potential scandal.
Disclosing a stint in jail during a university or college’s application and screening process decreases the chances of getting through the application process at all, and dramatically slashes the possibility of financial aid. The Journal of Urban Economics says ex-con students applying for financial aid are considered “high risk.”
Some colleges and universities cite safety reasons for denying former inmates access to their hallowed halls, even though research has shown that campuses with previously incarcerated students don’t actually have higher crime rates.
What we have here is a classic example of a “wicked problem” – a problem impossible to solve because each solution leads to another problem. Here we have the American justice system promising to reform its prisoners and put them back into communities as active, beneficial, fully rehabilitated citizens. On the other hand, America as a whole does not want ex-cons in its fancy schools, in positions of authority, or in higher-paying jobs. You can pay for your crime in prison, but you’ll keep paying for it when you get out.
Does Ms. Jones deserve a place at Harvard? Well, it depends on what ground you stand on. If you stand on the moral high ground and look at the fact that she committed a truly heinous crime against someone utterly defenseless, then no. She should not even be walking the streets. But if you take the legal ground, where we accept that those released have paid for their crimes, then like it or not, Jones should be at Harvard right now. Harvard thought she was good enough for them until societal stigma raised its head and put her where so many other ex-cons wind up – nowhere near where they long to be.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to The Huffington Post, New York Daily News, and Prison Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and Prisonerresource.com.