• In the Midst of a National Debate Over ‘The Box,’ Student and University Initiatives Push for Higher Ed Accessibility for Justice-Involved Individuals
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    Written by Claudia Gohn

    In the Midst of a National Debate Over ‘The Box,’ Student and University Initiatives Push for Higher Ed Accessibility for Justice-Involved Individuals

    In the Midst of a National Debate Over ‘The Box,’ Student and University Initiatives Push for Higher Ed Accessibility for Justice-Involved Individuals

    December 7, 2019

    Cover illustration by Lisa Evseeva.

    Edited by Gavrielle Jacobovitz, Jack Meyer, and Julian Shen-Berro Photography by Kate Della Pietra

    Before 2015, Leyla Martinez had never even considered applying to Columbia. But in March, when trying to convince her son to apply, she took him to the Beyond the Bars Conference, an annual conference held at Columbia that joins members of Columbia’s faculty, students, and community members in conversation on the issue of mass incarceration.

    “As I was trying to convince him to apply and he wasn't interested at applying at all, I said, you know what? I'm gonna apply,” Martinez tells me. She hadn’t expected to get in—she applied, in part, to prove to her teenage son that if she got rejected, it “wasn’t going to be the end of the world.”

    When Martinez filled out her application, she was confronted with a question that some applicants might glance over without a second thought. The question asks applicants whether or not they have ever been convicted of a crime. If they answer yes, the applicant can explain what happened. “It kinda took the wind out of me,” Martinez remembers, “and I wasn't going to continue the application process.”

    Advocates who oppose the inclusion of this question on applications call it “the box.” “Ban the Box” is a nationwide campaign that started in 2004 with the goal of removing the box from applications for jobs in the public sector. Since the start of the campaign, the box has been removed from job applications in 45 different cities and counties, including our own New York City after the Fair Chance Act went into effect in 2015. The policy also prohibits employers from asking applicants about their criminal history during interviews and from checking the applicant’s criminal background before making them a job offer.

    “My previous experience with having checked the box was usually that ... I wouldn't be accepted,” Martinez later adds. “I would be rejected, right? Jobs, housing, and other opportunities.”

    But this time, she was accepted: Martinez got a spot in the School of General Studies, from which she graduated in 2018. As a student, Martinez dedicated her time on campus to working to ensure that no one else would have to face the same fear of being rejected for checking the box. In 2016 she founded the Beyond the Box Initiative, which aims to “provide a support system for prospective and current students who have been impacted by the criminal justice system.” As a part of the initiative, she brought the national “ban the box” movement to the attention of the General Studies Student Council, though she was unsuccessful in her attempts to remove the question from the General Studies application. The effort fizzled after Martinez left campus, but it has since reemerged.

    This semester, Jane Jeong, a first-year student in General Studies and GSSC’s equity and inclusion chair, began advocating to remove the box from the General Studies application. This week, Jeong is drafting a statement of support to ban the box from the General Studies application, which will be voted on by members over winter break.

    “Justice-involved” students are enrolled in schools across campus. The term is relatively new and has been adopted to refer to those who were directly involved in the criminal justice system. In turn, those whose loved ones have been impacted by the criminal justice system are referred to as “system-impacted.” To some of these students who may be impacted by the question, the existence of the box on Columbia’s applications presents a barrier to higher education

    Movements to ban the box have taken place across the country, first in labor movements and now in higher education. Many colleges and universities are now reconsidering whether they should ask applicants about their history with the criminal justice system.

    Maryland and Louisiana recently passed laws which mandate that institutions of higher education remove the question from their applications. Certain schools, including Duke University, have elected to follow suit for their staff job applications, but still keeps criminal background checks in the process after job offers. But there are still some exceptions to these new measures: In Maryland, the restriction only applies to initial application forms, meaning that admissions decisions may ultimately still be made on the basis of applicants’ criminal records. In Louisiana, schools are allowed to ask about sexual violence and stalking convictions.

    In 2016, the State University of New York system banned the box from its college applications, though students must still disclose felony convictions after they are accepted, as well as on applications for campus housing, participation in clinical or field experiences, internships, and study abroad programs. Beginning with the 2016-2017 admissions cycle, New York University modified its admissions policy to delay when the applicant’s criminal history is revealed during the process, as the school has implemented a “box-blind” first reading of the application. Afterward, if the applicant has a strong recommendation but also has a conviction, they are referred to a special committee, which reviews the application a second time and makes the final admission decision.

    In 2018, the Common Application announced that it would ban the box starting August 1, 2019. This will be the first year that the Common Applicationwhich is used by Columbia College, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, Barnard College, and hundreds of other private colleges and universities across the country—will not ask the applicant to indicate if they have a felony conviction.

    However, Columbia College, SEAS, and Barnard have elected to keep the question as a supplemental prompt to the Common Application, and it has remained on some of Columbia’s institution-written applications, including those for General Studies and the Law School.

    In various statements to The Eye, spokespeople for the four undergraduate schools—Barnard, Columbia College, SEAS, and General Studies—all stated that the box would not be the sole reason to deny an applicant admission, and that the question is one among many used to provide a more holistic understanding of the applicant to better contextualize their experiences. They all also noted that the inclusion of the box on their respective applications is constantly being evaluated.

    Additionally, during the admissions process for Columbia College and SEAS, this information is not revealed until the “final stage” of reviewing applicants, a spokesperson said.

    Among the formerly incarcerated, or justice-involved, students and system-impacted students I spoke with, most advocated for the box to be banned. But, some remain wary that the move could create barriers to higher education.

    Though their positions on the question may vary, justice-involved and system-impacted students, advocates, and experts are working towards a unified end goal: to make higher education more accessible to people who have been incarcerated. The movement has caught momentum on campus, and soon GSSC votes will be tallied on whether to formally support it.

    And as debate over the box takes place on campus, Columbia as an institution also drives conversations on how to address issues of criminal justice and mass incarceration. Columbia’s Center for Justice, tucked away at the end of the hallway on the second floor of Schermerhorn Hall, is an interdisciplinary center that strives to find alternatives to incarceration through community programs and with the help of other University bodies. It’s host to programs such as the Justice-in-Education Initiative, as well as opportunities for nontraditional paths of education. Beyond these initiatives, formerly incarcerated students are creating spaces for themselves on campus using networks of community and advocacy.

    Higher Education and Recidivism

    In conversations around mass incarceration, Martinez feels frustrated that some advocates have focused only on getting people out of prisons.

    But the vast majority of people who are incarcerated will eventually reenter society—95 percent, according to the Prison Studies Project, a project housed in Harvard’s Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History.

    “But these people also need to stay out of prison,” Martinez says. “They need to have a career, not just a job. Right? And how do you get that if you don't have an education.”

    A study conducted by the Institute for Higher Education Policy found that, within three years of release, 70 percent of people who were formerly incarcerated would commit another crime. The same study found that roughly 50 percent would return to prison within the same timeframe.

    Across the country, national voices have emphasized the importance of education for those impacted by the criminal justice system. Experts argue that higher education can reduce recidivism, or the rate at which those released from prison return. In 2013, the Department of Justice reported that “inmates who participated in correctional education programs had 43 percent lower odds of returning to prison than inmates who did not.”

    Mika’il DeVeaux, a lecturer at Nassau Community College and the executive director of Citizens Against Recidivism, Inc. who was formerly incarcerated, has seen the impact that education has on a person.

    “Education provides people with vision,” he tells me. “[People] can begin to see opportunities that they never thought were possible. So once people begin to see opportunities in that in their own life, change in perspective about their own life outcome, [that] education is one of the vehicles that they use you know to broaden one's vision.”

    While statistics point to decreased rates of recidivism, for DeVeaux and others, education goes beyond that.

    “Education should also be considered on its own merit,” Rev. Vivian Nixon, who is now heavily involved in education programs for incarcerated people, wrote in the New York Times. “Put simply: Education is not just a means to myriad positive ends, but an end unto itself. Education—on its own—is worth pursuing, worth having, and worth supporting.”

    The Box

    Greg Hetmeyer, a graduate from the School of Social Work who was formerly incarcerated, doesn’t remember if he was asked about his criminal history when applying to the school. But he recalls the question when he applied to Fordham University, which he says was triggering. “They had the question and it was glaring at me,” he says.

    Hetmeyer hasn’t always been open about his past involvement in the criminal justice system. He tells me, “If you would have caught me last year, I probably wouldn't have spoken to you about this.” It wasn’t until interning a few years ago at The Door—an organization that helps youth reach their goals through various programs and services—that he became more open about his experience.

    “I consider my life as a mosaic,” Hetmeyer says. All of the events that have happened in his life “brought me to where I felt open enough to share my narrative—to share my story,” he says.

    Hetmeyer isn’t alone in feeling that the box can discourage justice-involved students from applying to institutions of higher education. When Sarah Zarba applied to the School of Social Work in 2016, she remembers having to indicate that she had been convicted of a crime. “Even prior to me actually setting foot in the school, I got the feeling based on that question that maybe this wasn't a good choice for me,” Zarba tells me. Like Martinez, Zarba didn’t think she would be accepted after disclosing her history with the justice system.

    During her time on campus when Martinez worked to remove the question, she turned to Ramond Curtis, who graduated from General Studies in 2018, served on the University Senate from 2016 to 2018, and was a member of GSSC. Curtis helped her navigate the senate and GSSC during her efforts.

    In 2016, Martinez founded the Beyond the Box Initiative. Together, Martinez and Curtis gathered information to give to the GSSC about Beyond the Box in an attempt to get funding to start a club. This information included a compilation of documents, studies, and articles on education and recidivism, as well as resources on campus for justice-involved students and information on the status of New York’s ban the box movement.

    Eventually she secured funding from the GSSC, but after her graduation in 2018, the group no longer worked to ban the box and the ban the box movement went silent in the council. But this semester, the movement is resurfacing. When Jeong applied to General Studies this past year, she took notice of the box on the application. “It was something that was on my radar. Even when I was like applying to GS, I was curious why the question was there,” she tells me.

    Though this is her first semester on the council, Jeong is already spearheading the initiative to ban the box from the General Studies application. “I had done some outside research and I thought that this is something like that could be accomplished in the council,” she says, “and so I just brought it up in one of our policy meetings and said that I had a game plan for this and I was hoping to, you know, eventually ask the school of GS and all of Columbia University, honestly, to remove the question.”

    To jumpstart this plan, the GSSC is currently drafting a statement of support to ban the box from the General Studies application. Jeong has also received support from the New York Civil Liberties Union to help access information and also have assistance from legal fellows who can describe the work that has already been done.

    In the future, Jeong would like to talk to students who have been affected by this question. She says, “I think that it's really important to have their voices and personal stories of like how this has really impacted Columbia students.”


    The question around the inclusion of the box asking for an applicant’s criminal history has struck a divisive chord around the country. An undergraduate organization at Princeton penned an op-ed last fall after the Common Application announced it would ban the box, calling on their university do the same. They wrote that checking the box is “understood to be grounds for highly probable, if not immediate, rejection” and argued that the question “perpetuates structural racism and classism” rather than increase campus safety.

    In June 2019, Princeton revised the question while adding it to graduate school applications. The revision asks for an explanation as to how the experience impacted the applicant’s life. The new information is not considered during the initial review of graduate student applications. Additionally, applicants would not need to report any crimes related to simple drug possession, civil disobedience, or crimes in other countries that do not qualify as crimes in the United States.

    A student at Brown University wrote in the Brown Daily Herald that banning the box is “an important step in achieving racial justice” and argued that the current question is too broad. An op-ed published in The Dartmouth in April of 2018 recommended not including the question on the application, but did advocate for asking it once a student has been accepted to the college.

    Dr. Bradley Custer, an independent researcher and recent doctoral graduate from Michigan State University, agrees that the box should be banned from college applications.

    “The idea is that if someone was previously convicted of a crime, they are at a higher risk of committing another crime while they are a student,” Custer tells me. He doesn’t agree with the logic behind rejecting justice-involved individuals with the purpose of making campus safer. Custer says that crimes committed on campus are typically not committed by people with previous convictions.

    “What does you hav[ing] been convicted of a crime have to do with you getting an education?” says Chermaine Black, a current student in the School of Social Work who is justice-involved. “It shouldn't be there, it doesn't serve a purpose.”

    For many schools, though, the motivations for keeping the box on applications haven’t been easy to dismiss. A 2014 survey asked the heads of admissions of 300 colleges why they chose to include criminal background checks in their application process. Common reasons included reducing violence, protecting against liability, and reducing illegal drug use. While some argue that preventing justice-involved students from coming to campus is a useful and necessary measure, the study provides an alternate opinion. “Screening applicants based on their criminal histories, however, raises both public safety and social justice concerns,” it concludes. The study notes that the question could increase recidivism and “divert resources from more effective safety interventions.”

    “I think there are probably multiple ways to protect the universities from violent crimes on campus, which is a legitimate concern, while still being fair to people—applicants—who may have done something when they were in high school, that was stupid and illegal,” says Dr. Carol Runyan, a professor at the Colorado School of Public Health who contributed to the study.

    Durrel Washington, a system-impacted individual who graduated from the School of Social Work in 2018 and is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in social work at the University of Chicago, also believes a question on criminal history should not appear on university applications. “I feel like having a box kind of gives [the] administration a reason to say ‘no’ to some folks who might be deserving to take space on the campus.”

    Matthew Pierce, another author on the study, also acknowledges the concern of crime on campus. “It's a tricky issue,” he says. He points to the fact that students are put in a certain position of trust living together. “You want universities to kind of make sure that the people who are being put in those positions of trust are safe,” Pierce notes. However, he still believes overall that criminal history should not be a factor in admissions. “I think to the extent that criminal background checks pose a barrier for people with a criminal history to get a college education; that's very concerning.” Specifically, Pierce is concerned that these checks will create barriers for justice-involved individuals who want to obtain an education.

    But though many want to see the box removed, some aren’t certain if its removal will have a positive impact. Christopher Medina-Kirchner, a doctoral candidate at GSAS studying neuropsychopharmacology is more hesitant to ban the question, worrying that it could lead to discrimination, as universities may still assume certain students have a record. He is not necessarily against banning the box, but rather wants to make sure it will not decrease the representation of justice-involved people in higher education.

    Isaac Scott, a junior in General Studies who was formerly incarcerated, is also concerned that banning the box could have unintended consequences of racism in the admissions process. While he says he was a supporter of the movement in the beginning, he took a step back after seeing some research on this issue. “In [the] long term, this may be hurting black people, black men, more than it's helping,” he says.

    A study conducted in 2016 found that policies that remove the box on job applications “encourage statistical discrimination on the basis of race.”

    “To the extent that advocates and policymakers hoped [banning the box] would reduce racial inequality in employment opportunities, it appears to be doing quite the opposite,” the study states.

    Amanda Agan, an author of the paper, tells me one of the big takeaways from her study has been how exaggerated the perception that those reviewing applications have of the probability behind a black candidate holding a criminal record, and the seeming nonexistence of any suspicions regarding the potential criminal background of white applicants. “They basically assume no white applicants at all have a criminal record,” she says, “[and] that black applicants have a really high probability of having a criminal record.”

    But Agan warns of conflating educational institutions with labor markets.

    Isaac Scott making art at the Center for Justice

    For this reason, Medina-Kirchner wants to be sure that getting rid of the question will not cause discrimination in the application process before he takes a firmer position: “I'm just not sold, and I'm not going to get behind something that may hurt the people that I intend to help.”

    Another study conducted by researchers at the University of Minnesota in 2019 found that in removing the box, there was “far less overall racial discrimination in college admissions decisions,” and that the acceptance of Black applicants without criminal records experienced small and nonsignifcant differences in the presence or absence of the box.

    When asked about her opinion on why the box should be banned, Martinez answers, “If we're back in [the] community, we already paid our penance, right? We did our time.” She adds, “So we should be given the opportunity to rebuild our lives and become productive members of society.”

    Student Advocacy

    When Martinez came to Columbia, she thought she was one of the only formerly incarcerated people on campus. But at an accepted students brunch in 2015, her eyes were opened by its keynote speaker, a speaker who had graduated from General Studies that year and, she later learned, was formerly incarcerated.

    “I didn't know that there were more folks there because people just wouldn't speak about it,” she tells me. “And I was like, ‘Wow, I need to fight for other formerly incarcerated people here.’”

    In May of the following year, she founded the Beyond the Box Initiative, which she led up until her graduation in 2018.

    “There's plenty of people that have that same experience that exist on this campus but don't share it,” says Elvis Diaz, a junior in General Studies who will assume leadership of the group in the spring. “But people don't want to share, they want to keep it to themselves because it's that stigma,” he says, referring to the diminishing perspective of lower economic status and previous incarceration that justice-involved students are often viewed in.

    Like Martinez, Diaz sees the Beyond the Box Initiative as a solution to this problem.

    But it was not the only such solution. In recent years, as a national conversation about the accessibility of higher education for justice-involved individuals has taken place, Columbia students impacted by the criminal justice system have worked to create more welcoming spaces on campus. And yet, despite the success some found, there have been questions regarding the longevity of these initiatives as students graduate and move on from Columbia.

    Natasha Mejia, a student at the School of Social Work who wrote her honors thesis at the University of California, Berkeley on the impact of parental incarceration on children, serves as a Beyond the Bars fellow. The fellowship, organized by the Center for Justice, functions as an interdisciplinary leadership program, promoting justice and ending mass incarceration. Mejia says her husband has been incarcerated for eight years and that their nine-year-old daughter has spent most of her life with a father in prison.

    “Stigma is always something that lingers,” Mejia says, speaking on the experience of loving someone in prison. “I feel like you always have to be kind of cautious about what you say, and who you tell it to, and when you tell people your experience.”

    She says it was easier to speak openly in a space like the Beyond the Bars Conference, where “the goal is to alleviate the impact or the effects that mass incarceration has on families and communities.”

    Scott and Medina-Kirchner co-founded the Directly Impacted Group in the summer of 2016 as a community space for justice-involved and system-involved students.

    According to Scott, DIG gave them and other students an opportunity to talk about their experiences in and after the criminal justice system. The group “was our counseling on campus,” Scott says.

    He says the group’s purpose is “helping each other and being there for each other but also educating the Columbia community on what it means to be directly impacted.” Like Scott, Medina-Kirchner says the group served as a type of support group.

    As of this semester, the Beyond the Box Initiative and DIG have not been active. But the conversation has continued, and soon, General Studies student council members will be confronted with the question: Should the box be banned?

    Columbia Initiatives

    While Columbia has not yet banned the box, the University remains deeply engaged in conversations and efforts around criminal justice and justice involvement. The University houses many programs and initiatives that, through interdisciplinary advocacy, bring together students, faculty, and community members to push for alternatives to incarceration.

    Each year, the Center for Justice hosts the Beyond the Bars Conference, which brings together students, faculty, and other advocates to discuss issues pertaining to mass incarceration and promote ideas of transformative justice.

    The conference was one of the main reasons Washington, the former General Studies student, decided to come to Columbia, he tells me. Washington was a Beyond the Bars fellow, and was motivated to become one because of his desire to pursue higher education.

    “As a fellow, I knew I would have the opportunity to not just work with Columbia students, but also [work] with advocates and activists, and community organizers, [and] formerly incarcerated folks from all around New York,” Washington tells me. They spent the year focused, in part, on the question: “What would a world look like without prisons and jails?”

    Overall, Washington enjoyed his experience as a fellow, describing it as “an exciting but also stressful kind of thing.” He hadn’t worked behind the scenes before in conference planning, but he liked working to get people to come to the conference who wouldn’t have normally.

    “We see ourselves as … being a center that connects the sort of different areas, or provides opportunities for connecting the different areas of the University who are interested in justice and especially criminal justice reform,” Geraldine Downey, director of the Center for Justice, says. She later adds, “This is especially important with what's going on in the community, both with grassroots groups who are really ... the leaders in criminal justice reform, and also government officials.”

    The Center for Justice, together with the Society of Fellows for the Humanities and the Heyman Center for the Humanities, formed Columbia’s Justice-in-Education Initiative. The initiative provides educational opportunities, including college classes, for justice-involved individuals. Scott and Martinez were both in the original cohort of the Justice-in-Education Scholars Program in 2015, which has since expanded to a total of 40 students who have received Columbia credit through the program.

    Nicole Callahan, TOMS Core Faculty Fellow and Lecturer for Contemporary Civilization at Columbia University, is one of the teachers in the JIE initiative. She teaches a course called “Humanities Texts Critical Skills.” The class is similar to a Literature Humanities or Contemporary Civilizations class: a seminar class with readings that include texts like Homer’s The Odyssey, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. Her class is composed of half undergraduate students, half justice-involved students.

    “The class becomes this really wonderful community of very, very diverse experiences and very, very diverse styles of interpretation,” Callahan says.

    She taught The Odyssey differently from a typical Literature Humanities class. “We read it particularly as a narrative of homecoming. And what is it like to come home when you've been gone for 20 years and your son is mad at you because he doesn't know you and your wife doesn't trust totally that it's you,” Callahan says.

    “What we want to help people do is to go from being in prison to getting a college degree, whether that's here or at another institution,” Callahan later adds.

    Eileen Gillooly is the director of the Society Fellows in Heyman Center for the Humanities, and works in the Justice-in-Education Initiative, as well, as a principal investigator. The initiative receives major funding from the The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Gillooly and Callahan say that the program is always expanding. According to Gilooly “One of the goals is to get as many of our Jie scholars … who can qualify to be able to matriculate to into General Studies,” which is part of the larger goal of expanding educational opportunities for the scholars.

    Another initiative that seeks to end mass incarceration at Columbia is the Justice Lab, which uses research, policy development, and community engagement to advance justice reform. Washington points to the Justice Lab, among other bodies like the Center for Justice, that demonstrate how Columbia serves as a leader in criminal justice reform.

    The Center for Justice also offers opportunities for engagement with questions of mass incarceration through various channels. Scott works as an Arts and Communications Specialist at the Center for Justice. Scott, who is the program director of the center’s The Confined Arts, a platform for sharing the art of justice-involved artists, began creating art during his sentence. “I was making fine art … you fold them a Manila folder in like a half, the flap you fold in half and you can make like reading cards,” he says. Now, he has changed art styles. He later says, “When I came home I transitioned into doing graphic design and then I've gotten into doing film and media.”

    The Office of Multicultural Affairs, which serves undergraduates in Columbia College and SEAS, is another of the Center for Justice’s partners—co-sponsoring events and helping spread its message and resources. OMA has worked to increase accessibility for formerly incarcerated students. The Intercultural Resource Center, housed under the OMA, has also formed an anti-carceral committee in which students have pushed forward work on the prison industrial complex.

    Jarrell Daniels, a first-year in General Studies, also works at the Center for Justice as a program manager of the Justice Ambassadors Youth Council. The program, he says, connects justice-involved youth in the age range of 18 to 24 “with different city officials from different agencies to co-author policy proposals at the conclusion of the eight-week period.”

    Jarrell Daniels, a first year in General Studies

    A student in Teachers College, Robert Wright has worked at the Center for Justice since last March, the week after he was released from prison. Wright earned his degree from Mercy College while he was in Sing Sing Correctional Facility through the Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison program.

    Wright remembers it being difficult to be able to take classes while incarcerated. “You had to be clean disciplinary,” he says. “You couldn't have gotten a ticket. And a ticket is kind of like any frivolous infraction in jail for anything from fighting to you had your blanket up over your walls.” Nonetheless, he persevered in order to break out of the repetition in prison. “If I wanted to expand my mind outside of how many LeBron scored yesterday or some war story that we're talking about happened years ago, the only way to stimulate my mind was to go to school or pick up a book,” Wright says.

    While justice-involved and system-involved students did not all agree on how to get there, each one was focused on the same goal: Making higher education more accessible to those who were formerly incarcerated, and working towards solutions for the country’s mass incarceration problem. Through its many programs and initiatives, the University has aligned itself with those goals, but to some, the presence of the box on its applications casts a shadow over these efforts.

    Despite the doors education has opened, some hurdles will always lie ahead. While Wright has goals to go into teaching, his conviction will create an additional barrier to entering the field. He will have to confront the box on future applications, like many others. It’s a prospect he does not look forward to.

    “All that matters should be all my merits, what I've done,” he says.

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