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Georgia college students with criminal records campaign to move ‘Beyond the Box’

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Georgia college students with criminal records campaign to move ‘Beyond the Box’

Jan 28, 2022 | 7:00 am ET
By Ross Williams
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Georgia college students with criminal records campaign to move ‘Beyond the Box’
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Georgia State University art major Abigail Cook said her piece "I May Never Be Free" represents the mental prison of those who have been incarcerated. Photo courtesy Abigail Cook.

Applying for college is a stressful time for any student, but Abigail Cook faced more difficulties than most.

When she was 17, Cook said she made a decision that still haunts her. She got behind the wheel with a blood alcohol content of .04. That is half the legal limit for an adult, but Georgia has a zero-tolerance policy for drivers under 21. A friend exited the vehicle while it was still moving and hit the pavement, later dying from her injuries. Cook served three months in jail following the incident.

Cook, who had previously been taking college-level courses under dual enrollment, now had a criminal record, and she felt like her future opportunities were closing off. The school she had been planning to attend canceled her acceptance, and she found herself dictating her application essay to her mother over the jail phone, including a statement about what she had done.

“Through the personal statement, like in all applications to jobs and universities, you have to present yourself in the best possible light, but I felt like to do that, I kind of had to bypass what had happened to my friend, and I kind of felt like I was spitting all over her because I really need to make myself look good, but I don’t know how to do that and to be respectful to her at the same time,” she said.

Now majoring in art and film with a minor in criminology at Georgia State University, Cook is a leader with Beyond the Box Georgia, a group working to make it easier for people who have been incarcerated to get an education by eliminating the question on college applications about criminal history.

Georgia college students with criminal records campaign to move ‘Beyond the Box’
From left, Beyond the Box members Abigail Cook, Patrick Rodriguez and Kareemah Hanifa gather in the State Capitol to meet with lawmakers. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

“I don’t want other people to feel how I felt applying to college,” she said. “Sometimes when I talk about it, like we had a meeting with the Board of Regents, we’ve been speaking with lawmakers and with classes, I get really emotional, I can’t help it.”

Ticking that box forces people to relive what is often the lowest moment in their lives, and discourages many from even applying, Cook said.

“When I was incarcerated and I was talking to people about applying to college, they just thought, ‘I’m going to have to pay $50 to $75 for an application, and they’re probably not going to accept me,’” Cook said.

Others who go through the expensive and complicated process say they receive a blanket rejection with little opportunity to appeal.

“They continue to appeal the decision, and they continue to try to get their face in front of these admissions people because they want to be humanized,” Cook said. “Some people give up, some people are relentless, but there’s no resolution, or there’s a poor resolution and they’re just kind of forced to give up.”

Georgia State University and Kennesaw State University did not respond to questions about their process for selecting prospective students who acknowledge past crimes on their applications.

University System of Georgia spokesman Lance Wallace said academically qualified students who answer yes to the question are not automatically rejected but subject to further review. The public university system wants to help Georgians earn their degrees, but there are other factors to consider, including safety, he said.

“University System of Georgia staff members have met twice with students involved with the Beyond the Box initiative to discuss their concerns,” he said. “There are a variety of important reasons the question is asked on applications including federal financial aid policies, subsequent licensing requirements associated with certain academic programs, and to allow our institutions to perform their due diligence in both providing a safe campus environment while also facilitating that prospective student’s admission.”

“We share the same goal as the Beyond the Box organizers of helping people from all manner of backgrounds pursue higher education,” he added. “We are looking at potential changes that would be in the best interest of potential students.”

Getting accepted into college can be a major milestone on the road to a productive life, says Beyond the Box Georgia Executive Director Patrick Rodriguez. The Kennesaw State University communications major has his acceptance letter framed in his Midtown home. He is set to graduate in the spring and recently took his LSAT in the hopes of attending law school.

Georgia college students with criminal records campaign to move ‘Beyond the Box’
Patrick Rodriguez and Abigail Cook speak at Emory University. Photo courtesy of Abigail Cook

“I love college,” he said. “Like, it’s my identity. This is who I am. I’ve always believed in education my whole life. That’s what my parents taught me. So, if I would have gotten out of prison and I wouldn’t have been able to go to college, I would have probably been defeated. Because the entire time I was incarcerated, I thought to myself that it’s the only way that I’m going to be able to be able to combat this on my record, because not a lot of people really want me to be a part of their company, or people don’t even want me to live in their apartment complex or different things like that. If I wouldn’t have gotten accepted to college, I would say I would have been defeated. That’s how big of a marker it is, for me, and I don’t ever talk about being helpless or defeated.”

Rodriguez served about five years in the Georgia correctional system on drug-related charges, including possession with intent to distribute. Since his release in 2019, he’s been active in the prison education system and sees going to law school as his ticket to making something more of himself.

“I’m not the first formerly incarcerated person to go to law school, but I want to contribute to that movement, and also for my family as well,” he said. “I don’t have kids, but my brothers, you know, they’re younger than I am. And they look at me, and I went to prison, and I’m trying to do all this stuff. Going to law school is something that can help me take care of my future family. I can be an example to other Latino men, an example to other people who were formerly incarcerated, I can try to help them break through the glass ceilings that hold people down in general, but specifically for my community of incarcerated people.”

In addition to helping individuals get on a good path, Rodriguez points to studies linking education with a vastly lowered recidivism rate.

The group has drafted a bill they are hoping a lawmaker will sponsor. Numerous other states have passed laws similar to what Beyond the Box is hoping for in Georgia, Rodriguez said, and there has been action at the federal level that gives them hope.

In late 2020, the U.S. Department of Education expanded its program to give Pell Grants to incarcerated students through prison education programs at 200 institutions, up from 131. And last August, Hawaii Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz introduced a bill that would direct universities to reconsider asking applicants about criminal backgrounds.

But passing legislation may not be a simple task in Georgia, said Rep. Jasmine Clark, an Atlanta Democrat who serves on the House Higher Education Committee and lectures in microbiology at Emory University.

Students and campus workers have plenty to worry about, from COVID-19 to guns on campus and sexual assaults, and removing the question about criminal background may raise further fears of campus safety, she said.

“I get what they’re saying. I do think that offering or making sure that education is not blocked from people who have made mistakes in the past is really important,” Clark said. “But I do think we also have to keep in mind that when it comes to safety, we can’t just across the board abolish this without thinking about consequences and ramifications beyond just the fact that yes, there are people who have served their time and they should be able to reenter society. We still have to take precautions.”

Clark said she would be willing to consider legislation that was sufficiently nuanced and accounted for campus safety, but this may not be the best year for the discussion as the coming election weighs on lawmakers’ minds, she added.

“This is probably not the best time to ask people to be open-minded, which is basically what this proposal is doing,” she said. “Not because people don’t want to have an open mind, but because a lot of people pretty much are treading water, they’re hoping that they can get through their elections without some major opposition campaign against them or some ad against them, so people are less likely to step out on a limb and really consider something as bold as this. This is more of one of those beginning of the first legislative session type things where people are a little more open.”

Rodriguez said he’s heard before from people who suggest limiting their proposed legislation to people incarcerated for non-violent crimes to potentially get more support, but he is committed to extending it to all Georgians who have served their time.

“When people go to prison and they do their time, that’s for the crime that they committed,” he said. “Whenever they have to face policies that are in place that make it difficult to access housing, or jobs or, or education, that’s consequential sentencing, so the sentence goes well beyond what the court orders. After somebody does 10 or 20 years in prison, should they not be allowed to go to school to better themselves and their community?”

Rodriguez said the success other states have seen demonstrates that formerly incarcerated students who are willing to pay tuition and attend classes only want a shot at an education. He said Beyond the Box is hoping for legislative action this session, but they are ready to keep up the fight if that doesn’t happen.

“We would like to see everybody included in education, and we would like for there to be equity in the admissions process,” he said. “And as students who are formerly incarcerated that have come together to form this coalition, we believe that education should be accessible for everyone, and as it stands, it currently is not.”