Vivian Nixon speaks at the College and Community Fellowship’s 15th graduation ceremony in June 2015. 
Lee Wexler/Images for Innovation

There are many ways to stop punishing people with criminal records for crimes for which they have already done the time.

One of those ways, about which Vivian Nixon, executive director of the College and Community Fellowship and co-founder of the Education From the Inside Out (EIO) Coalition, is most passionate, is by increasing access to higher education.

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For Nixon, it’s quite simple: Better education equals less chance for recidivism, which equals better public safety and better quality of life for all.

It’s been her life’s work for more than a decade, and Nixon is still only getting warmed up.

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“I believe education is a human right and I believe that certain communities in our society do not have access to the same quality of education that I believe every American deserves,” Nixon tells the Root.

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Most recently, Nixon, along with the EIO Coalition, has been supporting the recent movement on the issue of banning the box—or the place on an application form that asks about an applicant’s criminal record—in higher education. The issue has been picking up speed in the state of New York, where Nixon does most of her work.

Students from New York University and the State University of New York have been protesting and advocating for the removal of the box in the college admissions process. There is a bill that has been introduced in the New York State Legislature, flirting with the topic.

On Wednesday the EIO Coalition—which advocates to remove barriers to higher education facing students in prison and once they return home—attended the State University of New York board of trustees public hearing on the issue, where advocates of the formerly incarcerated testified on the subject.

But Nixon’s passion and advocacy for education for the incarcerated and those post-incarceration truly started with her own experience in prison. Nixon was arrested and convicted of a drug-related charge approximately three years after she had gotten herself straight. She was clean, had a good job and a great apartment, but then authorities got wind of a crime that had been committed three years prior.

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As Nixon had already been arrested once and gotten probation, the judge had no choice but to sentence her to three-and-a-half years in prison. Soon it dawned on her that her education gave her an edge that others do not always have.

“I felt both ashamed that I had wasted a really good education, and also enlightened that we were doing a disservice to these communities by not providing them with quality education, because I always knew that even though I had made horrible mistakes, and there are a lot of reasons for that, that I would be able to figure it out,” she says.

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“I would be able to come out, figure it out, get a job and move on with my life, but these [individuals], unless they learn something and got access to either some skills or some education, that they were going to cycle in and out of prison for a very long time,” she says.

One of the first things Nixon did upon her release from prison in 2001 was complete her own education, through the College and Community Fellowship program, which focuses on mentoring women who are going back to get degrees after a period of incarceration.

After graduation, Nixon took an 18-month fellowship at the Open Society Institute (now known as the Open Society Foundation), where she learned more about the intersection of higher education and criminal justice.

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“In that 18-month fellowship I learned that college in prisons was pretty much considered the norm from the late ’60s all the way through the early ’90s, but the 1994 crime bill made incarcerated people ineligible for Pell Grants,” she says.

“That prompted dozens of studies to prove to the government that the people who did have access to college while they were in prison from the late ’60s through the early ’90s in large numbers did not recidivate,” she recalls.

Armed with validation of her own theory that education had a “deep and abiding, long-lasting connection to public safety and crime,” Nixon returned to the College and Community Foundation to work with the organization and helped form it into what it is today, eventually becoming its executive director. 

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“In addition to that direct service work helping students, we began looking at all of the structural barriers to higher education for this population, and we began developing a policy agenda,” Nixon says. “So we now have a full-fledged policy agenda that goes from institutional policy to state policy to federal policy.”

And Nixon likes to bring it right back to the data, the fact that, she says, once a person is at the point of deciding to pursue higher education, he or she is very unlikely to commit another crime, regardless of what the original crime was.

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But for Nixon, the real challenge lies not just in the legislators but also in public opinion.

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“Legislators already know this. They read the data, they read the research, they know what the truth is, but they’re all afraid that they won’t get re-elected if they’re seem[ing] soft on crime,” Nixon says.  

“Until we shift public opinion and educate the public about the realities of the criminal-justice system, that some of the practices that we put in place—punishment that’s too harsh, punishment that extends beyond the sentence, lifetime punishment for any crime so that even after you serve your [time] you continue to be perpetually punished by not having access to housing or jobs or education—that does not make us any safer,” she says.

Breanna Edwards is a newswriter at The Root. Follow her on Twitter