The current standoff between William L. Pollard, the president of Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, N.Y., and a one-of-its-kind criminal justice think tank run on that campus by ex-prisoners with doctorates is emblematic of what researchers say is a widespread ambivalence over how to help the formerly incarcerated re-enter society.
For almost six years Medgar Evers, a Brooklyn outpost of the City University of New York, has housed the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions. The center is headed by formerly incarcerated researchers and has a national advisory board of academically pedigreed ex-prisoners who run prison-reform-related agencies. (Just over a year ago, the center was christened as a bona fide academic center in the City University system.)
In December the think tank's leaders were taken by surprise when Pollard, a relative newcomer to the school, announced that he was evicting the center. "It says something when one of the largest urban universities in the country doesn't deem it appropriate for a center of this kind to exist," says Divine Pryor, the center's co-founder and executive director. (Pollard did not respond to phone calls from The Root requesting comment.)
The Medgar Evers faculty recently issued a vote of no confidence in Pollard, conveying, in part, that he is betraying the mission of a college presumably dedicated to the academic needs of the urban poor and working class. Nevertheless, Pollard's administration has made it plain that the formerly incarcerated are not as welcome as they used to be at Medgar Evers, whose student population remains overwhelmingly black, despite a steady influx of white gentrifiers into the surrounding neighborhoods.
Last week a state Supreme Court judge ordered Medgar Evers to return to NuLeadership computers that the administration had confiscated in mid-December but that were purchased independently by the center. On Feb. 10, the court will consider an injunction barring Medgar Evers from evicting NuLeadership.
Roughly 650,000 of the incarcerated — a disproportionate number of them African American — are released from prisons annually. Most return to their communities of origin, where, at least in part, researchers say, their ability or inability to get a legitimate job determines whether they will remain law-abiding or revert to the criminality that landed many of them behind bars in the first place.
"Education is so closely tied to employment. The data to prove that is remarkably clear," says criminal-defense and civil rights attorney Alan Rosenthal, co-director of Justice Strategies, the research, training and policy initiative of the Center for Community Alternatives in Syracuse, N.Y.
"Use of a criminal record has become a race-neutral way for colleges to close their doors [to applicants]," Rosenthal says.
"We do know," says Barmak Nassirian, a spokesman for AACRAO, the registrar association, "that many institutions are imposing disclosure requirements for ex-prisoners, but we have not collected data on any special programs."
In 2004 then-President George W. Bush launched his landmark Prison Reentry Initiative, which was guided by the notion that even convicted felons deserve a second chance and that society is safer when ex-prisoners can find meaningful work. The initiative came in the middle of what has been roughly a decade of focus on returning prisoners who, researcher Rosenthal says, are also more likely to be viewed with suspicion, what with the heightened focus on terrorism and other crimes in the years since the 9/11 attacks.
"More and more colleges and universities are closing their doors," Rosenthal says, "and that disproportionately affects college-admission applications being submitted by people of color because they have disproportionately been run though the criminal justice system. It's not because of an actual higher crime rate among that population."
Brooklyn sends more people to prison than any of New York City's four other boroughs. Partly with that in mind, state lawmakers approved a $2.4 million grant that would give first-time, nonviolent offenders a second chance by sentencing them to college rather than prison. Pollard refused funds from the grant. "The president and the provost are so out of touch that they are rejecting alternative-to-incarceration programs at a time when both city and state governments are prioritizing them," says Eddie Ellis, NuLeadership's co-founder.
Says formerly incarcerated Andre "Imani" Ward, a junior at Medgar Evers who is studying social work, "Once a person is released from prison, given the many obstacles they face, if they can get into academia, it empowers that person. It has kept me disciplined and grounded. It's critical. [The previous Medgar Evers president] knew how incredibly important the center is and, because of that, supported it.
"It's rather disheartening to know, given [Pollard's] stature, his academic background, his professional background in social work, that he believes the formerly incarcerated should not be in college," Ward continues. "He's a black man running an institution in the heart of Brooklyn but doesn't see how inextricably tied to community NuLeadership and this campus are. It's very trying for all of us."
Brooklyn, N.Y.-based freelancer Katti Gray writes for several national and regional news organizations.