Before she enrolled at BMCC in Spring 2014, human services major Renata Hill worried about the hurdles she would face in school because she has a criminal record.
Hill, who is the subject of an award-winning documentary Out in the Night, has maintained an almost perfect GPA at BMCC. She plans to transfer to a four-year school after graduation and eventually pursue a career in social work.
“In five years, I see myself running some sort of transitional housing for formerly incarcerated folks or people just down on their luck, “ Hill said.
But Hill, now in her third semester at BMCC encountered a hiccup when it came time for her to be placed in a human services internship during her Human Services fieldwork class.
The City University of New York (CUNY), like many other college systems nationwide, does not ask applicants about their criminal history.
But most employers do background checks. Further, many publicly funded social service agencies are required to do background checks before placing a student in an internship.
And despite Renata Hill’s openness about her past, therein lies a problem. Both she and her professors were limited in where Hill could be placed for an internship, a fieldwork requirement in the third semester of her major.
There is little data about the college enrollment rate of the estimated 700,000 individuals who get released from U.S. prisons each year.
What is widely known is that people who do participate in college courses while-in-prison or those that enroll in college-after prison are less likely to return to jail according to numerous studies.
In January 2015, Professor Lisa Rose wrote a research paper that examined some of the obstacles faced by college students with criminal backgrounds. Titled “Community College Students with Criminal Justice Histories and Human Services Education: Glass Ceiling, Brick Wall or Pathway to Success,” the paper was published in the Community College Journal of Research and Practice.
In her work, Rose found limited research related to students attending community college programs with criminal backgrounds. Rose argued there is a clear need for qualitative and quantitative research.
During Fall 2015 semester, Rose applied for Institutional Review Board permission at CUNY to do a small qualitative study that would explore the obstacles faced by Human Services students who had spent time in prison.
In October 2015, Rose, along with BMCC Professor Glenny Valoy presented these preliminary findings and recommendations at the annual conference for the National Organization of Human Services in Charlotte, North Carolina—The anxiety students felt about internships, their hopes for their future careers, as well as the limitations they perceive in the field. The BMCC professors also talked about the importance of creating a safe space in the classroom for students to share their experiences with classmates, and the need to develop more internships that welcome students who have had contact with the criminal justice system in the past.
Choosing social work as a career
“In a profession like social work, which by its very nature believes in giving second chances to people, it seems to me that the doors should be much wider open,” Rose said.
Although college is widely regarded an inoculation against recidivism, Rose says academia has yet to figure out a way to support formerly incarcerated students. And in the case of human services and social work, part of that mission is helping those students find meaningful internships.
Many students who were formerly incarcerated seek careers in social work and human services. Unfortunately, there are limitations.
“Social workers may be the first professionals they encounter when they come out of prison or halfway houses,” said Rose.
“However, when it comes to careers in social work, where a license is required, things get sticky,” Rose said.
This past September, Rose started doing interviews with a small cohort of formerly incarcerated human services students, both males and females.
She found that formerly incarcerated students have similar struggles as other students and then some.
“They all hate math, many have financial problems,” Rose said.
But Rose also found that self-disclosure about criminal backgrounds can be a huge burden.
“I wanted to specifically find out if they felt isolated on campus,” said Rose who adds, “Engagement in the college community is key to academic success.”
In her interviews, Rose discovered students may not be sure when it’s appropriate to disclose their contact with the criminal justice system, but when students did disclose this information, as long as they felt safe enough to do so, they felt accepted by fellow students. In fact, self-disclosure would often help others to understand the experiences of those that had been incarcerated.
The internships most available to formerly incarcerated students are through agencies that serve, alcoholics, substance abusers and formerly incarcerated people, Rose said.
BMCC student Renata Hill says she had assumed in her first two semesters that getting an internship by the third semester would be easy since the Human Services Program has numerous relationships with outside agencies. But that wasn’t the case.
“I completely fell off the grid when I couldn’t land an internship,” she said.
Hill said she was always open about her status in class and wanted to build an honest relationship with her professors and classmates.
“When I’m out with the film and I go speak at other colleges, I always say this isn’t just my story, this is the story of so many other people, some who just give up because they felt forgotten,” Hill said.
Hill also believes college campuses would benefit by creating a specialized department, a safe zone with dedicated support staff that formerly incarcerated students can go to in complete confidence for counseling and help navigating the system.
Hill has since secured an internship at the Fortune Society, a nonprofit social service and advocacy organization,, whose mission is to support successful reentry from prison and promote alternatives to incarceration.
Professor Rose hopes to expand her research and advocacy in the coming year. “I’d like to talk with more students who have had contact with the criminal justice system and are now in college studying to be human services and social workers. It’s also important to more fully understand perceptions of social service agency supervisors and administrators: What are the actual concerns and experiences with interns who have been incarcerated.
“Rather than limiting the aspirations of students who have had contact with the criminal justice system, we should be advocating for their success,” Rose said.
“We have to find that sweet spot between not stigmatizing students who are ex-offenders by not only identifying who they are, but also welcoming them into the college and to the human services profession with the support they need.”