You may have read the words “The Admissions Opportunity Campaign” recently at tables around Frist or while scrolling through profile pictures on Facebook. The Admissions Opportunity Campaign calls upon Princeton University to remove the question about past involvement with the criminal justice system (i.e. the Box) from applications for undergraduate admission.
While I could outline many reasons to support the Admissions Opportunity Campaign, the best way to understand the issue is from the people who are most directly impacted by the Box.
I had the recent opportunity to interview Cory Greene, a formerly incarcerated community organizer. Cory graduated from LaGuardia Community College with a degree in Deaf Studies, earned a Bachelor’s degree from New York University in Applied Psychology, and is currently a doctoral candidate in the Critical Social Personality Psychology program at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Cory is also a director and co-founder of a community and youth empowerment organization, How Our Lives Link Altogether! (H.O.L.L.A!) and serves as the community relation manger for the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions (CNUS) and organizer with the Incarceration to Education Coalition (IEC), a student and community organizing working to Abolish the Box off the New York University college application.
In the interview, Cory shared his background and personal experience with the Box and his thoughts on why the Box should be abolished, which I have transcribed below.
Introduction and background
My name is Cory Greene. I’m a formerly incarcerated professional. I’m 33 years old. I’m also a father, a son, and community resource. When I think about higher education, I cannot help but to think about its intersection with mass incarceration. For me, it really starts in in my childhood. To give some context to what I mean, I grew up in inner cities of New York City. I went to a school in Queens, a really under resourced poor school. In my neighborhood and my community, it was an era of the crack epidemic, and what that means is that Black and Brown neighborhoods were being flooded with crack cocaine and a lot of our mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, community resources, and the people we grew up with were either using drugs or selling drugs to each other. This created situations where we committed all kinds of harm and interpersonal violence between ourselves, and we also lost infrastructure and political consciousness in both the home and the community.
With that being said, our schools were shaken from being disinvested and under-resourced and our communities were shaken as well. So no matter if we were in school or if we were at home, we weren’t getting proper support. Despite all of that, I was really academically engaged, and I was an honor role student. But by the time I turned fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, I was hit with a real dilemma. My mom was on drugs, and we were financially… struggling is not even the word. We had no money! We lived from house to house, and at that point, going to school was just not that important. It didn’t seem prevalent to surviving. I was living in a neighborhood where, through generations of disinvestment, people learned ways to survive, responding to the fact that they couldn’t get jobs in certain places (i.e., mainstream society—living wage employment) or they couldn’t get jobs because their schools didn’t give them the best quality education, which meant people had to find other resources and other ways to get money and to survive. So I was going through this battle of like, you’re an honor role student but you know, you’re really struggling, your mom’s struggling, you need to support your mother, and you’re in a community where people are innovators and learn how to survive.
I remember going to high school, and I also was self-medicating. I had started smoking weed because just so much was going on in my life. And you know I was like, “I can’t wait to keep getting A’s to make it out because my mother needs me now. How I’m going to make it? How I’m going to survive?” These were the questions I wrestled with as a poor Black youth in a failing education system and living in a structurally disinvested community.
I remember going to school one day, and I had a book bag on, and I had three bags of weed in my pocket. I was going to class and the school I went to in high school had security guards, police officers all over the place. I was walking to class and a police officer or security guard asked me to stop. “Let me check your book bag.” And I was like, “why you going to check my book bag? I’m going to class. I’m not late for class. I’m on my way to class. What gives you the reason to ask to check my book bag?”
So I looked at him and said “what?” and walked off, and they grabbed me and next thing you know it’s like seven officers grabbing me and they found the three bags of weed on me. Long story short, I was kicked out of school. I was 16. I was kicked out of public school. I had to go to some kind of department of education court and trial. I had a lawyer, my mother went, and they said, “Guess what? You’re no longer welcome in New York department of public schools. You should go to a GED program.”
And the thing that is really important to underscore is these GED schools where the system sends all the “bad kids” have less resources and support than the failing school system they pushed me out of. They send you to a GED program with fewer resources and less structure. So the so-called “bad kids,” the ones who would need more support, more resources, more attention, and more one-on-one time—they kick you out of the public school and then send you into another dysfunctional school setting that has less than the dysfunctional schools have in your public school system. So, essentially, I went there for like a week. They didn’t call if I didn’t come. They didn’t check if I came or not. I went there for a week and I was like, you know what? This system is not working for me. This system doesn’t care about me. When I went to class I wasn’t learning anything. They weren’t really teaching me how to do a GED. I said, “I’m a go survive.” And that’s when I went full-fledged into the underground economy to try to survive.
A Long-View of the Box
When I got locked up five years later, I got my GED in three months. There was nothing wrong with me around my intellectual capacity. It was that I wasn’t in a school or setting that was giving me initiative. And then also, for me, when I think about mass incarceration today in 2015, a lot of reasons why people are denied access to higher education start in how they receive K-12 education. The denial process starts before people are stamped with a felony. When school systems are disinvested and school systems are systematically kicking students out of school to put them in transitional schools or to put them into a pipeline that leads to prison, that’s the start of saying “you’re not worthy of a college education.”
Then there’s the notion that “Oh, you have a felony, you can’t come into the university because you make the university “unsafe.” And I put quotation marks around unsafe. When I think about exclusion from college, and I think about the Box, and I think about felonies or misdemeanors as reasons why universities would be wary of allowing people in, I think that’s the fifth tier of denial. The first tier is really that school systems K-12, in Black and Brown poor neighborhoods, are already designed to give people education that doesn’t prepare them for college And then secondly, it’s designed to leave you where college is not even one of your realities. So I think its important to have a long view of the Box. When people see the Box, it’s doubly traumatizing because people understand the history and what the Box means as people’s life experiences with institutions. That box is a symbol of how my whole experience of growing up has kept me away from these institutions and upward mobility and community socio-economical development
So like I said, when I first went to prison, I got my GED in the first three months. I wasn’t even thinking about college. I ended up getting sentenced to eight years. I ended up doing six years, ten months, out of those eight years. When I had maybe five years already in prison, one of my friends started telling me about how he’s going to college when he leaves prison. And I’m like, “college? How you gonna go to college? How you even thinking about college?” He had a pamphlet with all the different colleges. So that was the first time I really thought, “damn, I could go to college when I leave here.” I got the pamphlet from him and he connected me to this community-based organization called The College Initiative, which helps formerly incarcerated people get to college. I reached out to college initiative, they sent me my own package, I studied the package, and I thought about what program and what school was best for me. I realized I wanted to do ASL and deaf studies. LaGuardia Community College, from my understanding, was a really good school to learn about deaf studies. So when I came out of prison, I went straight to CUNY the second day out and I enrolled into the program.
First Encounter with the Box
The thing about City University of New York (CUNY) is they don’t ask the question about criminal history, so it was just a smooth process. I applied, I got in, I took the placement test, I was taking classes. In CUNY, I had two advisors and they were really intrigued by my story and also by my commitment to learning and being a part of the community. I was doing really well academically, so they just kept throwing different essay contests to me, resources, scholarships. I applied to this one scholarship and that was the first time I realized that my entanglement with the criminal punishment system was a real barrier.
Before that, I always spoke of my incarceration, thinking that it was really important for people to understand, however they perceive me, however they see me: as well-read, as an engaged student, as a person who’s working for the empire state building, as a person who is doing certain things in the community, and that I was once in prison. People who were once in prison can present themselves in this manner too. I also understood that a lot of the wisdom and the ingredients that made me who I were at that moment came from those years in prison, and because I learned so much from men in prison who would never be able to get released from prison because the world thinks they’re just un-releasable. These men live inside of me, they gave me so much wisdom, and its really important for me to always remember that and always reflect that.
So I always talked about my time in prison and it felt like it was a really important part of who I was and who I was becoming, and that other people should know it as well. And I didn’t think that it was something that I was going to be stigmatized from because I thought it was something that I was just going to be sharing with folks, and people can see how being around a context of elders and taking really personal care of your morals and values can transform how you respond to the world and how you interact with the world and society.
So I applied for the scholarship that gives you like $30,000 to go to a four-year program. I wrote a really good essay, and I think I rocked the interview. I talked to them for like two hours. I was so clear and so sharp on what I wanted to do and why I was in the position where I was, I knew the interview went really well. But I found out a month later that I didn’t get the scholarship.
I was like, that’s strange because, and I’m not saying that nobody else was deserving of it, but I knew that was a winning interview. I found out two months later. My advisor didn’t want to tell me at first, but she said that the people that interviewed me were so compelled and so excited that they were like, you were their number one candidate, but the CEO of the scholarship didn’t want to give the scholarship to me because of my previous entanglement with the criminal punishment system.
My first engagement with the Box was like, oh, the Box, I get to talk about transformation, I get to talk about all the wisdom that I carry with me that’s from people. So I enjoyed that question at first. I didn’t think it was a question that would put up infrastructural barriers; I thought it was question to really engage people humanely.
And I started learning then, and I didn’t catch on at first. Because when she told me, I was already accepted to NYU. I wasn’t thinking that they didn’t give it to me because of my previous criminal history. It was so many months removed, that I didn’t really pay it no mind.
Second Experience with the Box
When I was graduating NYU, I applied to five PHD programs, and two of the schools I applied to had the Box again: Michigan University and DePaul University.
Before I applied to PHD programs, I was involved in a participatory project that was documenting the structural barriers to higher education for formerly incarcerated people. So I understood from other people’s experiences that a lot of people were having trouble with the Box. But my trajectory into higher education going through LaGuardia and then going to NYU where I was a part of a special transfer program. I was privileged. I never had any run-ins with the Box, really, that was negative besides the college scholarship thing that for some reason didn’t register in my head.
But when I applied to PHD programs, Michigan was a really bad experience. They asked me to check the Box and like anybody who checked the Box, they ask you to write another personal statement explaining why you checked the Box. And I wrote a really straightforward letter saying that when I was young, I was involved in a situation where I got charged for a gun possession and that I spent eight years in prison and I’m in a place right now after spending that time in prison and going to community college and graduating with honors from NYU, that I really understand, holistically, the impact that I caused in being involved with carrying a gun, and I’m in a place right now where I’m giving back to the world, where I think it’s really important for me not to be a liability, but an asset to the world and my community. That’s what I’ve been doing since I was in prison, that’s what I’ve been doing since I graduated from LaGuardia ahead of my class, when I graduated with honors from NYU, and what I hope to do with a PhD program.
Then I got into several email exchanges with administration at Michigan asking me various questions, like “can you re-state what you said?” So I just copied and pasted what I said again. And then they asked me, “Can you send us the sentencing report from the precinct for when you got arrested in 2002?” This was 2013. They wanted me to go to the precinct, talk to the police, have them dig through their records, find the report that they wrote in 2002 to arrest me. Then they wanted me to get the minutes. In 2004, I got sentenced in front of a judge in Queens. They wanted me to go to a courtroom and get the minutes with what the judge said on record and what the stenographer typed down, about what I was sentenced to, why I was sentenced etc., which cost money and cost time for a person who’s in NYU, who’s writing an honors thesis, who’s a father. When do I have time to sit in a court-room for five hours and then pay $300 for some minutes, because it’s like fifty cents a word or something? And then they wanted me to go to my parole officer and get a letter, and then besides the fact that I had four really strong recommendation letters from distinguished, well-established psychology professors, they told me that I need to get letters from folks in my community or church that would assure them that I would not be a threat to public safety at the University of Michigan: to explicitly say that I would not be a threat to their campus.
Since I was doing research on this, I was really engaged in the process because I wanted to see how far they would take this. So I went through all the process and I had support from faculty here who paid for a lot of the stuff that I couldn’t pay for. And I know that for most schools, some time in like March, April, you start hearing back from admissions. When I submitted all my stuff to Michigan, they gave me a NO in January. So I don’t even think they looked at any of my application. One of my friends who was in NYU who got into Michigan, who applied with me the same time, didn’t hear back from Michigan until April. They just sent me a generic email in January saying that “you’ve been denied” when I don’t think they looked at applications until like March.
So beyond the fact that I had to do a thousand different things and I had to pay money out of my pocket—good thing I had resources—I don’t really think they gave me a fair chance in the admissions process. That’s really when I knew, because I went through it personally but also was studying this so I had other people’s experiences and stories of the Box, that this question wasn’t really about trying to see people’s humanity, but was really about excluding people and not giving people a chance. And people who already have not received a fair hand—another layer or level of exclusion. This is when I knew the Box needed to be abolished.
Removing Structural Barriers by Abolishing the Box
Empirically speaking, the Box should be abolished because it doesn’t give universities, admission committees, university presidents and board of trustees, or anyone considering academic integrity, safety, or intellectual capacity, anything to evaluate on. The Box, from an empirical standpoint, does not enhance public safety or campus safety. The Box is not a question that predicts who is going to graduate or at what rate someone will graduate. The justification of using the Box is based on fear, not rational or empirical instruction. These fears have no history. When we look at who commits ‘crimes’, whatever a crime is, or who breaks the laws on campus, historically, its has been people who’ve never had ‘documented’ criminal records.
I say documented criminal records because the Incarceration to Education Coalition (IEC) would argue that a lot of people break the law, but not everybody is charged for breaking the law or held similarly accountable. We have systems at NYU to protect students from being tattooed with documented criminal records. When students in NYU get caught with weed and coke, instead of getting arrested, they are mandated to a Saturday morning AA meeting where they write a letter about the incident. But people in Black and Brown poor neighborhoods, if we are caught with weed or coke, we are arrested and stamped with a documented criminal record that further bars us from future development and opportunities. I say that all to say that the Box does not give us any future predictive understanding of how an applicant is going develop or add to the university community. It is an irrelevant question in the college application process. But on the other hand, the Box is damaging to the thousands of people who have to face the question. We know what the Box means. We know when people see the Box, they experience trauma. People feel things. People are afraid. People are traumatized. People are exposed to harm applying to colleges that have the Box in their application.
Having the Box is an extension of the criminal punishment system. People understand the Box in relationship to their whole existence in an unjust world as another form of punishment and another barrier to exclude marginalized communities from mainstream society. That Box is not silent: it speaks in volumes. It speaks a language of racism. The number of people who have been traumatized by the Box has not been systematically documented, but we know that hundred just walk away from the college application rather than subject themselves to the Box. Like, “I’m not going through that. I’m not even putting myself through that pain.”
My personal experience tells me even when we swallow that pain and that fear and face the Box, when we go through the process, we are reminded that we are not treated as a candidate with equal status. We are reminded of systems and communities in which structural violence and disinvestment are present. And, we all respond differently, but we are in disinvested communities where we are just like, jumping over prison and jumping over death, and jumping over poverty, and that’s all we see at home and in school. Some of us are really creative and able to weave around that. But the statistical chance that we jump into poverty or death or incarceration or into violence is really high. It’s all in our neighborhood, and that’s because of structural violence.
Formerly incarcerated people graduate faster than their peers. Formerly incarcerated people usually are fathers, mothers, and caretakers. We bring a sense of urgency to academic institutions. That is a different kind of engagement with a college education than someone who is seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, who is just going to college to be away from their parents and have freedom and figure out the world. When people who are formerly incarcerated—who have done a lot of internal work on ourselves and come out of prison with real family obligations—go to college, we go there with a different kind of engagement. Beyond diversity, we bring a different kind of commitment than somebody who is just eighteen and in a different phase of learning, commitment, and responsibility to family and community.
Formerly incarcerated people enhance the civic life of university and college communities. Not only are we being shortchanged by being blocked out of universities, the university itself is losing out on collective wisdom or collective engagement. The ability to exchange knowledge and understand different experiences of living in society is cut short because of people’s fears about who should have access to school and who shouldn’t have access to school.
No Justification is Valid for the Use of the Box
Senior Administrators at Universities try to justify the Box by saying people who check the Box get an opportunity to explain why they ‘deserve’ enrollment. This goes back to an earlier comment when I said the Box shouldn’t be there because it doesn’t give any type of wisdom to college evaluators of a person’s academic ability or ‘criminal’ behavior. What college evaluators should study are applicants’ transcripts, personal statements, CVs and resumes, and recommendation letters from peers, other academics, and community based organizations.
We live in a society where we are comfortable with locking people up as an intervention for rehabilitation. A person gets sentenced, a judge gives that person time to spend in prison, that person is sent to prison, and then when that person is released from prison, that person has paid their ‘debt to society’. When a person is released from prison, they should not have to go through any more measures to figure out if they’re rehabilitated.
Combatting the idea that formerly incarcerated people deserve less
When I think of deservingness and I think about human rights, when you understand what people are in prison for, and when you understand the war on drugs and the war on crime and which communities those wars have taken place in, you understand that human rights have been broken way before people get to college or prison. I don’t think deservingness is even a question to consider, unless you’re going to consider the fact that the human rights of people who’ve spent time in prison have been neglected historically. If anybody deserves anything, it is the person that has made it to the application process at Princeton or Harvard or NYU, after they have traveled over wars and potholes and prisons and disinvestment. If formerly incarcerated applicants have made it to the college doorstep after the long journey through oppression and incarceration, they deserve to be there!
However, I think deservingness is a really slippery kind of language because we should be thinking of people as whole people. We should think all humans deserve quality education. But if we’re going to really understand the history of this country, the history of incarceration, the history of access to college and quality college education, and then we’re going to talk about deservingness, there are many populations and groups that are deserving. I’m talking about Black, Brown, the poor, indigenous, undocumented, immigrants, women—a lot of groups and communities that historically have been excluded from college. We should put emphasis on efforts to bring in folks who’ve been historically excluded under the framework of deservingness.
The Box Decreases Public Safety
Public safety, academic engagement, and civic engagement—the Box doesn’t promote any of those things. It negates those things. It decreases public safety.
We as ‘citizens,’ humans, and people in America don’t tell the world that the prison system is broken. But the way the prison system works is that on average, fifty percent of people go back into prison within the first three years. This is an intervention that clearly is not working. But when people who leave prison get an associates degree, that fifty percent average drops down to 13 percent. And then when people get a bachelor’s degree, that fifty percent drops down to five percent. And when people get a master’s degree, people just don’t go back to prison. Consequently, when colleges deny formerly incarcerated applicants access to education, in practice and in theory, they are decreasing public safety, because we know prison doesn’t work and education has been the best empirically studied intervention against mass incarceration. People who leave prison and get access to education like myself don’t go back to prison at the rates that other people do. We just don’t go back to prison. We are socio-psychologically in a different place in life.
Is Abolishing the Box Radical?
Universities are implicitly tied to social issues. Part of getting a degree is building social networks. When you go to Princeton and you get a degree from Princeton, you’re leaving with the expectation that you are going to have a career that’s going be sustainable, which has consequences for what kind of family you’re going to have, what kind of human you can be, what kind of job you can get, what kind of resources you can share with your family. These are real social outcomes related to the college degree and institution.
Abolishing the Box is not radical because all the empirical and historical evidence says that the Box shouldn’t be there. If you look at the Box and campus safety and who graduates, the Box doesn’t tell you anything about crime on campus or who is going to graduate at faster rates. It makes perfect sense to get rid of the Box. It’s not a hard thing for universities to justify empirically and historically why they should do this. But it is radical in the sense that when people have access to universities, their life situations and possibilities are radically different.
Multi-Generational and Communal Impact of the Box
We should also understand that generations of not having access to quality education has consequences and implications for the generations that follow. It’s not just the individual that’s applying; that individual is also connected to a long line of families and communities.
When colleges exclude formerly incarcerated applicants from quality education, they set the context for how they will make money, the context for how they will survive. People who have access to quality education have radically different possibilities than people who don’t have access to quality education.
When you deny people who are formerly incarcerated access to quality education, you are denying their children a future as well. My mother (who was impacted by the crack epidemic) didn’t get access to college, which provided certain possibilities for me. Since I have gained access to college, my son has certain resources that I never would have had a chance to get.
College applications ask “is your father, your mother, someone in your family, an alumni?” This question seeks to privilege generational access to college—if one’s family, class, and culture has traditionally had access to the university, their enrollment status is treated differently. So another thing to think about: when people have been historically excluded from generation to generation, they don’t get to check that Box that pushes their applications forward.
Since I went to NYU, if my son applies to NYU and they ask him, did your father go to NYU, he can check that Box. Since I went to NYU, my son has been to NYU’s campus; my son knows what NYU looks like. I can speak to my son about what kind of academic materials and conversations happen in these spaces. I have the opportunity to get resources and employment that affect how my son is raised.
So when you deny a person access to education, you’re not just denying that person. You’re denying that person’s family. You’re denying that person’s community access because you’re putting limits on their possibilities of being a human, being a community member, being a father, being in a family. We’ve got to understand that we live in a society where these things are bigger than just people applying.
Thinking about “Criminals”
When people think of the Box, people don’t understand that it’s about more than just people who were involved with the criminal punishment system. People shouldn’t be reduced to one part of their identity.
I ask the question: what does a ‘criminal’ even mean? How do you define criminal? When you call people criminal, it is easier to dehumanize them. It’s easier to say, I don’t trust you, I don’t want you around me. I think that’s part of the problem, too. This young NYU student who is sniffing coke in their room is a college student who’s just trying to have fun and get high. A non-student living in the community of NYC witnessed sniffing coke or smoking crack in their project hallway is viewed as a person who is from a community that breeds criminals. That’s how we’re taught to think of things.
It’s tricky to have conversations because college students and college universities would be kind of telling their own secrets, but I think its really important to have a conversation about the dichotomy between different communities and policing and who has documented criminal records, who gets seen as a criminal, and then how criminal is used as this metaphor to say that we need to protect our students from the criminals when we can say people who are students do the same behaviors that people you call criminals do.
Who Gets to Feel Safe? Whose Opportunities are Forfeited?
Universities are extremely comfortable with making some people feel safe at the expense of excluding others. Schools have been doing it for so long that its’ okay to make some people feel safe at the expense of other people’s opportunities. That is the Box’s only rationale. It’s not based on any hard history or science, just the claim that we need to make some people feel safe.
You can’t really have conversations and have people get it. The only way you get it is when you’re in the context to get it. We can tell people’s parents that their sons or daughters are going to be safe, but the only way people are really going to get it is when people’s sons and daughters say, “Mom. Cory, what? I would go with Cory anywhere! I would leave Cory in our house and we can go to China and our house would be even cleaner than it was before!”
You have to confront the things that don’t make any sense but make you feel comfortable. When you say “why do I believe this?” or “why am I scared when I see this?” or “why do I feel comfortable doing this when I know the only reason I do this is because it makes me feel comfortable?” then you have to step into it. And it’s scary to step into it. It’s really scary even for me. When I see people who look like me at two in the morning, it’s scary for me too. But I trust people that I grew up with that look like me, I trust my neighbor, I trust humans, and I walk past them. I feel really scared at certain moments, but I feel really sure that I need to feel unafraid because this is another human being walking by. They might be scared at me too. I need to let them know that I know they’re human. And then I see the humanness in them, I walk by them saying like, “what’s going on?”
This is not something we’re asking folks to do that we’re not doing ourselves. The work that we’re doing untangling these kind of stereotypes and these myths and these internal fears that we have of humans in the world is really the only way they can be understood and really be challenged. When we engage meaningfully with our fears, new understandings and possibilities are possible.
We can tell stories about why the Box should not be there and we can pull on history and evidence of why the Box should not be there, but we also really need to talk about whose anxieties and fears we are protecting at the expense of whose opportunities and possibilities we are neglecting. And then we need to say the only way those opportunities are going to be possible and the only way people’s fears and anxieties are going be calmed is when the Box is abolished. That’s the only way. There’s no talking out of those anxieties and fears. Even if the Box is abolished and we put other measures in place to protect people’s anxieties and fears, these kinds of institutions historically will look the same and feel the same. Just abolishing the Box doesn’t do it either. We’ve got to really engage those anxieties and fears. We’ve got to really teach our universities and campuses the myths around incarceration. And once we really start interrogating that or engaging that, then it becomes less of a thing about trying to protect us from them, because we understand that them and us are the same.
[This interview has been condensed and edited.]