How can we ameliorate the seemingly divergent paths of college and incarceration?

How can we ameliorate the seemingly divergent paths of college and incarceration?

By Affiliated Researcher Ben Fils

I like to stay busy and work on projects I’m passionate about. (Don’t we all?) That’s what keeps me going during those long days and long nights. It’s what motivates me when I go to work at my day jobs—yes, “jobs”, plural—and when I head home to study. You guessed it, I’m also a student—a doctoral student to be precise. Yes, I’m juggling a lot, but here’s the thing: I wouldn’t have it any other way. Here’s why and here’s how it all fits together: 

I decided to study higher education within carceral spaces because of the impact mass incarceration has had on the communities that I have lived and worked in. I’m not only curious but intent on finding avenues for participation for impacted individuals. I have a desire to ameliorate the effects, at least in part, of the seemingly divergent paths of college enrollment and incarceration that our institutions insidiously create for urban youth. Studying a topic is one thing, but living it and knowing people directly impacted is altogether another.

High-quality postsecondary liberal arts programs in prisons have the potential to empower incarcerated people and their communities and act as a democratizing intervention strategy against the carceral status quo. Some people might be surprised to learn that there are nearly 400 higher education programs operating in prisons today and that incarcerated students often outperform their campus-based counterparts in the same rigorous courses. My research role at the Possibility Lab allows me to delve further into this work. 

What’s my second job, you might still be asking? I also serve as a higher education student affairs practitioner. In this role, I have supported the efforts of institutions to reduce their reliance on carceral logics in student discipline proceedings, which historically emphasized control and exclusion, and shift towards restorative practices that center relationships and communal bonds. Studies have found that restorative practices in education can disrupt patterns of racially stratified achievement, improve school climate, reduce law enforcement interactions, and support deeper, more meaningful learning from the alleged misconduct. This is central to my studies as a doctoral candidate in UC Berkeley’s Leaders for Equity and Democracy (LEAD) Ed.D. program. 

How am I able to balance my jobs and doctoral program? It’s simple, and it goes back to my passion for the work. When I first joined the Possibility Lab I knew I was in the right place when, on my first day, I found myself in a meeting with other staff members concerned with elevating the voices of incarcerated college students and promoting the original research they were producing. I had just concluded teaching a course that would prepare incarcerated students for college just a few weeks before this meeting. It was impossible to ignore what felt like a nearly tangible thread between our work in the Lab and the potential that many have witnessed in prison classrooms.

It was a remarkable experience to be immediately brought into the discussion, to feel valued, and to see how each team member encouraged others to contribute their particular lens to the collective effort of empowering a group of individuals that are often overlooked—or even exploited—by many of society’s institutions. 

This meeting crystallized ‘my why’ and reminded me of bell hooks’ writing regarding possibilities. She wrote, “to be truly visionary we have to root our imagination in our concrete reality while simultaneously imagining possibilities beyond that reality.” I am animated by this grounded and reflective optimism of what is possible.

As a member of the Lab, I’ve been a part of diverse research teams exploring research questions with transformative potential for improving the quality and delivery of education and justice programs in California. As an educator, I am deeply concerned with how universities live up to their mission of serving the public good, establish reciprocal relationships with their communities, and foster these values for students.

So, you see, that’s why I do what I do. It’s why being busy with two jobs while student-ing is not only manageable, but enjoyable too. My colleagues share this passion, as evidenced by an active research agenda that advances the public good. Much like that first day, which showcased the team’s idealism in practice, I’ve seen that we are committed to learning from those at the community level most affected by government policies and societal inequity, so that we can ensure that their stories become a part of the research tapestry UC Berkeley is renowned for. Busy? Sure. But most importantly, fulfilled. 

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