This year, EJP’s Prison-to-Gown initiative has begun its research and exploration phases to provide support for people making the transition from incarceration to academic study on college campuses. The initiative operates from an understanding that most institutions for higher education are not geared to address the specific challenges that formerly incarcerated people face, and that specific measures can be taken to address those challenges. 

In summarizing his approach, Program Coordinator Mike Brawn says, “If we can do a lot of the work for you to clear some of the hurdles away before you actually run into them, then you can just focus more on being a student, and these hurdles don’t have to dissuade you from pursuing a college education.” 

Taking the lead from other university campuses with similar programs, and by soliciting feedback from people with first-hand experience, members of the Prison-to-Gown Program have identified the following priority areas, which they plan to address through a combination of targeted programming and peer-to-peer mentoring. 

Housing: Universities often provide affordable student housing, but the requirement for background checks when applying for housing is a major hurdle for people who have been incarcerated. One way that Mike Brawn intends to provide support in this area is for his team to take on the challenge of finding housing that is available to people who have conviction records.

Technology: Technology is changing at a rapid pace. People who have been incarcerated are likely to reenter a world in which many of the technologies of daily life are unfamiliar. The Prison-to-Gown Program plans to work with community partners to offer technology workshops that specifically address platforms that are common in campus classes and employment situations, programs like Canvas, Discord, Slack, Google Docs, Zoom, etc.

Campus culture: The social culture on any university campus is a dynamic, changing set of norms, references, routine practices, and communal events. People who have been incarcerated are oftentimes older than their academic peers and might not immediately mesh with a campus’s social culture. Peer-to-peer support can be helpful for this demographic in the same way it can be helpful for other people pursuing continuing education as adults.

Academic assistance: People who have been incarcerated might not have taken academic classes for quite some time, and even if they have pursued higher education in prison, they might not be used to the demands of taking a full course load. These individuals might benefit greatly from academic assistance in the form of mentoring and tutoring to keep up with the pace of coursework. 

Counseling: Many college students find it a challenge to perform well academically while also balancing work, personal life, and social obligations. This challenge can be more extreme for formerly incarcerated individuals, as they may be working with other social, emotional, and financial challenges as well. Furthermore, these individuals may be unfamiliar with how to cope with feelings of frustration or overwhelm, and may not be accustomed to voicing their needs. Campus counseling services can help, and another role of the Prison-to-Gown Program is to ensure students are aware of the availability of such resources.

By working to ameliorate some of the difficulties formerly incarcerated individuals face on college campuses, EJP’s Prison-to-Gown Program will increase their ability to focus on coursework and improve their likelihood of completing a degree.