Prison, College, and the Labor Market: A Critical Analysis by Formerly Incarcerated and Justice-Impacted Students

AuthorKhoi Quach,Michael Cerda-Jara,Raven Deverux,Johnny Smith
Published date01 May 2022
Date01 May 2022
Subject MatterImproving Human Capital and Labor Market Opportunities
78 ANNALS, AAPSS, 701, May 2022
DOI: 10.1177/00027162221112772
Prison, College,
and the Labor
A Critical
Analysis by
Incarcerated and
Enrollment in and navigation of higher learning institu-
tions as a pathway to social mobility remains a signifi-
cant challenge for many currently and formerly
incarcerated people, particularly for those placed under
community supervision. This article reviews research
on the topic, drawing out key contributory factors and
summarizing reform efforts in recent history. We dis-
cuss the potential differential benefits of postsecondary
educational attainment for formerly incarcerated peo-
ple and emphasize the need for more research around
educational attainment for this population. We also
examine effective model programs in the State of
California as a way of highlighting the complex and
variable nature of the challenges in higher learning for
justice-impacted individuals due to their social and
supervisory circumstances. These analyses are used as
basis for general policy recommendations to provide a
stronger foundation for targeted support frameworks
and to assist institutional partners working to improve
the experience and success of justice-impacted people
in postsecondary education. We conclude the article
with a critical reflection regarding the institutional
function of education in accordance with the current
demands of neoliberalism and a concomitant call to
action anchored to an alternative vision for a more
emancipatory education.
Keywords: justice-impacted people; postsecondary
education; college in prison; community
supervision; employment
As today’s postindustrial labor market becomes
increasingly hypercompetitive and skilled, the
national social safety net continues to erode
Khoi Quach is a PhD student in the sociology depart-
ment at the University of California, Berkeley. He is
primarily interested in exploring various dimensions and
dynamics underlying the political economy of inequality
regimes. His current research examines inequities in
education, in addition to the emergent opportunities and
potential disparities in digitality.
(Silva 2013). In this context, a college education and credential are no longer a
privilege but rather a necessary milestone for many Americans transitioning to
adulthood (Harding and Harris 2020). Yet the inflating costs of a college degree,
in terms of both money (Gale etal. 2014) and time (Shapiro et al. 2018), leave
this milestone out of reach for many. As a result, those without the economic,
social, and cultural foundations for college enrollment and success (Harding and
Harris 2020) are often unable to find work in higher-paying, more stable sectors
of the economy. Too often, this includes justice-impacted people—particularly
formerly incarcerated people and those on probation or parole—many of whom
grew up in poor or working-class families and in racial/ethnic minority communi-
ties (Harding and Harris 2020).
Along with these socioeconomic obstacles, many justice-impacted people face
further barriers to college, including the responsibilities associated with early
parenthood (Sandefur, Eggerling-Boeck, and Park 2005) and the lack of reliable
information about navigating college and work (Lareau and Cox 2020). This also
leaves them vulnerable to higher debt and predatory practices by unethical, for-
profit postsecondary education providers (DeLuca, Clampet-Lundquist, and
Edin 2016).
Moreover, for justice-impacted people, incarceration experiences often inter-
rupt life transitions and rites of passage undertaken by their nonincarcerated
peers (Harding and Harris 2020). These destabilizing developmental disruptions
often funnel them into trajectories marked by low-wage, exploitative employ-
ment and ongoing involvement with crime. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a develop-
mental detour through the carceral system can also lead to worse substance use
and mental health disorders. These deleterious outcomes are attributable to
people experiencing the poor, stressful conditions of prison facilities and the ero-
sion of key social and support networks (Sugie and Turney 2017). Shaped, then,
by the compounded hardships of neighborhood disadvantage and the carceral
system, formerly incarcerated people frequently face high barriers to education
Michael Cerda-Jara is a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at Stanford
University, where his research focuses on employment opportunities for college-educated
people with criminal records. He is an Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education (EDGE)
Raven Deverux is a doctoral student at the University of California, Los Angeles in the
Department of Sociology. Her work centers on the intersections of race, gender, and class
within system-impacted communities. In addition to her academic work with system-impacted
communities, Raven is part of the leadership team for Underground Scholars at UCLA.
Johnny Smith is an undergraduate student studying sociology at the University of California,
Berkeley. Upon completing his degree, he intends to further his intellectual pursuit and passion
for research in a graduate program. His research currently focuses on the reformation of post-
release supervision with an emphasis on the occupational duality among community correc-
tions officers.
NOTE: The authors thank Dr. David J. Harding for his ongoing support and mentorship and
Dr. Jasmin A. Sandelson for her invaluable assistance with draft revisions. In addition, they
thank Dr. Bruce Western, the REFORM Alliance, Dr. Thomas Kecskemethy, and The
ANNALS for the opportunity to engage with scholarship during a critical moment for formerly
incarcerated and systems impacted scholars.

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