Listen: Educator Erin Corbett '99 on Deconstructing the Prison Recidivism Paradigm

Despite progressive efforts toward restructuring how the system prepares incarcerated individuals for re-entry into their home communities, little is understood about the factors that determine whether someone re-offends. In November, Erin Corbett ’99 returned to campus to argue for a closer examination of the limited educational and post-prison employment opportunities that contribute to the phenomenon.

Corbett graduated from Swarthmore with a degree in psychology and educational studies and completed her doctorate of education from the University of Pennsylvania in May 2017. She is the founder and CEO of Second Chance Educational Alliance Inc., a nonprofit that provides participating ex-offenders with access to postsecondary opportunities. 

This event was sponsored by the Swarthmore College History Department, Black Studies Program, Black Cultural Center, and Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility.


Audio Transcript

Dion Lewis:  For those of you who may not know me, I'm Dion Lewis. I'm dean of the junior class and director of the Black Cultural Center here at Swarthmore College. Tonight, I have the pleasure of introducing our guest lecturer, Erin Corbett. Is a member of Swarthmore College's Class of 1999. Yeah, right. Hello. And currently serves as chief executive officer at Second Chance Educational Alliance, Inc., a leading non-profit that provides academic opportunities to incarcerated learners in the state of Connecticut. She earned a bachelor's degree in psychology and education from Swarthmore, an MBA from the Malcolm Baldridge School of Business, and a doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania. Erin's dissertation explored the relationship between educational attainment levels and post release employment outcomes for Connecticut's ex offenders released in 2012.

She currently teaches courses in prison, and these courses are African American Lit, Philosophy, Sociology. Some of her key readings include James Baldwin's "Fire Next Time", "The Iliad", and "Song of Solomon". Erin also informed me that her incarcerated students are some of the most engaged she's ever encountered in her professional career. Erin's research interests include higher education, prison education, race and incarceration, education program evaluation. Erin shared with me that her capacity and ability for research was ignited here at Swarthmore College while she was enrolled in one of Allison Dorsey's Black Study courses. There, she learned after her first paper that she needed to use proper citations, read carefully, and dig deeper, all points that Professor Dorsey wrote in her constructive feedback. I wasn't supposed to share that, but I did. Ladies and gentlemen, Erin Corbett.

Erin Corbett: Thank you. After that intro, I'm certain that I feel like a magical unicorn that's done all these fantastical, wonderful things that really are not me, but they kind of are, so it sounds really nice. Thank you all for coming this afternoon. It's always great when I'm able to speak in front of people who are passionate about social justice.

The title of my talk today is "Why Do They Return: Deconstructing the Recidivism Paradigm". We're going to look at three things today, and I put them all up on the board so that we can all follow along. We're gonna talk about mass incarceration, the big picture, sort of what does mass incarceration look like beyond the numbers with which we are most familiar.

We've all heard the United States has a high percent of the world's population and incarcerates 25% of the incarcerated population across the globe. We have heard a lot about the racial disparities that make up the prison population in the United States. But we're gonna dig a little bit deeper because what I wanna then do is transition to the importance of talking about hidden and collateral consequences of incarceration.

So, what are the ways in which formerly incarcerated people continue to have struggles and challenges once they are released from physical custody? And we'll then transition in to a little bit of a conversation about why the recidivism paradigm, which is the paradigm around which most research is focused, is flawed and problematic, and we shouldn't use it. Any questions? Yes? No? Maybe so? Great. We're gonna mosey right along.

The Prison Policy Initiative, which is one of the foremost think tanks, policy research agenda setters, came up with this is the picture of incarceration in the United States right now. Can you guys hear me? I make a living speaking over facility announcements, so I can speak very loudly. This is wonderful.

We have approximately, now in 2017, about 2.1 million people who are in physical custody. The number has a range from 2.5 million down to 2.2 million. As we've seen decreases in the incarcerated population, the number is now down to 2.1 million. And as you see, most of those folks are incarcerated in state facilities, and then we have local jails with 630,000, and then we have a smaller percentage who are in federal facilities.

So, this is where we take a more global look at incarceration rates. This number, as you see, the United States incarcerates approximately 693 people per 100,000 people. That's how the rate is described. The next highest incarceration rate among our NATO allies is in the United Kingdom at 145 per 100,000. Our incarceration rate is so high it does not even fit in the box used to describe incarceration rates across the global. If we wanna even take a look at some other countries that may not be part of this NATO alliance, we can even look at places like Russia and, perhaps, Rwanda. And again, with this data from The Sentencing Project, which is from 2016, we are looking at 670 per 100,000 vs. Russia, which is at 439 per 100,000. By all accounts, whether it's the Sentencing Project, the Prison Policy Initiative, the Vera Institute, the Department of Justice, the United States is the leading incarcerator in the entire globe.

So, we wanna make sure that we're talking about the ways in which confinement is just one slice of the pie. There are over four and a half million people who are under some form of community supervision, so that's probation, that's parole, that's the ankle bracelets, that's all kinds of home monitoring, etc. these people have criminal records just like those who are in physical custody, and so often when we think about how they are transitioning, sometimes it's easy to think that it's easier for them because they haven't been in prison. But they still have a criminal record, and record by Diva Pager indicates that just having a criminal record is like a negative credential.

I wanna also take a closer look at this local jails number of 630,000. 70% of people who are currently in local jails have not been convicted of a crime. They are awaiting trial, pending trial, pending all sorts of things because they haven't been convicted, so they're just sitting there waiting. When we think about what someone is going through as they are sitting awaiting trial, we think of stories like Kalif Browder. We think of stories of people who are stuck in these spaces, and these spaces that have very distinct and very oppressive and violent cultures, understanding that they are not even serving a sentence.

One part of the population that gets ignored is women. That is mostly because they are less than 10% of the total incarcerated population. However, as you can see the incarceration rate for women has skyrocketed in the past 20 years. It has increased just in these astronomical ways, and largely women who are incarcerated tend to have suffered from forms of abuse and trauma and are often in prison because they have maybe committed acts of violence against abusers, etc.

And so to look at things like race and gender, because I wanted to skip the race thing because we've all heard it, but it is still important, particularly when we look at it mixed with gender, you start to see even more how the disparities shake out. Marie Gottschalk in 2015 or 15 wrote a book called "Caught", and in this book she argues--which is absolutely right--even if people of color were imprisoned at the rate of white people, we would still be incarcerating more people than anyone in the entire world. So while certainly there is a race issue and a race component to mass incarceration, we still have a problem even if race wasn't a problem.

Another thing to consider are light sentences. As you can see from 1984 through 2012, the number of people who were incarcerated with life sentences has increased dramatically from 34,000 in 1984 to 159,520 in 2012. What it means to have a life sentence is that it is not just a judge saying you are sentenced to life with parole or you are sentenced to life without parole, it is when, perhaps, a judge wants to make an example of a particular defendant and say, "I am going to sentence you to 1,372 years", because that's not life. So, we have to think about this in terms of the way sentences are handed down and in terms of how the judiciary system works for some people and works differently for others.

Former our Attorney General, Eric Holder, said this to the American Bar Association, "As a society, we pay too high a price whenever our systems fail to deliver outcomes that deter and punish crime, keep people safe, and ensure that those who have paid their debts have the chance to become productive citizens."

I've just showed you really quickly a lot of the ways in which we can cut the data about mass incarceration. All the people that we've talked about, those who are on community supervision, those who are in physical custody, these are all folks who are under this mass incarceration, this mass supervision umbrella, and they all to some extent will experience different versions of these hidden and collateral consequences.

So, now we're at number two. Hidden consequences are the post release consequences that are legally sanctioned but are not judicially imposed. It is not as if a defendant is standing in front of a judge and the judge says, "Not only will I sentence you to five years in custody, but I am also going to take away your right to vote, I am also going to say that you will not quality for housing, I am also going to say that you cannot get Welfare or cash assistance." These are all pieces that are build into legislation in particular states and, in some cases, federal government as well.

Here is a chart that comes from Joshua Kaiser who published an article in the Harvard Ed Review that looked very intentionally and deliberately at the hidden consequences and the collateral consequences of mass incarceration. This number down here, 42,634, that is the number of legislative pieces across the country that actively discriminate people with a criminal record. I want that to sink in. There are over 42,000 different pieces of legislation that allow for the discrimination against people with a criminal record. Over 62% of them apply directly to employment and employment related licensure. So, we have someone who has served a five year sentence, and let's say that while they were incarcerated, they were able to obtain a barber's license. So now, they can go, they can rent out a chair in a shop, they can cut hair. But maybe not, because maybe when they go to get their license and the licensure board finds out that they have a criminal record, they now can't get that license. Or maybe they can get the license, and perhaps the terms of their parole or probation indicate that they can't be within a certain distance of a school. Or that they can't be around children. Or that they can't be around people with other criminal records.

And so now you not only have confined this person while they were in custody to learning a certain skill set because educational opportunities are not extensive in prison despite what the media will tell you, you have now also constrained the extent to which they can find and practice the skill--the sole skill, maybe--that they were even able to learn while incarcerated.

Okay. My iPad was very upset about that. That was my graduation picture, y'all. Hey. That's how you know it's real.

So, we also wanna look at education related legislation. We have approximately 675 statutes that discriminate against folks with criminal records when it comes to seeking education. Typically, those are statutes that affect financial aid, the ability to borrow, the ability to receive Pell. What it does not include are the schools and the policies, the unwritten policies, that simply actively deny folks with criminal records from even attending an institution. So, that 675 is actually a low figure because it does not include those pieces.

Here, we have a picture that starts to emerge for many folks who are formerly incarcerated. One, you have a criminal record. Pager's like that's a negative credential, you're already gonna have some struggles. You get out, and now there are thousands of statutes. And if we break that down into states, hundreds of statutes within your state that can prevent you from seeking the job, that for many, is actually a part of their parole. For some, finding employment is tied to their freedom. And so when we have these statutes that constrain their ability to find a job, we are essentially pushing them towards a return to custody.

So, as we think about hidden consequences and collateral consequences beyond the legal statutes, we have these pieces like 1 in every 10 black men in his 30's is in prison or jail on any given day. So, whether we're thinking about policies like stop and frisk, whether we are thinking about things like parole violations or things like that, 1 in every 10 black men in his 30's--prime bread winning age--is in jail or prison on any given day. That's part of the hidden consequences of things like policing, which neighborhoods get policed, and how much they're policed.

6.1 million Americans cannot vote because of a felony conviction. Depending on what state you were incarcerated in, you may lose your right to vote permanently. In some states, you may only lose it for maybe 5 or 10 years after you've been released. In some states, you can vote while you're in prison. That's not even a whole state. It's like pockets of California where that's happening. But overall, felon disenfranchisement is a tremendous, tremendous issue. This is literally 6,000,000 people who are not able to participate in our democracy in the purest sense of the word. They have no representation because their voice is not heard.

And then we have a data point about women. 180,000 women in the 12 most impacted states, so the 12 states with the highest incarceration rates, and those states are mostly in the southeast, have been banned for life from receiving welfare or cash assistance due to a felony conviction. So again, we have to think about this from a systems perspective. If the rationale or the rhetoric is you need to be able to support yourself, why don't you find job. Hey. I guess y'all be seeing that a lot of times as this happens. So, the rhetoric is get out, find a job, be a productive citizen. Except, how can you do that when you can't find a job? And then you can't get access to the very public programs that could give you a little bit of cushion to help you go on an interview, to help you work on your resume, etc.

We also have the issue of reentry housing. So again, when folks are released, they go to halfway houses. Those with substance abuse problems might go to sober houses. But a lot of people ultimately end up trying to get back into low income subsidized housing. What the Hayes Report did a survey of formerly incarcerated people and found that 79% of the survey participants were either ineligible for or were denied housing because of their own or a loved one's conviction history. So, not only does that mean that you with a conviction history can be actively discriminated against in housing, but if you go to your mom's house, your mom might get kicked out of her house or her apartment because of your conviction history. You also have 58% of the survey participants were currently living with family members while only 9% were in transitional housing.

So, there are very few options for people who are formerly incarcerated to actually try to live on their own, because again what do you need to live on your own? Money. What do you need to get money? A job. But if you have hundreds of laws saying it's okay to discriminate against you when getting a job, we start to see how this picture of going back to jail and all of this starts to come together.

We also see that 1 in 10 survey participants reported family members having been evicted when loved ones returned. So, imagine you are coming home from a 10 year bid, you wanna see your family, they're the only people you can stay with, and then as soon as you return they are evicted. So again, you've got this feeling of stress when you are released of how am I gonna make ends meet, how am I gonna take care of my family if I have kids, how am I gonna do this, how am I gonna do that. And now you may run into the case where the very place where you're staying with the very people who are trying to help you get your feet under you are now being evicted.

And so, employment again, 60% of formerly incarcerated people are still unemployed a year after release. Still. 67% of formerly incarcerated individuals were still unemployed or underemployed five years after their release. So, I wanna look a little bit closer at that term underemployed. This means that for those formerly incarcerated people who maybe got a degree inside or maybe they got out and they were able to get a degree afterward, they're not finding jobs that match their degree level. So, it starts to beg the question or forces us to ask the question what is the role of education, how do we leverage that so that people are able to find jobs so that they are not underemployed. And then again another piece of unemployment, three out of four survey participants said that finding employment after release was difficult--surprise--or nearly impossible.

And the other thing to think about is if you are incarcerated or when you are incarcerated it means for the most part you are not working. And we all know when you graduate you go to career services, they tell you to what? Put your resume together. List all the things you did. I was with the Lang Center. I was a TA in Dr. Dorsey's class. And then I worked with Dean Lewis. You're listing all of these things to talk about your experience and how your are skilled enough to be at this particular job. If you have done a 15 year bid, what does your resume look like? You have tremendous work history gaps that have to be explained, usually very uncomfortably, in an employment interview.

So, education. It's sort of my wheelhouse a little bit. I love it. I try not to focus on it all the way, but I can't help it. So, three out of five formerly incarcerated survey participants were unable to afford returning to school. We have some other statistics. One in four were denied or barred from educational loans because of their conviction, and then 67% said that they wanted to return to school, but only 27% were able to. School is expensive. Higher education is expensive. And while Pell eligibility can help, it does not go anywhere near coming close to being able to bridge the gap for those who are formerly incarcerated. And arguably, it's the same for a lot of folks in America who are pursuing higher education. It is expensive. I'm sure tuition costs of attendance here at Swarthmore is crazy high. But even for those that are looking for maybe a four year public institution or even a two year public institution, if you're not having access to opportunities to find employment, if you're not having access to opportunities to maybe get a grant or borrow money for school, you're largely going to be unable to afford it unless you have family members who can help you, and in that, you would be an anomaly.

So now, we're gonna move on to recidivism as distraction. I chose this as the title because we all know on social media in today's day and age, people say don't focus on this, don't be distracted by this because you should be paying attention to this, don't focus on this, don't be distracted because you should be paying attention to that. I argue that this focus on recidivism is in fact a distraction, and I argue that for the following reasons.

When we focus on recidivism as the sole outcome, we position it, we prioritize it as the only important outcome. And I put educational in because a lot of the research that talks about education in prison says that the main reason that we should provide this education is because it lowers recidivism, and that's a flawed and problematic paradigm in and of itself, but that's a whole other lecture. But here we have research, we have studies that essentially distill the complexity of the lived experience post incarceration down to whether or not you return to custody. Without understanding that methodologically, this is problematic.

So, when we think of variables that are complex, we think of things like socioeconomic status. That's made up of parental income, parent education level, zip code, your education level, all of these different pieces go into how we determine methodologically socioeconomic status. I argue that recidivism should be the same way. We need to think about the different pieces that go into whether or not someone ultimately returns to custody. Because currently, in the recidivism paradigm, a return to custody is seen as you made a bad decision and now you are back in jail. We don't leave space for are you back for a new offense, have you re-offended, is this a parole violation where you have gone back to custody, what are the circumstances, did you go back because you couldn't find a job and you therefor violated your parole? What are the circumstance? And then number four, it does not require or demand a conversation about the very policies that keep formerly incarcerated people perpetually marginalized.

So, I have a couple of recommendation could people wanna listen to them. I argue that, one, we should begin to think about creative ways to provide folks, while they're inside, with opportunities to build and, where necessary, reconstruct their social networks. As Swarthmore students, as a Swarthmore aluminum, I know that I have access to a particular set of networks. I know that if I want to talk to someone about black studies, I can reach out to Nina. I know that if I want to talk to someone about history, I can reach out to Professor Dorsey. I know that I can reach out to these different people because those are the networks and the relationships that I have established.

When you have been incarcerated, and especially if you have been incarcerated for an extended period of time, your ability to develop diverse social capital networks is severely constrained. For instance, I teach in a level four facility. A lot of my students, most of my students in fact, have already served approximately 15 to 20 years on 40, 60, 70 year sentences. They have been on the same housing block for years. They have seen the same people in their housing block for years. If they are in a cell with a cellie, they have interacted with that person for years. If they have had discipline issues in the past, maybe they have been in solitary confinement or in seg for years. When you are isolated in such a way and constrained to this monotonous routine, your ability and your capacity and your opportunity to build social networks that can help you on the outside is compromised. What I think is a good idea is making sure that we, along with DOC's, along with legislation where necessary, work together to find these opportunities because, in fact, as we know finding employment, in particular, is as much a by product of who you know as what you know.

Next, we--clearly, I think--we need to lobby for legislative changes to address the hidden consequences, and part of that, which is number three, is talking about the importance of expungement laws. Expungement basically means that your record is purged, and so if people go online to search for your criminal record while they're doing a background check, your case, your conviction, your time will not come up, which as you can see could make finding a job a little it easier. But not every state has expungement laws that are even really effective.

One state that does things really well is the state of Indiana. They have one of the most progressive set of expungement laws in the entire country. In Indiana at various intervals, five years for one particular set of crimes, ten years for another, you have to wait that amount of time after you've been released and have no problems, not have any run ins with cops etc., then your record can be expunged.

This is important. It's obviously important, but it's important especially when we think about the racial disparity of the incarcerated population. So again, we have especially black men imprisoned at rates six to seven times higher than their white counterparts. But the other part of that picture which isn't always made very clear is that, one, those young black men are going to jail younger than their white counterparts, and number two, they are serving longer sentences. So, you have, perhaps, a young man going in at 17 doing a 20 year bid, he gets out at 37 and still has 30 years left to work before he ostensibly retires. The opportunity to maybe have his record expunged at some point certainly increases his chances of finding employment, albeit further in the future, but at least it's a start.

My co-founder of Second Chance Educational Alliance, he is an ex-offender as well. His conviction was 20 years ago, and when he applies for a job now, his conviction still comes up. He has started at least three or four different businesses. He has a tremendous entrepreneurial spirit. He contributes to his community. He contributes to his church. None of that matters. His MBA doesn't matter when his conviction comes up.

I also think that it's important to focus programs and focus program outcomes to address the specific areas that comprise and influence circumstances around returns to custody. And so, employment, we have to work on measuring are we providing employment opportunities in a real sense to people who are formerly incarcerated. How are those rates waxing and waning over time, and what are we going to do about it when those rates are staying consistently low? The same with housing. How are we able to house those who are formerly incarcerated who are released? Are we able to find them homes right away, within a couple of weeks, within a month, within two months, etc.?

With education. I was actually just asked to sit on a work group put together by Dr. Sean Harper, who's out at USC, to think really broadly about how higher education should be on the forefront of working with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students. What are the things that we need to think of in higher ed to make sure that their transitions are as smooth as possible?

And then finally, access to healthcare. Healthcare is a large debate in America right now for everybody, but especially for formerly incarcerated people given data that indicate that those who are released from physical custody often have some of the worst health outcomes when compared to the larger population. And that comes from stress, that comes from poor food choices that they have available. I don't know how many of you have been inside correctional facilities, but the food there is not delicious, and commissary, which is the opportunity to have food that's not in the cafeteria, is filled with preservative based, GMO, high sodium everything, sugary sweet, salty that is bad for your health. There are minimal opportunities to exercise, so not only are you eating like crap, but you don't have the opportunity necessarily to work out or exercise in the way that you may have been used to when you were not incarcerated.