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Meet the scientists building a prison-to-STEM pipeline

New programs aim to help formerly incarcerated people enter careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

ByChristina CouchNOVA NextNOVA Next

Stanley Andrisse holds an MBA and Ph.D. His nonprofit organization From Prison Cells to PhD offers education counseling, mentoring, and support to 100+ currently and formerly incarcerated people annually. Image Credit: Tchad at Free Star Media

In a Missouri courtroom in 2008, Stanley Andrisse realized that he wasn’t seen as human. The case being fought that day centered around a drug trafficking charge—Andrisse’s third felony conviction. Not long ago, he was a college student churning through sweat-soaked undergraduate years funded by a football scholarship at Lindenwood University. Now, he was facing a bifurcated future, one path leading to a burgeoning career and the other stopping at gray, cinder block walls. 

He wasn’t sure which he was headed for. Growing up in Ferguson, Missouri, Andrisse started building a reputation as early as middle school, and adults around him solidified it. He was smart, and frequently in trouble, mostly for small infractions like talking out of turn or sagging his pants—transgressions Black boys seemed to be penalized for far more often than white ones. Over time, they added up to harsh penalties. Detention graduated to school suspensions, and eventually, teachers expected trouble from Andrisse while peers celebrated his fearless rule breaking.

Andrisse was aware of both reputations as he grew older. School felt like a place packed with critics eager to point out flaws, so he focused on areas where he excelled: sports and social status. He was arrested for the first time at age 14, and he dipped in and out of the juvenile and adult legal systems until his third felony conviction in his early 20s. 

Sitting in the courtroom, Andrisse knew that he had chosen to break the law, but it felt like the road from middle school detention to prison had been paved for him—and the other kids, mostly Black and working class, who regularly appeared in those places—long before he sold drugs. When he heard the punishment he could potentially face, he was shocked: 20 years to life. 

Andrisse recalls the defense arguing that he was a promising, but off-track, biology major, one who had recently completed a research fellowship studying cancer cell growth at St. Louis University, while the prosecution painted him as a career criminal who would return to the legal system again and again. The sentence was 10 years—half of his life, and what felt like his entire future. Andrisse asked if he could give his mother one last hug, but a bailiff shackled his hands and feet and pulled him away. 

“That point was really like the door slamming in my face in realization that I was no longer considered a human,” Andrisse says. “I was seen as a criminal, less than an animal, someone who deserves to be in a cage, and those experiences and types of things just continually happen in incarceration.” 

Now an endocrinologist scientist and assistant professor of physiology at Howard University, Andrisse is part of a growing number of academics and activists who are fighting barriers that prevent formerly incarcerated people from entering the sciences. That work requires dismantling forces that tell students that they’re not cut out for science, bolstering STEM education within prisons and eliminating embedded racial biases, and removing obstacles that block students from continuing their education after incarceration. 

Despite the challenges, a few have broken through and gone public with their stories, and they’re changing science itself—not just conceptions of who can be a scientist, but how entire research fields are studied. Their stories and extremely small numbers illustrate the profound difficulties formerly incarcerated people face, and provide glimpses of how much untapped scientific potential languishes in prisons. 

The rise and fall and rise of college in prisons

Now a postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford Medicine, Noel Vest was 34 years old and well into a seven-year sentence for identity theft and drug charges when he started on the path that eventually led him to science. He was a self-described “class clown”—an impulsive kid with an angry father and undiagnosed attention deficit issues—who graduated high school with a 2.02 GPA, then became a father himself a few years later. Following a breakup with the child’s mother, Vest drowned his emotions with alcohol and drugs, and found himself in a "downward spiral of addiction.” He soon began stealing to sustain it. 

He did short stints in county jails, but that changed in 2002 when a newspaper in Washington state ran a security camera photo of a man suspected of cashing a stolen check. Vest’s mother spotted her son and called the police. They picked him up in a Sears department store applying for credit under someone else’s name. When offenses were tallied, he was convicted of 21 felonies spread across Washington, Oregon, and Nevada. 

Vest spent about a year in county jail appealing his case, and met people there he would see again after he transferred to High Desert State Prison in Nevada. One was teaching a pre-GED reading comprehension course, and invited Vest to tag along as a teaching assistant. Vest wasn't particularly excited about the class—he didn't have role models or family members with college degrees—but he agreed and parlayed that position into a job in the education office, where he got an early glimpse of upcoming community college classes offered at the prison. With financial help from his grandmother, he signed up. 

Man's face, smiling, on a campus

Knowing how difficult it is to socially distance in prison, Noel Vest (pictured) and a team of researchers studied how factors like prison capacity, population, and number of staff influenced how the coronavirus spread in Texas prisons. They found that more than half of all COVID-19 deaths occurred at just five prisons, and that keeping prisons at a maximum capacity of 85% can reduce infection and death rates. Image courtesty of Noel Vest

He remembers the middle years of his sentence by subject: fall in a college success course; spring in state history, environmental science, and speech; another fall in business law and so on. Despite the restrictions and near-constant noise in prison, studying while incarcerated was easier in some ways than learning on the outside. Incarcerated life was regimented, leaving structured study time with few alternatives, and sobriety sharpened his focus. He also had a learning community: Incarcerated students were supportive and motivated to succeed. The fear of limited job options after release raised the stakes of every lesson and, over time, classes became a bedrock Vest shaped his time and relationships around. He had a 4.0 GPA by the time he was paroled and, on the eight-hour drive home with his parents, he asked if they could swing by their local community college the next morning. He had transfer paperwork to complete. 

Vest calls the classes he took while incarcerated a “lifesaver,” one he was able to access for many reasons unrelated to work ethic. Those included having a lucky personal contact, for-credit education options available to him, and a long stretch of time without being transferred. Most incarcerated people aren’t so fortunate, but that could change soon.

Educational programming available during incarceration varies dramatically between states and between individual prisons. Roughly one out of every three incarcerated adults doesn’t have a high school diploma or GED—that’s two to four times the percentage in the general public—so programming often focuses on literacy, GED, and vocational training. Postsecondary education is available through in-person classes within some prisons and through distance learning. 

There are significant racial disparities in who can access postsecondary education. Selection frequently prioritizes those who are nearing their release date, but people of color are more likely to serve lengthier sentences than white people for comparable crimes. Cost also factors in. Tuition ranges from free to more than $1,500 per class, shutting out many students who can't pay. The result is an education system that often exacerbates racial and socioeconomic disparities already embedded in the broader legal system at every level of coursework. A 2019 investigation by The Sarasota Herald-Tribune and GateHouse Media, for example, found that white students in Florida prisons were about 40% more likely than Black students to earn a GED, high school diploma, or vocational training certificate while incarcerated. 

Roughly 1.5 million people are serving prison terms in the U.S., but less than 2% have access to college classes. That’s a sharp contrast to just a few decades ago, says Emily Norweg, a Ph.D. candidate at Georgetown University who studies links between educational inequities and mass incarceration. 

In 1965, the Higher Education Act established a series of college support and financial aid programs to help middle- and low-income Americans go to college. Credit-bearing education programs began proliferating in U.S. prisons, picking up more speed in 1972 when incarcerated students started receiving the grant now called the Pell Grant. By the early 90s, more than 770 programs offered college courses in nearly 1,300 carceral facilities nationwide. But those programs vanished in the wake of new tough-on-crime policies. A 1992 Higher Education Act amendment blocked those serving the harshest sentences from receiving grants, and the 1994 Crime Bill, authored by then-senator Joe Biden, eliminated Pell eligibility for all incarcerated students. “It was truly a death knell for most college-in-prison programs,” Norweg says. 

One goal is to create an easier path into STEM careers—a path that doesn’t require incarcerated people to have both superhuman levels of determination and sheer luck in order to break into science. 

Eliminating Pell forced schools to find new funding models for these programs. Today, colleges either fund programs themselves; find support through private organizations, small-scale state or federal initiatives, or corrections departments; or they lean on incarcerated students, the majority of whom earn less than $1 per hour in prison jobs, to pay tuition. But that landscape is shifting, advocates say, at least in part because of the wealth of research showing that education programming reduces misconduct and violence within prisons and recidivism after release.

Last year’s omnibus spending bill fully restored Pell access to incarcerated students—changes go into effect sometime between now and 2023—and states like New Jersey and Michigan have opened access to state-funded financial aid. There are also new programs targeted to science. In late 2019, the National Science Foundation awarded a five-year, $5.2 million NSF INCLUDES grant to start STEM Opportunities in Prison Settings (STEM-OPS), an alliance between five education organizations that’s dedicated to creating a national infrastructure of STEM education programs within prisons as well as internships, mentoring, and career-readiness initiatives for formerly incarcerated people.

STEM “is an area professionally that has a tremendous amount of respect, tremendous openings, tremendous financial opportunity,” says Eden Badertscher, a principal research scientist at Education Development Center who’s leading STEM-OPS alongside Stanley Andrisse and others. “There are so many hurdles to reentry, this would sort of help them leapfrog.”

One goal is to create an easier path into STEM careers—a path that doesn’t require incarcerated people to have both superhuman levels of determination and sheer luck in order to break into science. 

Students in cells

Stanley Andrisse’s luck came in the midst of tragedy. While Andrisse served a reduced sentence, his father underwent multiple surgeries to battle Type 2 diabetes. The disease took him in pieces over two years, and Andrisse waited, sometimes for weeks, for letters that kept him updated.  

With no place to channel the slow grief and helplessness, Andrisse contacted Barrie Bode, the St. Louis University cancer researcher he had done a fellowship under, and asked for resources about the biology behind how diabetes was “eating my father alive.” Bode sent some scientific papers and Andrisse dove in, reading each six or seven times, taking prodigious notes, and asking Bode questions during periodic phone calls. The papers weren’t just science, Andrisse says, they were a form of freedom, and later, they were a future.  

“My body was in a physical prison cell, but my mind was completely inside the human cell,” Andrisse says. “I would visualize myself going through the cell as I was learning these different things, and that was just extremely fascinating to me.”

As his father gradually succumbed to diabetes, Andrisse immersed himself in studies. He viewed endocrinology as a mental escape; Bode saw it as a possible career. Bode grew up in the same area Andrisse did. He had watched childhood friends make bad choices. He had seen the legal system abuse loved ones, and he knew that Andrisse had the makings of a scientist.  

“Here is this guy who's incredibly intelligent, very driven, he's quite talented, and he did something really stupid. I don't think that people like that should be punished for eternity for something they did,” Bode says, later adding, “I think there was a part of me that said, ‘you know, I can't let this system take down this guy with so much potential.'”

Bode encouraged Andrisse to apply to Ph.D. programs and helped him with the paperwork, as did others in Andrisse’s support system. Rejections followed. By then, Bode had moved to Northern Illinois University, but he contacted some former colleagues at St. Louis University to ask for a favor: Give this applicant real consideration. Andrisse got in, and walked out with a Ph.D. in 2014.

"The idea that there are people out there who actually care about your future and want to help you is something that is so restorative and so important for people who have been made to feel like they're separate from society."

Bode is quick to say that Andrisse was accepted on his own merit, having already shown exceptional aptitude during his undergraduate years. Having a mentor who can help navigate the academic and career planning process is a rare asset many incarcerated people don't have. Higher education can be a vital mechanism for making supportive connections that can help incarcerated people envision new possibilities for their future, says Emily Norweg from Georgetown University. 

“The degree is not even the most important aspect of these programs. It’s the exposure to professors, that one-on-one attention,” she says. “Something that comes up all the time in my interviews with formerly incarcerated people is the idea that there are people out there who actually care about your future and want to help you is something that is so restorative and so important for people who have been made to feel like they're separate from society.”

But making STEM a real option for incarcerated people requires lowering instructional barriers and removing obstacles that prevent students from completing classes—a prime one being facility transfers, which happen frequently for reasons like bed shortages and safety concerns, or to move incarcerated individuals closer to family, court date locations, or specific healthcare or addiction recovery programs.

Students get “halfway toward their degree and then they're suddenly in a prison where there's no college, there's no way to transfer to another college, there's no way to continue,” says Robert Scott, executive director of the Cornell Prison Education Program, which operates free college classes in four New York prisons. 

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And lab sciences like biology, chemistry, physics, and computer and Earth sciences are particularly tough to teach in prison due to restrictions on technology and instructional materials. Scott has taught soil science and evolutionary theory to incarcerated students, and he's seen some of the restrictions science teachers contend with, which vary between, and sometimes within, individual prisons. 

“Things that are capable of being sharpened are capable of being weapons,” he says, including rudimentary teaching tools like instructional DVDs, which may require close monitoring from correctional officers. 

Even science books and journal articles, the most basic of study materials, can be tough to come by. Prison libraries are notoriously outdated and underfunded—one investigation by Illinois Newsroom, for instance, found that spending on books for educational programming across 28 Illinois state prisons dropped from $750,000 in the early 2000s to just $276 in 2017. Instructors either have to bring in approved books or ask students to buy them, which can also be difficult. Some states only allow new books sent directly from authorized vendors, preventing students from using donated study materials, and seemingly arbitrary content restrictions abound: An Ohio prison, for example, blocked a biology textbook on grounds that the anatomical drawings might constitute nudity, while a New York prison tried to ban maps of the Moon because they could present “risks of escape.”

"Oftentimes, the ability to bring in certain materials is a gamble," says Laura Michelle Taylor, an associate professor of science at Northern Marianas College who has designed lab classes for prisons. “Something that could have been approved by one personnel could easily be rejected by another.”

Only a handful of lab-based college-level science classes exist in U.S. prisons, and many are suspended during the pandemic. Taylor says that there aren't yet best practices for operating these courses, putting the onus on instructors to reconfigure lessons to fit within prison parameters while also fighting a separate war to prove that they’re valuable. Piles of evidence show the transformative impact of education for incarcerated students and the benefits after leaving prison, but, Taylor says, there’s still pushback from critics.

“Why teach people who have a 20-year life sentence lab sciences?” she says. “A lot of people just believe that it’s a waste of funding and a waste of time.”

STEM from the inside out

That perspective severely underestimates the contribution that people with convictions can make to STEM, says Christopher Havens, an incarcerated man in Washington state who was first author on a mathematics paper published last year in the journal Research in Number Theory. He plans to co-author a second from prison by the end of this year.

Havens began studying math in solitary confinement. He landed there one year into a 25-year sentence for a murder conviction, and needed to stave off the boredom and psychological degradation that come with 23-hour-per-day isolation. Havens didn’t think of himself as academically gifted—he repeated his freshman year more than once and never finished high school—but he grew up idolizing cryptographers in spy movies who saved the day by finding patterns others couldn't. “They were like wizards to me,” he says. 

Havens started thinking about math after he noticed that an employee from the education department in the prison was passing out envelopes containing simple math worksheets. He was surprised to discover that he was interested in the problems, and after working through envelope after envelope, he set a goal for the first time in his life: “Become a wizard,” even if it takes decades.

Math calculations written on paper

Mathematics work by Christopher Havens, who launched the nonprofit Prison Mathematics Project with two partners outside of prison. The program connects incarcerated math students with educators or mathemeticians who can provide guidance. Image Credit: Barb Matesich

Soon, Havens was ordering math books, hundreds of dollars’ worth, and studying 10 hours a day or more, writing spools of calculations on rolls of gift wrap taped to the walls. Finding level-appropriate study materials was tough, so he wrote a letter to Mathematical Sciences Publishers, a company that produces academic journals, and asked if they could send him math journals and connect him with a teacher who could answer questions. Matthew Cargo, the editor, connected Havens with Luisella Caire, a math professor in Turin, Italy, and the mother of Cargo’s partner. 

Caire began sending Havens letters along with math papers and books, most of which were confiscated by the prison because they weren't from an authorized vendor. Building on Havens’ interest in number theory, the branch of mathematics that serves as the basis for modern cryptography, they started diving into infinite continued fractions, which are fractional expressions of irrational numbers like pi. Irrational numbers have digits that go on forever after the decimal point, and infinite continued fractions—written as a fraction whose denominator becomes part of another fraction, which becomes part of another and so on—also extend infinitely. 

Havens began searching for ways to express a certain continued fraction in finite terms, and when he couldn't find one, he started wondering if he needed a different formula—one that could represent a bigger class of continued fractions at once—to get the answer. 

It took a year to develop a “beautiful new formula” that worked across an entire class, but it didn't work for the specific fraction he was focused on. Havens realized that his original goal was mathematically impossible, but in the process of trying to solve the unsolvable, he had made something brand new. He wrote to Caire to show her the work. Her husband, a number theorist named Umberto Cerruti, wrote back. 

By then, it was 2015 and Havens had transferred to a lower security facility. Cerruti suggested applying a specific function called a linear fractional transformation to Havens' formula, and when he did, new, never-before-studied continued fractions emerged. They spent the next few years proving the work and studying unique leaping patterns within how these fractions divide, Havens writing calculations out in his cell and Cerruti working with University of Turin mathematicians Stefano Barbero and Nadir Murru. After years of letters sent across the sea, they were ready to publish their findings.

“We’re adding to the wealth of human knowledge.”

In the meantime, Havens devised a way to get around study material restrictions. With support from Caire and Cerruti, he proposed a math education program, complete with its own library that could contain donated books, including the rejected ones Caire had tried to send years earlier. In 2016, the Prison Mathematics Project enlisted its first cohort of incarcerated math enthusiasts.

“When you hear about somebody doing math in prison, you don't expect that they're coming up with new math,” Havens says. “We’re adding to the wealth of human knowledge.”

Just a few hours’ drive from Havens’ math group, incarcerated people at Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women are also contributing to science by breeding, rearing, and releasing endangered Taylor’s checkerspot butterflies, and collecting data on them that’s shared with biologists, zoos, and academic partners.

The butterfly program is part of the Sustainability in Prisons Project, a partnership between several government and nonprofit groups that offers sustainability and environmental education programs in Washington state prisons. Those programs include hands-on internships in ecological conservation projects like western pond turtle rehabilitation, wetland and prairie restoration, and beekeeping. 

Since starting in 2011, the Taylor’s checkerspot program has released more than 25,000 caterpillars and adult butterflies, and provided butterfly technician training to about 35 incarcerated people. In addition to raising butterflies, technicians also attend science and sustainability workshops and can receive up to 15 academic credits from The Evergreen State College in Olympia. 

Julia Bonsell began raising butterflies while serving a seven and a half-year sentence. Now out of prison, she says that her conservation work sparked an interest in science. She's thinking about returning to school to become a veterinary technician: “I never realized how much bigger things are in the world.” 

Academia after incarceration

Significant hurdles—some obvious, others not—prevent people with convictions from moving into science professions after they leave prison. One is misperception, says Syrita Steib, founder and executive director of Operation Restoration, a nonprofit support organization for currently and formerly incarcerated women. 

Steib says that there’s widespread awareness that formerly incarcerated people are prohibited from attaining certain jobs and occupational licenses, but many don't know that these prohibitions are frequently applied on a case-by-case basis. That’s why Steib, who’s also a clinical laboratory scientist and formerly incarcerated herself, wears her hospital scrubs when she visits prisons to “let them know if you want to work in a hospital, you're going to work in a hospital,” she says. “If you want to get a career in science or you want to become a scientist, we can work towards that. I'm standing in front of you telling you that it can be done.”

But it won't be easy. Most STEM careers require at least some postsecondary education, and barriers await formerly incarcerated people at nearly every turn. One major obstacle, Steib says, is located right on the application. 

Woman looking to the side, smiling

As a teenager, Syrita Steib was sentenced to 10 years in prison and nearly $2 million in restitution. A pardon this past January took that financial burden away. Image credit: Tammy Mecure, courtesy of Operation Restoration

Most four-year colleges and some community colleges in the U.S. require applicants to disclose convictions, purportedly for campus safety reasons. But checking a felony conviction box on an application usually triggers supplemental procedures and documentation requirements, and studies show that students are more likely to quit the application process than jump through those additional hoops. 

Many of these applicants would have gotten in: Colleges vary dramatically in how they consider conviction history, and the limited research that exists in this area shows that students with convictions are more likely to quit filling out the application than to get rejected. One 2015 study looked at 20 colleges in the State University of New York system and found that at more than half of these schools, applicants with felony convictions were 10 times more likely to quit the application than receive a rejection letter. Because admissions decisions are notoriously opaque, applicants rarely know if their convictions could prevent them from being accepted. Many never try. 

Steib has seen how powerful felony conviction questions can be. After graduating 10th in her high school class, Steib won a physics and engineering scholarship to Xavier University in New Orleans. She went in excited—engineering and sports were her passions, and Xavier had both—but when classes started, she quickly got derailed. High school had come easy, so she'd never really learned how to study. She was in a bad relationship, partied too much, fell behind, and began wracking up small charges for things like shoplifting and speeding.

She dropped out before her second semester and joined the Navy, hoping that regimented military life would offer structure and security, but she found the opposite: a world away from loved ones, a bootcamp environment designed to break participants down, a paycheck that couldn’t cover her expenses, and a commanding officer who reminded Steib of a person who abused her as a child. The similarity triggered past trauma, and financial pressures compounded week after week. When an opportunity to make fast cash came along, she took it. In February of 2000, Steib and three others robbed a car dealership and set it on fire.  

While serving nine years in prison, Steib completed a business management certification program with financial help from her parents. She applied to the University of New Orleans with a 3.87 GPA, but was rejected. Steib tried again two years later using the exact same application materials, but this time she didn't check the felony box. She got in, received a scholarship, and went on to complete her bachelor’s at Louisiana State University. 

Getting into college is only part of the battle. Convictions can block students from finding housing (both on and off-campus) as well as part-time work. College advisors rarely understand employment restrictions for those with convictions, and if students move on to graduate school, a requirement for higher-level science careers, the entire process likely starts over. There are also unwritten skill sets that are critical for attaining science jobs—the academic vocabulary, networking skills, knowledge of how academia works, and technological and cultural fluency—that formerly incarcerated students may need to fill in. 

At Columbia University, a small pilot program called FIRST, short for Formerly Incarcerated Research and Science Training, aims to help fill some of those knowledge gaps. Launched in 2017, FIRST provides a small stipend along with academic counseling, mentorship, and several weeks of basic science research training to formerly incarcerated people. The goal is to sharpen scientific thinking skills, introduce the process of science and what scientists do, and help participants take a step towards getting there if they want. 

"Sometimes folks would look at you wondering, what is he doing here?"

Three former FIRST participants described trying to adjust to an academic learning environment after spending years, in some cases decades, incarcerated. Technology struggles were common—one man who served a 10-year sentence discussed learning how to use a smartphone for the first time, while another had never used email before—and so were cultural struggles. Participants enthusiastically hailed FIRST and said that they were grateful to learn in Columbia classrooms, but also said that they often felt out of place among the institution’s predominantly white and wealthy academic community. “Sometimes folks would look at you wondering, what is he doing here?,” one said. "You don’t look like you fit in." 

Christopher Medina-Kirchner, the Columbia Ph.D. student who co-founded FIRST, knows that feeling. Prior to Columbia, Medina-Kirchner served a nearly six-year sentence for drug convictions, then made it through technical college and undergrad in Wisconsin before coming to New York. Four years into his Ph.D., he sometimes still feels like an outsider within academia, but he remembers when those feelings were fresh, days like the one a few years ago when he asked a colleague to accompany him to a nice restaurant so he could get more comfortable with fine dining etiquette. 

The learning curve to get into science careers is steep and opportunities are rare. Medina-Kirchner isn’t surprised, nor disappointed, that none of the 11 participants that have come through FIRST have moved into science. The process of using data and evidence to form opinions will stick with them wherever they wind up, he says. 

Shifting science

Medina-Kirchner made it to the graduate level, and he's proof that formerly incarcerated voices can change STEM from within. At Columbia’s Neuropsychopharmacology Lab, he studies the effects of psychoactive drugs, including MDMA, the drug he was imprisoned for selling at age 18. Much of the research on these drugs involving human subjects comes from single-dose studies conducted in controlled lab environments. These studies provide useful information, but rarely mimic how people actually use drugs, which often involves repeated dosing and throwing additional substances into the mix. 

Medina-Kirchner’s work focuses on designing experiments that more closely capture the “human ecology” of drug use, and it's directly informed by his own background. His research on cannabis and amphetamines like MDMA adds to a growing body of literature that shows that certain studies on these drugs, some of which serve as the basis for their criminalization, exaggerate their biological and neurological dangers. 

On the opposite coast, Noel Vest also leans on his carceral experiences. Now a postdoc at the Systems and Neuroscience Pain Lab at Stanford Medicine, Vest studies the science of addiction, and like Medina-Kirchner, he’s invested in pushing the research field, which largely relies on single-substance and single-intervention studies, to more closely align with how recovery actually works outside of lab environments. 

“For alcohol, for cannabis, for heroin, for all of these different kinds of substances, we put all of those people into one group together and we expect their outcomes to be similar to what we see in randomized controlled trials, and that's just not the case,” Vest says. Understanding how substance use plays out in real-world contexts is "a huge advantage to really understanding why people tend to get better, why people tend to not get better, and how to really, really get at research that’s going to be impactful,” he adds. 

Six people at a long table, laughing

Syrita Steib (standing) founded the nonprofit organization Operation Restoration in 2016. It now supports a broad spectrum of programs in areas ranging from community bail funds to LBGTQ+ support to arts programming within jails and prisons. Image courtesy of Operation Restoration

All current and formerly incarcerated researchers interviewed for this story are working to make STEM more accessible for people with convictions, and several are focusing on college applications. After earning her degree and becoming a clinical laboratory scientist, Syrita Steib spearheaded the first successful statewide “ban the box” higher education legislation, which prohibits Louisiana public colleges from requiring students to disclose most convictions—except for stalking, rape, and sexual battery—on admissions applications. (Colleges can still collect this information after an acceptance decision, during housing, financial aid, and other administrative processes.) 

Working with the education advocacy coalition Unlock Higher Education, Steib, Noel Vest, and Stanley Andrisse are pushing for more states to ban the box. Since the Louisiana law passed in 2017, California, Colorado, Maryland, and Washington have all passed similar legislation. The Common Application, a form that more than 900 colleges use in admissions, also dropped questions about convictions, though individual colleges that use the form can request this information in supplementary documents. 

Not everyone wants to ban the box. Critics point to studies showing that similar policies in the employment sector could increase racial disparities by giving employers license to lean into racist assumptions about which applicants have convictions. But advocates say that the underlying problem there is racism, not conviction history information. They point to other research showing that removing conviction history questions significantly increases a formerly incarcerated person's chance of getting a job, even in some studies showing that white applicants benefitted more than applicants of color. Since ban the box is relatively new in college admissions, there are fewer studies on these policies, but the existing research shows that applicants with conviction records had a much higher chance of getting in when questions about convictions were dropped, and little evidence that these policies would have significant detrimental impacts on applicants of color.

There are also real efforts to bolster STEM education inside prisons. Christopher Havens is expanding the Prison Mathematics Project during his incarceration in Washington state. With two partners outside of prison, Havens launched the program as a national nonprofit organization that connects incarcerated math students with either educators who can teach math fundamentals or, for higher-level students, mathematicians who can guide them through the research publishing process.

In Louisiana, Steib is creating a first-of-its-kind lab assistant training program that offers community college courses during incarceration as well as a direct pathway to a four-year degree and, hopefully, a lab assistant job after release. Her organization, Operation Restoration, also runs other support initiatives, including housing, employment, social services, and legislative advocacy and clemency programs—Steib was granted a full pardon by the Trump administration this past January. It’s also one of five organizations that are part of the National Science Foundation-funded STEM-OPS program to make collegiate study commonplace in prisons.

Stanley Andrisse’s nonprofit, From Prison Cells to PhD, is a STEM-OPS partner, too. In addition to legislative advocacy work, the organization offers people with convictions mentoring, reentry support, educational counseling, paid short-term internships, and college readiness training—all things that STEM-OPS also aims to expand. Andrisse is hopeful that the combination of these efforts will not only make meaningful change, but will do so in a way that’s led by people with direct experience of the prison system. 

“Most of these college-in-prison programs have zero formerly incarcerated people on their team, much less a formerly incarcerated person in a position of leadership,” he says. "That's an identity problem.”

Andrisse is keenly aware of just how intertwined identity is with success. He felt it sitting in a Missouri courtroom in 2008. He felt it in 2017 when he went public with his story and wondered if certain colleagues would look at him differently. He feels it now when he calls the formerly incarcerated people he mentors scholars. 

It makes “someone immediately kind of stand up and shift their shoulders back like, ‘I'm a scholar. I’m not inmate number so and so,’” he says. “It’s profound in changing the way someone sees themself.”

Article text © 2021 Christina Couch. Reporting for this story was supported by the Education Writers Association. Sensitivity reading provided by Jonathan Chiu.

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