A felony record can cast a black mark on a person’s life, affecting everything from job opportunities to higher education, but a University of Wyoming group is working to support people who’ve transitioned from prison to college.
“(Pathways from Prison) is an organization for formerly incarcerated students or those who want to help them navigate the struggles and challenges of higher education,” said co-founder Rhett Epler. “There are different challenges for people who have been incarcerated. There’s a lot of stigma attached to a felony conviction.”
Epler, a graduate student in American studies, came to UW after being released from prison on a non-violent drug offense years ago.
“It’s not something I really talk about it, I’m not ashamed of it, but I’ve also accomplished a lot in the past three years,” he said. “When I first got out, it was very scary and intimidating, but now I’ve got friends and a good support network, and I’ve accomplished a lot.”
Cassandra Hunter, a first-year student in gender and women’s studies, helped create the registered student organization, although she is not a felon.
“I think it’s important to recognize the danger of a single story,” she said, “I feel that, when you come out of the penitentiary or as a felon, that becomes your story. I think it can prevent people doing what they want to do or attaining their dreams.”
UW takes special actions for students with a felony, explained Christy Oliver, associate director of the department of admissions.
“They’re asked to disclose their felony on their application,” she said. “They provide documentation that’s reviewed by the dean of students, who makes a recommendation and the final decision is the director of admissions.”
Some students suspended or expelled from other colleges or high school have to go through a similar process, Oliver said.
The rule, put in place more than a decade ago, there in place for campus safety, she said. However, the review doesn’t focus solely on felony records.
“They may not be admitted for several reasons, because that includes admissions policy on top of it,” she said. “They may not be academically admissible as well. It’s not just about their past.”
UW has a 95 percent acceptance rate for all students, and Oliver estimated about the same percent of students who go through the additional process are admitted.
Regardless, Epler said the application process is difficult and daunting for a felon trying to attain a higher education.
“Applying is tough,” he said. “You have to put together packets and have letters of support. You have to go above and beyond, and there are things in place that make it difficult. But, as a whole, I’d say it’s accommodating.”
Epler also understands why such processes are in place, such as safety concerns.
“It’s a very complicated thing, because they certainly don’t want someone coming onto campus and doing something wrong,” he said. “But I don’t think there’s a lot of evidence that people with criminal records behave particularly badly on campuses — they’d be more motivated to come back to school.”
Pathways from Prison was officially recognized earlier this semester, but there are already about half a dozen active members, Hunter said, and she only expects it to grow.
“There is a lot of interest on campus, and it’ll grow by the beginning of school year next fall,” she said.
The organization doesn’t plan to work only on campus — they already have plans to reach out to the community.
“Eventually, we want to meet with probation and parole officers to let them know we’re here,” Epler said. “I talked to people across the country, and there are groups like this on other campuses. This is not unique to Wyoming.”
Pathways from Prison is also connected with a larger project of the same name working to bring educational courses at the Department of Corrections Wyoming Women’s Center. The student project plans on taking part by letting prisoners know a support network is in place at the university for people considering higher education after release.
“It provides support to people that are in great need of it,” Epler said. “People are trying to do the right thing and trying to improve themselves.”