Punishment Beyond Bars: Pursuing Higher Education with the Degree of Incarceration

Document Type

Student Presentation

Presentation Date



College of Arts and Sciences


Department of Sociology

Faculty Sponsor

Dr. Arthur Scarritt


Legal scholar Michelle Alexander asserts that upon reentry into society, formerly-incarcerated individuals are sequestered into what she has termed America’s new undercaste – “a lower caste of individuals who are permanently barred by law and custom from mainstream society” (Alexander 2012; pg. 13). The incarcerated population in the US of over 2.3 million people represents this nation’s poorest, most mentally ill, and least educated persons (Wagner and Rabuy 2017). The criminal justice system, a race-making institution, also incarcerates people of color at disproportionate rates. Alexander’s evidence regarding the undercaste coupled with the breadth of research indicating that gaining a college degree is one of the greatest potential ways to escape the undercaste led me to investigate whether going to college and getting a degree helps or hinders the process of trying to overcome one’s position in the undercaste (Chappell 2004; Kelso 2000; Anders and Noblit 2011; Karpowitz and Kenner 1995). I utilize the narratives of four formerly-incarcerated students to illuminate the most enduring barriers that this population faces. I have found that institutional discrimination and media shaming dehumanize formerly-incarcerated college students and force them to avoid stigma which in turn undercuts the efficacy of their education.

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