About the Author: My name is Neil Gallagher, and I am currently incarcerated in the Florida Department of Corrections. I am at a work release center currently but was at Okeechobee Correctional Institution before being selected for work release. I am a Marine Corps Veteran and graduate of the University of South Florida. I will be released in August 2023 and hope to begin Law School in Fall 2024.
Education is the great equalizer - once it is pursued, options are seemingly limitless. It allows not only your mind to be opened, but opens doors that were once bolted shut. Those with access to the resources necessary to pursue higher education can change their lives. They can reinvent themselves and live to their full potential. It allows them to redeem themselves and to turn a new page in their lives. Why then, I ask, do we deny access to education to those who need it most?
Prior to my incarceration, I had received a Bachelor of Science from a well-respected institution. I was a high achiever and received awards, honors, and recognition. Prior to graduation, I received offers from several universities with a full scholarship to pursue my Master's degree. Life took an unexpected turn and I found myself incarcerated in the Florida Prison System. Upon my release, not three years after receiving their offers, I couldn’t gain admission to these same institutions, even paying full price for tuition, due to my criminal record. My crime was not one of moral turpitude or intentional harm, yet I am excluded from furthering my education. What happens then to someone who had not been as fortunate as I was? Someone who spent much longer incarcerated, who hasn’t had a chance to pursue higher education, or even finish high school? How do we expect them to change their ways when we wont allow them the opportunity to do so? These are not exclusive private institutions that are rejecting these applicants; ironically, they have a better shot at these private universities. The ones rejecting these applicants are part of the public university system funded by the taxpayer.
While incarcerated, it is preached that in order to be successful in the free world one must commit fully to change. We all know the recidivism rates and we all know the statistics. We love to blame the offender for these metrics, and I used to feel the same way. The average person is led to believe that a criminal can never change, that there is no desire to do so. "Once a con, always a con," as they say. It was not until I saw firsthand the barrier put in place that actively prevents those trying to improve themselves from doing so that I realized that life wasn’t so black and white.
When I was initially charged with my crime, I was laid off by my employer. I applied to over 140 businesses, hand delivering resumes and having successful interviews, only to have the interview process come to a grinding halt when I willingly disclosed my pending criminal charges. I was well qualified for these roles and even applied to entry level positions, only to be rejected. I took my father’s advice and “pulled myself up by the bootstraps” and applied to anything and everything, only for the bootstraps to snap. With a Bachelor’s in Finance, I couldn’t even get a $10/ hour job laying sod in the Florida summer. If this was my experience while holding a bachelor’s degree, what luck would someone without an education or a work history have had?
If those with criminal records are denied employment due to their past, and denied the opportunity to further their education, how can we expect them to have a future? How can we expect them to make a change when the system makes it almost impossible for them to do so? We must find a way to allow those who have been impacted by the criminal justice system to better themselves, and I wholeheartedly believe this can come by granting greater access to education. This does not have to be solely through higher education but through trade schools and vocations. We are facing a crisis in the trades and there is a hidden world of talent that is willing to do the work.
The system we have in place is broken, and its time we fixed it. There are too many broken homes and too many broken communities, and while the solution may be complicated and the path not clear cut, the starting point is plain, and it begins with removing the barrier to education. Allow those wanting to make a change the opportunity to do so. Allow them to rebuild their lives and provide for their families, and maybe, just maybe, we will begin to see the change we desire.
Neil enunciated his challenges gaining employment from the moment of arrest - prior to being convicted of an offense. I noticed Neil was in the military, and likely unbeknownst to him, people who were incarcerated likely stitched his uniforms. The irony is that those same workers toiling without worker protection or fair wages often cannot gain employment with the same companies once they are freed because of their criminal record.
Neil's anxieties about employment were common in the submissions we received. His observation that people with conviction histories are expected to achieve while being legally discriminated against in his state demonstrate those anxieties are well-founded. Post-release outcomes are highly variable across the United States, contingent upon the laws of that state.
There is reason for Neil to have hope. In 2013, I was denied entry to both SUNY Ulster because of a conviction. A decade later, that very campus sends professors into prisons to teach, and they have on-campus resources for people formerly incarcerated. The trend is bending toward inclusion, and perhaps when Neil earns that law degree, he will help expand access to second chances via educational opportunity.
Image Credit: Wiki Commons [[File:US Prison labor.jpg|US_Prison_labor]]