Fighting Implicit Biases in Education in the Criminal Justice System

April Mihalovich
February 6, 2021


Racial disparity in many parts of life such as wealth, education, job opportunities, and incarceration has been a reality for Black people throughout history. Although some legal and social progress has been made, it is important to recognize the ways in which the US can improve racial equity through its legal and social systems. Much of the inequality seen in COVID vaccine administration and economic effects of the pandemic are symptoms of a larger issue, as this NPR excerpt discusses.

Although systematic inequality plays a large part in the macro-effects that the Black community suffers, individual action also impacts the individual experience of Black people in both our prison and education systems. I have had the wonderful opportunity to speak with  Dameon Stackhouse for this article, who is a licensed social worker currently obtaining his LCSW (or a License for Clinical Social Work) and a Program Supervisor for you at Prevention Links, a Non-Profit organization that provides resources for individuals and families with substance use disorders. Dameon is also a Certified Peer Recovery Specialist and is pursuing his LCADC (License for Clinical Alcohol and Drug Counselling). Through this conversation, I’ve learned about Dameon’s journey in education, his professional life, and some of the ways in which his identity has impacted his life while incarcerated and in his current field.

Being Black While Incarcerated

Despite only making up 13% of the total US population, Black people make up 33% of the prison population according to the 2019 findings of the Bureau of Justice Statistics. More impactfully, Black Americans are incarcerated at a rate of five times that of white Americans.

Even in how they are portrayed and viewed, Black folks as individuals are impacted in different ways by the criminal justice system. Dameon takes full responsibility for his own actions and shortcomings, but also describes how his racial identity caused his crime to be viewed and sentenced differently than some of his white counterparts. “Being a Black man gave me fourteen years with eighty-five percent [time served] for a crime that, if I was Caucasian, I would have gotten maybe five. The toxicologists pulled blood, they knew exactly what chemicals, substances, and alcohol level that was in my body and it wasn’t taken into account. I know if I wasn’t Black, I wouldn’t have gotten as much time. But, that’s a part of being Black in America. A Black male - we are a threat.”

Besides the systematic flaws that have incarcerated Black people at a higher rate than white people, Black folks in prison are also subject to racist ideology and violence. This article from The Marshall Project describes some of the experiences Black individuals have had while incarcerated. From physical divisions and stereotyping to violent protests and even everyday behavior, racism is ingrained in the prison experience for many Black folks and other people of color.

Being Black in Higher Education

Dameon speaks further to his experience in attaining his degrees both while incarcerated and after his time in prison. He started college courses while incarcerated and was able to complete nearly the equivalent of an associates degree while only being able to take between two and three classes per semester. He began work on the remaining portion of his undergraduate degree at Rutgers in 2016 and his MSW program also at Rutgers in 2019.

“The education while I was inside was much more intense. The group of us, ‘Team Work-Hard’ put pressure on ourselves to excel and to be the best because we didn’t want the program to fail and we wanted it to last for others.” Dameon audited additional classes each semester, even though he did not get credit. The professors of the classes were encouraging of Dameon’s love of learning and work ethic to complete the classwork for classes which would never appear on his transcript. This attitude prepared him well for his continuing his undergraduate degree at Rutgers after his release from prison. “As I walked into my senior year, those last three semesters I took twenty-three credits each semester because I could do it.”

Like many other Black folks, Dameon has had to fight and constantly prove himself and his worth to be treated with respect in his field. In our conversation, Dameon describes how in a recent meeting someone assumed a white counterpart was in charge of a project when it was in fact Dameon - in title and responsibility - who was the superior on that project. While mistakes like this often aren’t ill-intentioned, they are still hurtful signs of implicit bias that happen more frequently than a non-Black individual might expect.

As concluded in the landmark Princeton study of Black and white job applicants, formerly incarcerated Black people were far less likely than any other combination to get an opportunity to interview or be hired. This study showed these pervasive results for entry-level and low level jobs. The implicit bias in opportunities of higher education and in jobs that require more experience surely affects formerly incarcerated Black people’s chance at being chosen for the position.

That said, not all of the tribulations that Black people face in pursuit of higher education is a direct consequence of race. In addition to outward prejudice, unequal access to resources necessary for educational success creates further barriers for education. The intersection of the identities of being Black and being formerly incarcerated create challenges that people outside of those worlds do not have to contend with. Dameon, for example, knew that when completing his certification to become a licensed social worker, there was a chance that the board would not approve his application for a license because of his background as a formerly incarcerated individual. After having already completed all of the necessary education, exams, and documentation, Dameon’s professor and mentor through his master's program, Professor Frank Greenagel of Rutgers University, wrote a letter to the board on Dameon’s behalf articulating his successful studies and character.

Challenges like this one of situations that are entirely outside of the individual’s control and based on perception of their identity by others. Dameon remarks, “The fact that my background was sort of a question just because that’s always what they’re going to do because of your background, to have someone that’s a professional in the field vouch for me, say he’s going to be working with me and supervising me as I go through the process after they license me gave me the opportunity for them [the board] to say ‘Here’s your license.’” While Dameon is incredibly grateful for his experience working with Professor Greenagel and the opportunities he has had as a LSW, it’s important to consider the frustration brought through the stereotypes that contributed to the difficulty Dameon had getting his license.

What Can We Do?

While it is important to recognize the systematic oppression of Black people and lasting stigmas that can surround those who have been incarcerated, we must also evaluate how we can lift up Black people and formerly incarcerated people through our individual actions.

Sociologists and others working in the criminal justice system commonly go through Implicit Bias Training. This training is meant to uncover and work to reverse biases we may unconsciously hold against certain groups of people. The first step in becoming a better ally is to recognize where we can improve. The Harvard Implicit Association Test is designed to bring to light the biases of which we may not be aware. Taking this test and paying attention to the words and language you use to address certain people is a small correction but can make a large difference over time. Do you use more casual or “slang” type language in front of Black people or people of color without realizing it? Take a step back to observe your own interactions and see how you can bring more respect to your conversations with BIPOC individuals.

Another important way to work toward a more inclusive environment is to recognize the space you as an ally take up and let Black voices be heard. When having a conversation about race, it’s important to include the real experiences of people who are affected by their racial identity. Instead of making generalizations about race, ask someone of that race about their experience and listen to what they have to say. In the work environment or in everyday conversation, validate the ideas brought forth by Black people and actively seek to implement suggestions about inclusivity brought forth by BIPOC colleagues. Instead of taking a colorblind approach to experiences and ideas, it’s imperative to seek out the representation of Black people in the workplace or academic setting. No one gets anywhere if someone is left behind, so it’s the responsibility of any team to make sure every individual player is heard and seek out any voices that might be missing.

Finally, as an ally to the Black community you can use your privilege to help those who don’t have the same privilege they deserve. Like Dameon’s mentor Professor Greenagel wrote a letter on his behalf, recognize that you will have to take extra steps for the people in your life to have the same opportunities. By inserting your privilege into the process - when it’s necessary and wanted - you can help join qualified and passionate individuals with the opportunities they deserve.

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