Chris Miner has lived in Champaign for most of his life. In 2005, he was charged with felony theft and served time in prison from 2008-2009. Miner recently celebrated the 10-year anniversary of his release from prison, but he explains that prison did little to change him. “Upon release I went right back to the same people, places, and things as before. About 6 years ago, I realized I was going nowhere…other than maybe back to prison. So, I applied to Parkland.”

Miner worked hard to receive an Associate Degree with Honors in Political Science at Parkland College. Soon after, he transferred into UIUC to receive his Bachelor’s in Urban Planning with a concentration in Social Justice and is currently a Master of Social Work student. Miner is also the President of TIME (Those Impacted by the Mass Incarceration Era) Scholars, a Registered Student Organization that according to their Facebook page "works to contest and combat discriminatory barriers which limit accessibility to education, employment, and housing for people with felony convictions by promoting awareness and advocating for the victims of the mass incarceration epidemic." They will be holding a discussion on Thursday, March 14th from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the Illini Union regarding building the prison to school pipeline. The event this week focuses on the need for the community to lobby/advocate local politicians to reintroduce legislation of banning the check box on college applications. These efforts are being made for people with felony convictions to have greater accessibility to higher education.

Smile Politely: What will the discussion on the 14th entail regarding the Building a Prison-to-School pipeline?

Chris Miner: At the Building a Prison-to-School Pipeline event we will be discussing reversing the narrative of the School-to-Prison Pipeline which grooms young, poor, (predominantly) black and brown bodies for the prison-industrial-complex. Once introduced to this revolving door of incarceration, many never escape. They often fall victim to the spectre of recidivism, which is fueled by the lack of resources they are presented with upon their release. TIME Scholars believes that increasing accessibility to higher education would provide an opportunity to break the cycle of recidivism by making formerly incarcerated individuals more competitive in the labor market. An advanced degree makes the idea of hiring a person with a felony conviction more likely.

SP: Can you explain more about Prison-to-School and the disadvantages that formerly incarcerated students and/or students with incarcerated family members have to deal with when trying to pursue higher education?

Miner: Being a formerly incarcerated person, I have first-hand experience of the barriers faced upon reentry. A person with a felony conviction has no protections against discrimination. Employment, housing, and education are three areas where you are often forced to check a box, self-disclosing your past mistakes. And, for the most part, you can be (and, will be) denied access to these vital resources. Just two summers ago, I was rejected for a minimum wage job and an apartment — despite being released from prison nearly a decade ago. It follows you. And, I realize the privilege I was born into as a white male still gave me advantages that many non-white males do not receive. So every wall I ran into….well, I realized that those walls were MUCH higher for others. I mean, I’m now a grad student at the University of Illinois while many of those I was caged with is back in prison. I owe it to them to point this out. Every opportunity I get. To anyone who will listen!

SP: There are a few guest speakers coming to the event, can you briefly describe who they are?

Miner: We plan to have at least two guest speakers, Perry Cline and James Corbin. They will speak about the important role of education in reducing reincarceration. They will be speaking on the intersections which compound the barriers to furthering your education. They have amazing stories, but those stories are theirs to tell, so I’ll leave it at that. There are a few others who might be speaking, and I say might because many formerly incarcerated people are not “out.” They're afraid of the repercussions they might face for speaking publicly about their past. It is very sad that they feel scared to discuss this, but it is completely understandable. At one time, if you’ve been incarcerated in a prison then you have lost everything. You realize that the state can come and take it all away from you again. They’ve done it once. A lot of people cannot conceptualize that unless you’ve been through it.

SP: Why is it important to introduce this event and involve the community in the work of the organization?

Miner: This event is important, right now, because more and more people are waking up to the realization that the mass incarceration epidemic is a scourge upon humanity. I don’t have to run down the statistics. I think we all know them. America loves war. Especially a war on its own people. The war on drugs, the war on poverty, the war on whatever. They warehouse their undesirables in cages then tell everyone else that they’re safe now. But, now we have the First Step Act at the federal level and many candidates are talking about mass incarceration as the campaign cycle starts to kick off. We have a new Governor with a new criminal justice strategy. So, maybe something can happen. But, we must come together and bridge the gap between the campus and the C-U community. And hit the policymakers from multiple angles to get legislation pushed through which provides people who have been released from prison, who have served their time, who have been “punished” a legitimate second chance.

SP: How can the community become more involved with this issue?

Miner: The best way for the local community to get involved is to give people with felony convictions a chance. If you are a landlord, don’t ask about criminal history. If you’re an employer, don’t ask about criminal history. And, if you are the University of Illinois — STOP asking about criminal history. And, the last one is what TIME Scholars is focused on. Last year, there was an Illinois House Bill (3142), which would have banned the box on Illinois’ college applications. This bill was never pushed through and is now dead, as many of the original sponsors have moved on. With wonderful local government representatives like Carol Ammons and Scott Bennett, Champaign could be the starting point to see a comparable bill introduced and pushed through. So, the community could start advocating for this. That being said, I understand the University doesn’t necessarily turn away all people with felony convictions. I am here! But, research shows that well more than half people with convictions drop out of the application process once they see that question. Many people don’t understand. When you receive felony status, you’ve basically been assigned the Scarlet Letter. You are marked. And, you are denied over and over and over. So, when you see that question you think to yourself, “here we go again.” Then you give up. That happens too often. We must stop that. When you give up is when you commit crimes of necessity. That is when people return to their addictions. That is when you go back.

You can find out more information about the Building the Prison-to-School Pipeline event here.