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Policies That Normalize Opportunity Impact Lives

August 28, 2023

At a Glance

Now an advocate for people who are incarcerated, Aminah Elster faced red tape and regulatory roadblocks when she reentered her community following incarceration. Her story illustrates how important it is to normalize opportunity for people with records.

Earning Degrees in Prison and Beyond

During my incarceration, I enrolled in the Incarcerated Student Program (ISP) at Feather River College in Quincy, California. It was a remarkable program but extremely underfunded. Of the very limited number of college and vocational programs being offered to people inside California women’s prisons, the ISP was the gold standard.

It was successful because it was designed to create a pipeline for incarcerated students to enter four-year colleges and universities upon release. This was accomplished by intentionally investing in in-person instruction from college professors, providing academic advising to ensure that students were taking the necessary courses in line with each individual’s educational goals, and making space for students to cultivate meaningful connections with instructors and access community resources that supported their future trajectories back into their communities.

My experience was made possible through successful policies such as California’s state Senate Bill 1391 of 2014, which removed barriers preventing programs from compensating community colleges for teaching face-to-face courses in prison and from offering incarcerated students the same services that were offered to students on campus, such as tutoring and academic advising. I also benefited from the California College Promise Grant (formerly known as the Board of Governors Fee Waiver) which provides tuition coverage for all students enrolled in a California community college who qualify as low-income, regardless of whether they are incarcerated or not.

The ISP prepared and positioned me to gain admission to a number of California universities within eight months of being home, making it possible for me to major in an area of focus that lined up perfectly with my professional pursuits and passion.

I applied for, and received, undergraduate admission into a number of University of California schools thanks to the support of the Underground Scholars Initiative (USI), a student organization founded by students at the University of California, Berkeley, who had been incarcerated or otherwise faced systemic barriers to advancement. And it was first funded through UC Berkeley via a fee that students voted for in a referendum. USI later partnered with state Senator Loni Hancock, who led an effort to secure funding from the state to initiate the development of an academic support program to serve formerly incarcerated students and the student organization itself.

It didn’t take me long to find a job. I sought employment that would allow me to engage in social justice ‘peer’ work where my lived experience, coupled with my professional experiences, was valued and welcomed.

Benefitting From a Fair Chance in the Job Market

I was fortunate that it didn’t take me long to find a job. I sought employment that would allow me to engage in social justice “peer” work where my lived experience, coupled with my professional experiences, was valued and welcomed. Utilizing my network, I learned about an internship with the American Friends Service Committee, an organization that promotes a world free of violence, inequality, and oppression.

I benefited from California’s passage of the Fair Chance Act in 2018. Also known as the “Ban the Box” law, the Fair Chance Act prohibits employers from asking job applicants about their criminal histories before making a job offer, which levels the playing field for people who may be highly qualified for certain jobs but have had a criminal conviction.

Finding Housing, Overcoming a Debt Burden

After my release, I was housed in a transitional program for the first six months of my reintegration, with the expectation that I would find and secure my own housing. To help me cover living expenses in the high-priced city of San Francisco, I applied for food benefits through the state’s CalFresh program but was denied because I resided in transitional housing.

San Francisco has a fair chance housing ordinance that protects tenants and housing applicants from discrimination by affordable housing providers based on criminal history, but it allows landlords to consider applicants’ criminal convictions if they are related to charges deemed to be “directly related” to the safety of the property.

Also, many landlords in the city require potential tenants to have funds that amount to at least three times the amount of one month’s rent. Unable to meet this threshold on my own, I found another formerly incarcerated person looking for housing to be my roommate, and together we pooled our incomes to secure a small studio apartment in San Francisco with very little difficulty.

Having secured stable housing, employment, and access to higher education, I was excited to use my first tax return to treat myself to something special. Imagine my surprise when my federal tax return was garnished per the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) because I still owed restitution from 18 years earlier. I contacted the DOJ to make payment arrangements.

A few months later, my employer received a letter from the Franchise Tax Board—the California agency responsible for collecting state personal income tax—notifying them that my wages were being garnished due to court-ordered debt collection. I was devastated! I hadn’t even been home a year and here was this mountain of debt looming over my future like a tule fog. How was I supposed to get on my feet and begin accumulating wealth with wage and tax return garnishments and county liens on properties I might potentially hold in the future?

Frustrated and unaware of what my next steps should be, I was connected with an attorney with a legal services provider who discouraged me with the complexities around victims’ compensation and restitution and encouraged me to file a motion to modify my sentence in Superior Court. I did, and the court granted my motion. Before dropping the matter from the court calendar, the judge issued a “no restitution” order, clearing away $88,000 of criminal justice debt blocking my path to upward mobility.

Emphasizing the Need for Equitable Access to Opportunities and Supports

My story isn’t unique. Many people with criminal records face challenges similar to the ones I faced when they try to get an education, secure employment, find housing, and achieve financial stability.

That’s why ensuring that everyone has access to opportunities and support structures that help drive upward mobility for formerly incarcerated people is essential if we truly want everyone to thrive in today’s economy and succeed in the jobs of the future.

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