Journeys in Social Stigma: The Lives of Formerly Incarcerated Felons in Higher Education

By Copenhaver, Anna; Edwards-Willey, Tina L. et al. | Journal of Correctional Education, September 2007 | Go to article overview
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Journeys in Social Stigma: The Lives of Formerly Incarcerated Felons in Higher Education

Copenhaver, Anna, Edwards-Willey, Tina L., Byers, Bryan D., Journal of Correctional Education


While inmates are the subject of many outlets of popular media and research, this population is rarely, however, studied in any depth. Most forms of media overlook the rehabilitative efforts made by inmates. This study attempts to evaluate education as a form of rehabilitation and identify the struggles faced by inmates while trying to finish their degrees on a traditional college campus. This study does this by focusing on the stigma, both real and perceived, that former inmates battle and how they find ways to alleviate the harmful effects of stigma caused by former incarceration.


The world of inmates is one that is hard to understand without experiencing It firsthand. The stigma, real or perceived, which inmates encounter once released is enough to keep many from developing social, professional or educational ties and seeking life enhancing opportunities. Stigma, caused by both criminal history and financial barriers, force many to find alternative ways to adapt to the world to fit in and be successful (Harrison, 2004).

This study used qualitative interviews of formerly incarcerated felons to discern how those who started rehabilitative education in prison continued these efforts on a college campus after their release and how they managed their social stigma. The interviews provide insight on how this population is affected by and handles the stigma placed upon them. The insights shared by the subjects are used as a way to understand how individuals within this population feel about themselves and how they perceive others feel about them based upon their past. This study also uses sociological theories to explain how others' actions affect this population. This combination allows for a more complete understanding of human behavior and social interactions with this population.

It is important to note that many universities have these formerly incarcerated felons as students on campus, and many people, both fellow students and faculty alike, have no idea of who they are. By not knowing about these students' past, the students, faculty and university staff are unable to help these individuals adapt, succeed and deal with the pressures of their past and their own rehabilitative efforts. Also, when the university community learns to accept this population, they can then see that former inmates can contribute to the community and are not to be feared. This change in attitude could help stigmatized individuals to be successful in college and therefore reduce their chances of recidivism (Harrison, 2004).

Theories of Stigma

Defining Stigma

Erving Goffman (1963) wrote extensively about stigma and social identity (p. 1). His theories provide insight into the effects of stigma. He also provides his readers with a useful definition to utilize while investigating this topic. Coffman defines the term "stigma" as "...the situation of the individual who is disqualified from social acceptance (p. i).' He breaks down stigma into three different types: "physical deformity, blemishes of individual character perceived as weak will and tribal (p. 4)." The one relevant to our study is that of "blemishes." This includes social defects dealing with personality, mental disorder, imprisonment and homosexuality (p. 4). Social identity and aspects of information control are linked with the concept of stigma also.

Goffman (1963) defines "social information" as "...the information the individual directly conveys about himself." He describes "social identity" as "...when a stranger comes into our presence, then first appearances are likely to enable us to anticipate his category and attributes (p. 2)." There is also a "virtual identity" that is assumed upon an initial introduction. The last identity used by Goffman was "actual social identity," which are individuals' true characteristics (p. 20). It is easy to see that there can be a discrepancy between the virtual and actual identities of an individual.

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Journeys in Social Stigma: The Lives of Formerly Incarcerated Felons in Higher Education


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