Former prisoner pressures USG to get rid of criminal record application question

Patrick Rodriguez, co-executive director of the Georgia Coalition for Higher Education in Prison, spent five years behind bars. Now, he’s pushing the University System of Georgia to remove an application question about any past or pending convictions.

Five years behind bars in the Georgia Department of Corrections gave Patrick Rodriguez time to think about how he would ever go back to school.

“When I was incarcerated, I just kept thinking about education,” Rodriguez said.

“I just kept thinking about what is it that I’m going to do to be able to make it in todays society, as somebody who now has a criminal record.”

Rodriguez dropped out of Kennesaw State University back in 2013 to sell drugs. He’s been arrested in several Georgia counties and other states. Rodriguez told WABE’s “All Things Considered” that he’s very transparent with his story because he knows many folks have a hard-nosed belief about people who carry a criminal record.

“Let’s stop talking about crime and punishment, and let’s start talking about safety and resolutions,” Rodriguez said.

Now as co-executive director of the Georgia Coalition for Higher Education in Prison, Rodriguez’s priority is expanding pathways for people who’ve had their lives disrupted or impacted by the criminal justice system.

He’s also the mind behind Beyond the Box Georgia — a campaign push to get the University System of Georgia to remove an application question of any past or pending convictions.

USG officials told WABE in a statement that staff members have met twice with students involved with Beyond the Box to discuss their concerns.

“University System of Georgia (USG) staff members have met twice with students involved with the Beyond the Box initiative to discuss their concerns. There are a variety of important reasons the question is asked on applications including federal financial aid policies, subsequent licensing requirements associated with certain academic programs, and to allow our institutions to perform their due diligence in both providing a safe campus environment while also facilitating that prospective student’s admission. We share the same goal as the Beyond the Box organizers of helping people from all manner of backgrounds pursue higher education. We are looking at potential changes that would be in the best interest of potential students. If an academically qualified student answers the question affirmatively on their application, it by no means results in an automatic rejection. Each application is then subject to further review. We’re proud of these students for taking the initiative to organize, sit down with us and present solutions.

Rodriguez is now back at Kennesaw State, advocating for other former prisoners from inside the USG system. He’s also laying the foundation to become an attorney and hopes to attend law school this August.

Yet, Rodriguez described Kennesaw as putting him on trial a second time when he was forced to disclose his criminal past.

“If there are points where we have to disclose, then that means we’re not going to be a part of.”

Patrick Rodriguez

And with his law school application, still comes mandatory court documents and a character evaluation.

“First and foremost, think about the cost of law school. And then to even be able to pass the bar, even without a criminal conviction,” Rodriguez said.

“Are all of those not enough for me to be a normal student, and try to go to law school like everybody else?”

Rodriguez notes several studies that find a strong correlation between low recidivism rates and higher education. Keeping former inmates in school keeps them out of prison.

Now, Rodriguez is telling that to anyone who will listen, including state lawmakers and USG.