Dr. Michael B. Mitchell is an assistant professor of criminology and African American Studies at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ). Before he began teaching, he worked in a different capacity within criminal justice: first as a detention service officer in a mental housing facility at the Dallas County (TX) Jail, and then as a police officer in a suburb of Dallas, Texas. He shares how those experiences led him to a career aimed not only at educating minds, but also changing attitudes.
My educational background is in criminal justice–my bachelor’s degree is in Administration of Justice–but I was also interested in seeing how the system operated from the inside. I was very curious, and so I became a correctional officer. I worked in a large county jail for a little more than a year–not long–but I saw quite a bit that disturbed me. I saw the criminalization of poverty, homelessness, and how we treat the mentally ill in this country. I saw the overwhelming representation of people of color, especially Black men and women, incarcerated in the jail.
In that job, I often felt like an overseer–I use that term very intentionally. I didn't feel like I had any positive impact on the lives of incarcerated individuals that I was overseeing on a day-to-day basis. And so, I figured going into law enforcement would allow me the opportunity to have greater impact through service to the community. I was hired by my hometown police department and completed a 28-week basic police academy before I took a sworn oath and received my badge. At this time, I became a sworn police officer with the legal authority to take away one’s life and liberty if I followed departmental policy and arrest authority granted by the state of Texas.
Again, my curiosity of how the criminal legal system actually works and the desire to serve the community led me to pursue these jobs in corrections and law enforcement. Law enforcement is another component of the U.S. criminal legal system, and I was able to see how things transpire on the streets before one gets to jail or prison. The training I received in various aspects was great, but I witnessed both implicit and explicit fragments of a conservative police culture that was completely antithetical to my viewpoints. So, my ideologies conflicted with the job even before I hit the streets, but due to my powerless position (i.e., police trainee), I knew it was best to go with the flow and complete the academy.
My academy class, unsurprisingly, was majority white. There were no women. There were a handful of minority recruits–myself and one other classmate were the only Black recruits who graduated–but the majority of the class (and department) were white men. In the academy, I was becoming socialized into what I felt to be a rigid, conservative police culture, and that continued once the field training program began. Midway through the field training program, I said to myself, “This is not who I am.” Because I was witnessing things–nothing criminal, but I'm witnessing things from other officers on how to handle certain situations that just didn’t sit right with me. I guess you can say I was experiencing moral conflicts with the job. Therefore, one day, I woke up, called my field training officer, and said “I think I want to give it up; this isn’t for me.” I did not provide much explanation to anyone because I did not believe the other officers (including a few academy classmates I befriended) nor my supervisors would understand, and frankly, I felt it was nobody’s business.
So, I left the police department halfway through my field training program, without knowing what was next. Through some great guidance from mentors–including some professors who were doing amazing things in higher education–I was convinced that returning to graduate school to further my education was best for me. I attended the University of Texas at Arlington to pursue a master’s degree in criminology and criminal Justice. That changed the trajectory of my professional life. I was no longer working within the system, but I was still connected to the criminal legal system through education.
I had a very good, very critical education. I took courses, for instance, on Race, Crime and Justice, and Criminal Justice and the Legacy of American Slavery–which I actually teach at TCNJ now. These were courses and professors that challenged students to see the injustices within the criminal legal system on a deeper level, whether we were focusing on policing, courts, the correctional system, or juvenile justice. I learned to look at the criminal legal system and how we administer justice, in a very critical and nuanced way. And I became more interested in not only deepening my understanding but conveying the realities of the system to the public.
Toward the end of my master's program, in 2018, I had the opportunity to get involved in hands-on research with a faculty member, Dr. Jaya B. Davis, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Texas at Arlington. Dr. Davis was–and still is–involved with the nonprofit organization, Girls Embracing Mothers, located in Dallas, Texas. It was founded by Brittany K. Barnett, an attorney whose mother previously served time in the Texas Department of Corrections (now the Texas Department of Criminal Justice). Dr. Davis knew I was interested in the impact of incarceration on families and helped me design a qualitative study exploring the post-incarceration navigation of motherhood. Some of the data collected led to the co-authored journal article here.
The stories that I heard were just heartbreaking. The interview data I collected ignited this fire within me to share the stories of these system-impacted mothers with the academic community and public alike. And the women wanted me to share their stories, wherever I could. For that research project, I stopped at 15 in-depth interviews. However, my intellectual and practical interest in this area of research did not cease. Soon after, I decided to go on to a PhD program and eventually become a professor and work in criminology/criminal justice through higher education. I attended Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas, a Historically Black College & University (HBCU) where I’d also earned my bachelor of science degree in 2013. Approximately midway through my doctoral studies, I applied to be a visiting assistant professor at TCNJ because the job ad really spoke to me and who I was as a scholar. I started teaching there in August 2020 and have since completed my PhD and transitioned to a tenure-track position, hence I’m an assistant professor–no longer “visiting.”
I consider myself an organic intellectual: someone whose pathway to academia is non-traditional and intentionally sides with the marginalized and oppressed. Despite my prior employment in the criminal legal system, I am a young, Black man (currently under 30) with dreadlocks and visible tattoos who grew up lower-middle class; I am a first-generation college student (now the first and only PhD in my family), with close ties to several individuals who have firsthand experience with the criminal justice issues I teach about in the classroom. I try to build empathy for the incarcerated and returning citizens among my students, many of whom are privileged. Even if they come from struggle, they're in college so they do have some privilege. So, I show documentaries and short films; I incorporate lived experiences from my research participants; I talk about people in my own family or friends that got caught up in the system, and use them as teaching points.
I now use my privileged position in academia to provide a platform for system-impacted individuals and reform-minded criminal justice professionals to critically engage with students and the campus community and challenge their perceptions, attitudes, and understanding of the criminal legal system. At TCNJ, I am the faculty advisor for Students for Prison Education and Reform (SPEAR), a student-led organization committed to ending mass incarceration and raising awareness about the carceral state. I teach social justice-oriented courses such as Race, Crime and Justice, Introduction to Social Justice, and core criminology courses like Policing Civil Societies. In addition, I teach courses on youth criminalization such as School-to-Prison Pipeline. Not only do I teach, but I am an active researcher, especially in the area of parenting and reentry. I also serve as a volunteer with the New Jersey Judiciary. Therefore, I do a number of things to try to translate the realities of the criminal legal system to the public while also providing important community service on the local and state level.
In all of that work, I try to help students and the broader public see the humanity in currently and formerly incarcerated individuals. I try to do that by showing them that “they” are “us.”. These are people that are in our families, in our communities. These are our brothers and our sisters and our mothers and our fathers. And so, while they may have engaged in criminalized activity, they are human beings that deserve respect, that have dignity, that have a voice.
In this country, we've been socialized to believe that people who engage in criminalized activity and people who go to prison not only deserve to be punished but deserve to face continuing punishment when they come out. Incarceration becomes the stain you can’t remove, and people continue to see formerly incarcerated individuals as “less than.” It's like they face perpetual punishment. So, I try to show students, as well as the public, the humanity of these individuals. These are people with families, people who may have found themselves trapped in situations, people who made a wrong decision. Does that mean we should banish them from society? Stories are powerful in showing a person’s humanity.
As far as education for those currently incarcerated, it should start Day One – whether it’s earning a GED or moving through post-secondary education. We know that individuals who come from underfunded and underserved schools have a greater likelihood of coming into contact with the criminal legal system. We know that among our incarcerated population, illiteracy is very high. I witnessed that working in county jail. By expanding jail/prison education programs, we can increase access to these programs. Education programs within facilities may help reduce interpersonal violence there. And, as part of re-entry, an education can reduce recidivism. Because it’s not just the opportunity to receive an education, but also to pursue career goals, even after returning from incarceration. It establishes a bond to society and the community. It gives the individual something to aspire to, and therefore reduces the likelihood of one going back to the streets. I believe education is essential to what one considers a successful reentry. Individuals who want to pursue any level of education inside or out deserves the opportunity.
I can tell you as a college professor, we have to see our returning citizens as a "special needs" population. These are people who may come from different backgrounds than traditional college students and are at a different place in their lives. They need peers for support. They need allies among faculty and staff who can help them matriculate through college. And think about how returning students can transform our colleges and universities. I believe they are already doing this.