Frank Schulenburg / CC BY-SA

The Ability To Do Good Is Not Defined By Your Past

Sydney Heller
6 min readJul 3, 2020


Before working at The Last Mile, I had never really thought about incarceration. Of course, I had seen “prison” on TV, but I’d always had the luxury of not being forced to face the cycle of mass incarceration.

My first job at TLM involved going into San Quentin State Prison full time, working with students and managing incarcerated web developers. I received training from my coworkers and the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation but, I still had no idea what to expect. There were people in my life who were nervous about me working in a prison, some thought it was “super cool,” and others thought it was a waste of time.

After my first year, I had spoken with the men about their coursework, done code reviews, and bonded about personal growth through education. We had formed real relationships as a class and I came to two stark realizations:

  1. Our classrooms do not reflect the entire incarcerated experience
  2. Two of the most detrimental flaws of our justice system are:
  • The dehumanization of incarcerated people
  • The stigma that once you have been incarcerated, you are no longer capable of doing good

Drilling down into the last bullet — judging each other is something we do every day, whether we’re evaluating if a coworker is going to pull their weight, if another child is a good influence on our child, or how skilled an auto mechanic is. This process is something that, as a society, we mainly do based on the criteria of evaluating a person on their ability, aptitude, and potential to do “good” currently. According to Indeed, top interview questions focus on the present and the future, not the past. What motivates you? Why do you want to work here? In all the interviews I have had, my resume was briefly addressed, but the focus was always on my current ability and my future potential. That is what mattered, not my past.

I have noticed that society denies people who were formerly incarcerated the benefit of having their current actions weigh more than their past ones. Dehumanizing and prejudicial labels such as “convict,” “ex-con,” and “felon” undermine the opportunity to see an individual for who they are currently and what they are capable of today, creating a practically insurmountable hurdle based on someone’s history and not their full story. This is problematic because it is very difficult to see someone for who they are now when you have applied a label on them that is defined by the past.

Most disconcerting is that this treatment is drastically inconsistent with how people without justice-impacted backgrounds are treated. The good in a good deed is the same, regardless of whether or not the person responsible has ever been incarcerated.

Most disconcerting is that this treatment is drastically inconsistent with how people without justice-impacted backgrounds are treated. The good in a good deed is the same, regardless of whether or not the person responsible has ever been incarcerated.

I remember hearing someone say, “It’s fine to have a felon working at a McDonalds or something, but we can’t have them at a school. Are you kidding me?!” We’re talking about work in this example, and I would assume that the qualifications are honesty, integrity, diligence, and being both a good influence and educator. Without knowing anything about a person at all, to brand them as categorically disqualified for a job does not make any sense. Furthermore, many formerly incarcerated people were subjected to the school to prison pipeline themselves. Who better to help break that pipeline than people who overcame it? If we were evaluating a different candidate who had never been incarcerated, would we not discuss their qualifications, look at their skills and strengths, and try to determine if they would be a good fit? Incarceration is part of one’s past, but deeming someone an inappropriate candidate solely because they were incarcerated is ludicrous.

We must not use an approach that is prejudicial against justice-impacted people. We need to judge a candidate’s ability to do a job objectively and without bias. Unfortunately, the traditional background check has become a mechanism to ignore a person’s ability, qualifications, and potential by casting an irrevocable shadow of their past over their candidacy and disqualifying people entirely before they are awarded a fair chance. In my experience, labels such as “convict” typically imply:

  1. The person is guilty of a crime and went to prison (notice the definitive is guilty)
  2. In prison, the person continued exhibiting criminal behavior (since all people in prison are criminals) and did not do anything productive

Although the total assumption of guilt in number 1 is also extremely problematic, that is not the focus of this article. Number 2 wrongfully strips the person from any recognition of the good that they may be doing. It is widely believed that people who are “rehabilitated” must have received help from an outside source. College programs, self-help groups, and countless volunteer programs do great work inside prisons. However, the most powerful, pragmatic, and impactful work I have seen for incarcerated people has been done by incarcerated people.

There is a man in our program serving Life Without the Possibility of Parole, which most likely means he will not be released from prison, who has dedicated his life to educating himself in order to elevate others. While leading an educational group to give people skills to succeed when they get out of prison, his message is clear: “I won’t be getting out of here, ever. But you all will. I don’t want you to come back; I want you to make the world a better place.” A group of incarcerated men in another facility collaborate every week to mentor incarcerated youth. They prepare educational exercises and provide emotional support to pay forward what they have learned. They provide personal guidance with the sole purpose of providing the youth the insight and tools to succeed. Furthermore, the conversations often touch on what the youth plan to do when they get out of prison and their strategy for not returning. Another group does similar work with youth who are not incarcerated, educating and spreading awareness of race, class, and the criminal justice system. Their goal is to prevent the youth from ever being incarcerated. Throughout the entire US prison system, many of the strongest forces that empower incarcerated people to get out and stay out of prison are not philanthropic volunteers, they are other incarcerated individuals.

I oversee 16 TLM educational programs across the US and have received consistent feedback from students, correctional officers, volunteers, and prison administrators that the men, women, and youth in our classrooms create and nurture a positive, constructive, and healthy culture. Our students work hard to level up their skills and create pathways not only to get out and stay out of prison, but also to create those same opportunities for their peers. When asking our students what the key is to this success, of course they mention our coding curriculum, but it really comes down to one thing: humanization. In an environment where people have their freedoms and humanity torn from them and are treated as lesser — our students are treated with respect. The fact of the matter is, once given an opportunity to be treated like human beings, our students do nothing but flourish.

One of the instructors at The Last Mile famously says to our students, “Your best resource is each other.” That sentiment is a familiar concept to our students — they rely on the pillars of their communities in prison. In contrast, outside of prison, our society has deviated from leaning on one another. From our personal to professional lives, we are often quicker to prejudge and label than to see the good in our neighbors.

Merriam-Webster tells me that altruism is: “unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others.” I fail to see the qualifier that prevents someone from being altruistic based on their past. Much of what I have seen in terms of incarcerated people educating, supporting, coming together, and building with each other cannot truly be defined as anything but altruism.

Most of us understand we must work together to make society better. To accomplish that, I ask for anyone reading this article to take a moment to understand that no one’s ability to do good today is diminished by what they have done yesterday. In order to truly understand who someone is, you cannot prejudice yourself against them based on an assumption about their past. Should anyone’s past be ignored? No; but we must destroy stereotypes that deny formerly incarcerated people fair treatment.

In your interactions with all people, whether it be at the grocery store, the playground at your child’s elementary school, or at work, I challenge you to dismantle the stereotypes and prejudices that society has created and remember: every person is capable of altruism now, regardless of their past.



Sydney Heller

Social justice and reentry industry executive trying to create a better, equitable world through access to education and fair chance hiring.