Christopher Beasley thinks psychology is key to academic transformation for the formerly incarcerated
By Craig Keller
Growing up underprivileged in the small, rural town of Casey, Ill., Christopher Beasley (CSH PhD ’13) turned to the illegal drug trade as a support system.
“I never imagined many possibilities in my life or thought about college,” says Beasley, now an assistant professor of community psychology at the University of Washington, Tacoma (UW Tacoma), where his work focuses on improving transitions to higher education for formerly incarcerated individuals. “I looked at it as a way to have self-respect and respect from others and provide resources to my community.”
After serving a prison sentence for drug possession, Beasley heeded his uncle’s advice and earned an associate degree at a community college, exploring bachelor’s degree completion options through a federal TRIO program supporting low-income, first-generation students. He earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Minnesota, Duluth, a master’s in clinical psychology from Roosevelt University and a PhD in community psychology from DePaul.
“I’m interested in how education programs in prison and postprison shape the possibilities people see for themselves,” says Beasley, who founded and directs UW Tacoma’s Post-Prison Education Program. “We examine how the programs transform one’s [sense of] self by viewing personal narratives through a larger theoretical lens.”
DePaul provided a pivotal stage in Beasley’s own narrative. At CSH, he worked part time in the college’s Center for Community Research with its director, Leonard Jason, and another community psychology professor, LaVome Robinson.
Beasley helped draft the proposal that later led to Jason and Robinson receiving a $6.6 million research grant from the National Institute of Mental Health for the center’s Success Over Stress Violence Prevention Project.
Beasley also collaborated with two other formerly incarcerated PhD students on the center’s staff to develop a grassroots network he’d initiated at Roosevelt. Today, the Formerly Incarcerated College Graduates Network comprises about 1,400 individuals, including 130 with doctoral degrees, in the United States and seven other countries. The network provides mutual support, mentors and a means to transform the social narrative collectively.
At UW Tacoma, Beasley also helps coordinate the Husky Post-Prison Pathways scholarship program and develops research studies to follow such students over their academic careers. “Only 4% of formerly incarcerated people get bachelor’s degrees,” says Beasley. “Many universities focus on equity and inclusion, and here is a group for whom the equity numbers could not be more apparent.”
Shifting the focus from generalizations to individual needs is key.
“Too often rehabilitation and reentry focus on mitigating risk factors—providing housing and jobs, for instance, when people get out,” says Beasley. “But having those things won’t always lead you to a more meaningful life. It’s critically important that we look at what people need in life to flourish, to be part of a community, and support that pathway. That’s why prison and postprison education is so important. For me, that was how I discovered [how to] fit into the world.”
This article was originally published in the spring 2021 issue of Scientia, a publication for DePaul College of Science and Health alumni and friends.