FIST: Raising awareness for formerly incarcerated students

Amaris E. Rodriguez, Opinions Editor

Formerly Incarcerated Standing Together (FIST) and The Justice Studies Club will be hosting NEIU’s Annual Day of Reflection on Mass Incarceration in the Student Union and Alumni Hall on March 5 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

FIST is a club on campus that provides academic and social support for students who have been affected by mass incarceration, including formerly incarcerated students themselves.

President of FIST and senior student Michael Fischer, who was formerly incarcerated, said, “My biggest thing with the club is for people who have been incarcerated or whose family has been incarcerated to feel that NEIU is a place where they are going to be welcomed, where they are not going to be stigmatized. I want the presence of the club to send that message.”

Mass incarceration plays a large role in the social construct of the United States, with an incarceration rate five times higher than most countries in the world according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

President of The Justice Studies Club and senior student Ashlei Ross said, “It affects everyone, even if you don’t have family members that have been incarcerated. It affects our economy, our normal lives. A lot of people, because of the stigma, downplay it as if it’s not important but it really is.”

Secretary of FIST and sophomore student Maggie Speer said, “It affects everyone, without question.”

For those who are able to relate to the club directly, it can establish a sense of inclusion that is life-changing.

After Fischer got out of prison in 2015, he was looking to finish his degree. A Google search led him to NEIU’s FIST, which was part of the reason he decided to attend NEIU.

“I didn’t know at the time that [FIST] was dormant,” Fischer said. “I thought this would be a good place to go where I don’t have to be feel like I am this weird fish out of water, where there is a support system in place.

“I felt that this would be a welcoming space. It was the presence of this group that made me feel that way over a place like UIC,” he continued.

FIST is hoping the event on March 5 will gain them more exposure to the student body and the administration, who the people in FIST view as still resisting the presence of their club on campus.  

Fischer said, “A lot of times you mention being locked up or you mention prison, and you can see everyone’s eyes getting big. That doesn’t bother me, I do it anyways. I actually say it because of that.”

Ross said, “We have The University Without Walls program where Stateville (Correctional Center) students take classes from here, and it was a very long haul to even get them to accept us giving current inmates college credit. I don’t think our administration has moved past that stigma. I think (the administration) wants to think, ‘great but let’s not talk about that. They are here, we know there is a club, we know they are here but let’s not highlight that.’”

FIST is hoping, by talking about incarceration issues that many students face, they are able to turn the campus into an inclusive and safe space for everyone.

Ross said, “I would like for a space where even if you haven’t been incarcerated, you know it is a safe place. You can come and you’ll have someone else to talk to about your problems.”

Fischer has witnessed this first hand. He said, “There is a weird understanding with people who have been through that in some way. Somebody emailed me, who was thinking about coming here and was incarcerated for 15 years. He reached out because he saw we had this club. I’m glad he thought there was someone here who was in a similar situation who he could talk to, because if you don’t see yourself reflected in a particular student body, you’re not going to want to join that student body.”

Email Professor Timothy Barnett at [email protected] for more information.