Stanley Andrisse had the whole world in front of him after he graduated from college with a major in biology and a minor in business.
However, right after graduation he found himself in court facing a potential 20 years to life sentence.
He had been arrested for his third felony drug charge.
Andrisse was facing a drug trafficking charge, and the prosecution was painting an inaccurate, demeaning portrait of him.
“This prosecutor was prophesying that I was this career criminal at just 20 something years old. She said that I had no hope for change,” Andrisse told Humanity.
He was eventually sentenced to 10 years in a Missouri state prison.
Andrisse was young and impressionable, and the words of the prosecutor stuck with him.
“I went into prison with the belief that I was this career criminal. I didn’t really like the words that she was saying, but I believed them because she was in a place of authority,” Andrisse explained.
“The picture that she painted looked to have made sense.”
He internalized those words, and truly believed he would be in and out of prison for his entire life.
While Andrisse was incarcerated, his father became ill.
Doctors amputated his father’s toe. Then his foot. Then his leg. Then his other toe. Then his other foot. Then his other leg.
“It was extremely difficult for me not being able to be there, and feeling almost guilty because he was more or less healthy before I left,” Andrisse recalled.
At first, he didn’t understand why his father was undergoing so many amputations.
It turned out the amputations were a result of type II diabetes. That’s when he became interested in medicine.
“I began becoming interested in wanting to know what is going on inside the body, inside the cell, why does this disease take somebody to this place?” Andrisse said.
While in prison, Andrisse began studying medicine and endocrinology.
A mentor sent him scholarly articles, and he began to learn about endocrinology—how hormones regulate the body.
He worked in the prison library, and read and wrote as much as he could, even if there weren’t any books that were about medicine.
“I was happy to just be reading really,” Andrisse recalled.
He applied to multiple graduate programs, but was summarily rejected after checking the box indicating he had been convicted of a felony.
Simply putting together the applications was challenging. There was a five-page limit for prison mail, so Andrisse had to ask people to separate the college materials and applications into different parcels.
Sometimes his mail would get discarded completely.
Inmates and guards ridiculed him for trying to study and make something of himself. Nevertheless, Andrisse persisted.
He was rejected from nearly every graduate program he applied to.
However, the mentor who had advocated for him in court was also on the board of admissions at St. Louis University.
As a result of Andrisse’s credentials, hard work, and his mentor’s recommendation, he was admitted to St. Louis University just before his release.
While attending graduate school, Andrisse received a monthly stipend. It was enough to live on, but he wanted to find supplementary employment.
Despite his qualifications, he found it difficult to find a job at a hospital because of his criminal history. So he volunteered as a football coach, and looked for a full-time job.
He and the head coach developed the football program into one of the best in the state.
When a paid coaching job came up, he applied. But again, he was rejected because of his past. Moreover, he wasn’t allowed to volunteer coaching the players anymore. He wasn’t even allowed to watch the kids play.
Undeterred, he worked hard on his thesis.
Andrisse completed his Ph.D. two years early, and graduated at the top of his class.
“I wouldn’t really say I’m some super intelligent person, it was more so I got out of prison and I was hungry for this change. I was hungry to show that I could do something different than what this prosecutor laid out for me,” Andrisse explained.
Andrisse still couldn’t find a job at a hospital, or any employment for that matter.
He had proven himself academically and demonstrated an incredible work ethic. But he wasn’t allowed to leave his past mistakes behind. On every application form there was always “the box.”
Together with his mentor, Andrisse did a tremendous amount of research that would eventually pay off.
They discovered that Johns Hopkins University Hospital was the leading employer for hiring former prisoners in Maryland, and the number one hospital in the U.S. for endocrinology.
“It was a dream fit,” Andrisse said.
He applied, and for the first time was not asked about his criminal history.
His supervisor found him more than qualified for the endocrinology research position, and he was hired in 2014.
He is also a tenure-track assistant professor at Howard University, and continues to work as an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins.
Johns Hopkins Hospital has a policy where employees’ immediate supervisors are not informed about criminal history. That information is confidential, and only privy to the Human Resources department.
The diligent work didn’t end in graduate school or in his career in medicine.
Andrisse wanted other formerly incarcerated people to be able to pursue education too.
Andrisse, along with Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby and Job Opportunities Task Force, began the “Ban the Box” campaign, referring to the criminal history question on college and graduate applications.
Andrisse and his partners campaigned to shore up support for a bill that would ban the box.
He ended up testifying before the Maryland state legislature regarding the bill, and his testimony was well received.
As a result of his and his colleagues’ efforts, the Maryland state legislature passed the bill. However, Governor Larry Hogan vetoed the bill in the summer of 2017.
The governor’s reasoning was that omitting the criminal history box on college and graduate school applications would make campuses less safe.
“It was almost as if he didn’t read the bill,” Andrisse explained.
Andrisse argued that there was no evidence to support that rationale. He simply wanted former inmates to be able to pursue higher education without the “box” barrier.
But that didn’t stop Andrisse. That’s when he took the campaign directly to the students.
As soon as the students learned the statistics regarding “the box,” and the effect higher education has on the life of a formerly incarcerated person, they were onboard.
The recidivism rate for former prisoners who earn an associate’s degree is 13 percent. It’s 5 percent for those who earn a Bachelor’s degree. For those who earn a Master’s degree or higher, almost nobody goes back to prison.
Andrisse and his partners were able to get over a thousand signatures on a petition to “ban the box,” held rallies, garnered a fair amount of media attention, and were able to build awareness around the issue.
The Maryland legislature voted on the bill for a second time in January 2018, and overrode the governor’s veto. The bill became law.
Andrisse remains an ardent advocate, and is the executive director of From Prison Cells to PhD.
“There’s extreme talent that we’re missing out on. The people that we work with have extremely high potential, and we want to help them get there.”