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Increased Access to Higher Education Programs for California Prisoners

Some California prisoners, including those confined at the notorious Pelican Bay supermax, are enjoying access to higher education courses provided by the state’s community colleges. A 2014 law eliminated the requirement that all classes taught by community colleges must be open to the public; as a result, such colleges can now offer programs exclusively for prisoners. This allows them to comport with prison security requirements and receive state funding for prison education courses at a time when California community colleges are suffering low enrollment rates and thus low revenues. Consequently, doors to educational opportunities are now open to thousands of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) prisoners.

In September 2014, California Senate Bill 1391 was signed into law. Amending Section 84810.5 of the Education Code and adding a new section, 84810.7, the statute not only waived the public availability requirement for community college courses, but also provided $2 million to create 18-month pilot programs and supply staffing, classroom space and educational materials for incarcerated students.

The participating schools include Lassen Community College in Susanville, which is paired with High Desert State Prison; Folsom Lake College, paired with the Folsom Women’s Facility; Chaffey Community College in Rancho Cucamonga, paired with the California Institution for Women; and Antelope Valley College in Lancaster, paired with California State Prison, Los Angeles County.

The pilot programs will run until 2018, when the CDCR and the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office will issue reports to the state legislature on their performance.

A key feature of the new law is that community colleges will receive the same level of funding for educating prisoners as they do for students who attend school on campus. The pilot programs began by offering two or three courses per semester, geared toward business classes and associate degrees in liberal arts, with up to 25 prisoners per class.

California’s prison education initiative comes as the federal government has rolled out its own program to restore federal Pell grant eligibility to prisoners, which had been eliminated in 1994 during that era’s “tough on crime” approach to criminal justice. The Obama administration’s Second Chance Pell Pilot Program will fund a limited number of college courses for prisoners nationwide. [See: PLN, Oct. 2016, p.45; Aug. 2015, p.32].

“Launching a pilot program to help students in prison pay for college, because everyone willing to work for it deserves a second chance,” President Obama tweeted at the time.

Since the elimination of federal Pell grants for prisoners, higher education in CDCR facilities has mostly consisted of privately-funded programs like the Prison University Project, which has operated at San Quentin since 1996, utilizing volunteer faculty from UC Berkeley, Stanford and San Francisco State University. In other cases, prisoners have paid for their own college correspondence courses.

California’s state prison system currently houses more than 124,000 prisoners. According to CDCR officials, around 7,000 are involved in higher education programs, with the vast majority enrolled in distance learning courses.

State Superintendent of Correctional Education Brant Choate expressed his belief that the new federal Pell grant pilot program will “provide the much needed funding to ensure those who are interested in turning their lives around are provided that opportunity.”

The Prison University Project’s executive director, Jody Lewen, agreed that the federal program could be helpful, but acknowledged that such ideas don’t always pan out in the real world of prison administration.

“It could be fantastic, but if we allow institutions to come in and do it as cheap as possible with little investment, it will be garbage,” Lewen said. “It will be one of those things in the prison system that’s called better than nothing.”

As to the recent California community college initiative, Lewen pointed to the fact that the new law does not incentivize in-person teaching over cheaper and easier correspondence courses.

“If the schools are not held accountable, and are allowed to create low-quality programs that are unresponsive to both the academic and the psycho-social needs of students, it could be a disaster and it would be impossible to get rid of them,” she said.

Lewen added the Prison University Project will provide training to community college faculty members involved in prison classes, noting that interactions between teachers and incarcerated students can break down misconceptions about prisoners.

“We imagine people in prison as animals and that there is no common ground between us,” she said. “[B]ut the students are phenomenal. They couldn’t be more motivated and grateful. It’s what college should be: adults who have chosen freely and are passionate about learning.”

A 2012 report by a Princeton University researcher found that only 17 percent of the Prison University Program’s graduates had committed new offenses or violated parole, versus the 65 percent average rate for California prisoners as a whole.

In tandem with the community college pilot programs, in 2015 California implemented a project that provides digital tablets to incarcerated students. The tablets, supplied by Nashville-based IDS – with protective cases and no Internet access – are pre-loaded with digital copies of students’ text books. While CDCR prisoners may be granted tuition waivers by the California Community Colleges Board of Governors based on financial need, all students are required to purchase their own text books. The tablets were touted as an attempt to lower the cost and increase the availability of such educational materials.

Providing additional opportunities for academic advancement, in mid-2015 the CDCR entered into a partnership with Pitzer College, a private liberal arts school in Claremont, with the goal of providing courses and credits to prisoners seeking to earn a bachelor’s degree. Pitzer’s Prison Education Program, intended to serve 10 students per class, was initially launched at the California Rehabilitation Center.


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