Project Rebound Celebrates 50 Years of Educating Former Prisoners

Project Rebound regional director Jason Bell attends the opening of an art exhibition featuring the program's students and alumni at San Francisco State University. (Audrey Garces/KQED)

Fifty years ago, a program started at San Francisco State University that since has spread throughout much of the California State University system. Project Rebound, which helps formerly incarcerated people attend college, celebrated its anniversary this week with a commemorative dinner and the opening of an art exhibition featuring students and alumni.

“It’s easy for people to say, ‘You know, get out of prison, get out of jail, go do the right thing,’ " says Jason Bell,  the program’s regional director. "But what does that right thing look like if there are not places designed to receive people who are doing the right thing?”

Project Rebound opened up education as an option for Bell, even though he never saw himself as “college material” growing up.

That all changed when he began writing to the program from San Quentin State Prison after finding old informational brochures. Bell had spent nearly all of his 20s behind bars. Just two months shy of his 30th birthday, he was released from prison with a plan for his future.

For Bell and many others, the program offers an alternate path to the revolving door of the criminal justice system by providing a supportive educational experience.

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Ninety-five percent of formerly incarcerated people who seek education stay out of prison, according to data from S.F. State and the Journal of Correctional Education, while the rate for those who don’t seek education is 30 percent.

Project Rebound celebrates its 50th anniversary by opening an art exhibition featuring students and alumni at San Francisco State University on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017. (Audrey Garces/KQED)

50 Years of Prison-Building

“For fifty years, this country has embarked on this madness of building more and more prisons and locking up more and more people in harsher and harsher conditions,” said author and Yale Law School professor James Forman Jr., during the anniversary celebration. “But the question is, how are we going to move from some chatter to actual meaningful change? And I think that's where the people in this room come in.”

Project Rebound students are successful when it comes to actually graduating. The program boasts an 86 percent six-year graduation rate, compared with a 59 percent rate for all other CSU students.

“It’s been so successful because they have a lot of staff that are passionate about the work that they do,” said Tangela Griffin, a Project Rebound student and artist featured in the exhibition. “Now that I realize that I do have a second chance, Project Rebound has given me the tools that I need to keep the path going. If it wasn’t for them, I don’t know where I’d be today.”

After helping students enroll in the CSU system, the program serves as a liaison to supportive services on campus and links students with food vouchers, mental health support, textbook money, counseling, scholarships and employment connections, to name a few.

“I found personally that it helps having a support system with men and women who have been through some of the same experiences that I have, in terms of being adversely impacted by the criminal justice system,” said Curtis Penn, S.F. State’s Project Rebound director.

So far, 150 Project Rebound students have graduated, and the number of graduates per year has been steadily increasing since the early 2000s. Since 2011, there has been an average of 11 graduates per year through the program.

But the future of Project Rebound did not always look so bright.

The program began in 1967 when the only open space in the sociology department at S.F. State -- a storage closet -- was converted into the project's first office.

“There were some times where it was really rough on us, and there were some people who were trying to get rid of us,” Bell said.

Project Rebound regional director Jason Bell and S.F. State President Leslie Wong sit among the audience at the 50th anniversary celebration of the program at San Francisco State University on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017. (Audrey Garces/KQED)

The man who started it all, John Irwin, had served a five-year sentence at Soledad State Prison and earned college credits through a university extension program. After he was released, he earned his bachelor's at UCLA and his Ph.D. at UC Berkeley, eventually becoming a professor at S.F. State.

He founded Project Rebound to help give formerly incarcerated individuals the same opportunity for higher education that he had received. The program later expanded and became part of Associated Students, a group of services and program dedicated to students at S.F. State.

“He is no longer with us, but we continue his legacy,” Penn said about Irwin, who died in 2010.

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The program has been implemented at nine CSUs to date and plans to expand to seven more over the next three years, according to Bell.

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