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California Looks to Expand Bachelor's Programs Behind Bars

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Inmates at California State Prison, Los Angeles County, a maximum security facility in Lancaster, attend class as part of a bachelor's degree program run by Cal State L.A. (J. Emilio Flores/Cal State LA)

When Brant Choate gets mail from the men and women in the California prisons he helps oversee, he says the letters often read something like this: “I've graduated with my associate degree for transfer and I need a place to go.”

More than 1,000 people in California prisons are in that situation, Choate estimates. As director of the Division of Rehabilitative Programs for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, he said he’s been wanting to expand bachelor’s degree programs for years.

“I met a student who had seven AA [associate] degrees,” he said. “They're lining up, ready for this.”

Today, the only public bachelor's degree program offered in California's sprawling state prison system is run by California State University, Los Angeles at a men's maximum security facility in Lancaster. But a largely overlooked proposal in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s state budget plan, released earlier this month, could make bachelor's programs a possibility for incarcerated students at several more prisons around the state.

“It's incredibly innovative and it's something that no other state is doing,” says Rebecca Silbert, who has helped expand higher education in California prisons as director of the nonprofit Corrections to College California initiative.

Under the proposal, CDCR would partner with the California State University system to expand bachelor's programs to as many as seven prisons. Newsom's budget puts $1.7 million toward that goal next year, then, beginning in 2021, dedicates $3.5 million a year to the effort on an ongoing basis. The money would cover things like tuition, books and other materials.

Bachelor's programs are relatively rare in prisons across the country, and public ones even more so. National estimates put the number of colleges teaching in prisons at around 200 and most of those are community college associate degree programs. That scarcity is part of what makes this proposal groundbreaking, Silbert said.

CSU Los Angeles English professor Bidhan Roy teaches inmates at Lancaster prison as part of a bachelor's program. (J. Emilio Flores/Cal State LA)

“Trying to fix this mess we've created with mass incarceration by asking one of our state agencies to step up and help out another state agency, that's innovative and smart,” she said.

California has led the nation in expanding postsecondary opportunities for incarcerated students since 2014, when lawmakers opened the door for community colleges to start teaching in-person courses behind bars. Today, 34 of the state’s 35 prisons offer face-to-face courses, serving nearly 6,000 incarcerated students.

As the number of men and women completing transfer-worthy associate degrees in prison has grown, so have calls for the opportunity to complete a four-year degree.

Cal State Los Angeles’ success overcoming the challenges to working inside a prison — from lack of classroom space to technological limitations — demonstrated to Choate that CDCR and CSU could work together to expand B.A. programs. The model also convinced him these programs could serve as regional hubs, allowing qualified incarcerated students to transfer in from other prisons in the area.

State prisons in Folsom and Corcoran, as well as Valley State Prison and the Central California Women’s Facility, both in Chowchilla, are among those flagged as potential sites for the new bachelor's programs.

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The funding could also allow Cal State Los Angeles to stop relying on private grants to run its 4-year-old program, and facilitate a possible expansion to the California Institution for Women in Riverside County.

Choate said he expects Fresno State and Sacramento State to be among the CSUs involved. But the proposal is still very much in the early stages: prison education advocates and CSU administrators alike expressed surprise at the news, while a CSU spokesman said the university system's leadership wasn’t even aware of the proposal until it was made public earlier this month.

In a statement, CSU spokesman Mike Uhlenkamp said an expanded partnership with state universities made sense now that Cal State Los Angeles has paved the way. “We look forward to pending discussions with the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to learn more details of the proposal as the budget process moves forward," he wrote.

The funding set aside in Newsom's budget would allow around 200 incarcerated students to enroll in bachelor's programs next year and then about 400 students each year after that, Choate estimates.

And although that's only a fraction of those who could benefit, it's still a big deal, says Cal State Los Angeles English professor Bidhan Roy, whose advocacy inspired the school’s prison program.

“It signals a priority,” he said. “It’s a statewide acknowledgement that these people have value and higher education has a role in prison.”

In the 1970s and ‘80s, college-level education had a firm foothold in the nation’s prisons; it was a vital piece of ammunition in the rehabilitative arsenal. As political tides changed and the 1994 federal crime bill banned incarcerated students from accessing federal student aid, many of those programs dissolved.

A student-inmate at Lancaster taking notes during class. (J. Emilio Flores/Cal State LA)

Now, after decades of stagnation, there’s support nationally for expanding higher education in prisons and bringing back Pell Grants for incarcerated students, and California is paving the way.

“I don't think that there's anything novel about what we're doing now,” Choate said. “We just turned the power on.”

The proposal, so far, has bipartisan support, Choate said, noting the plan's potential cost savings through reduced recidivism. A major study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice found that inmates who participate in educational opportunities behind bars are more than 40% less likely to return to prison.

Michael Stratman, associate warden at the state prison in Lancaster, is a believer. “They don't come back,” he said of the former inmates who were enrolled in the Cal State Los Angeles program.

“You hear some flak about them getting an education in prison and it costs money,” he said. “But these guys are going to get out and they're going to be living maybe in your neighborhood. You want the guy that worked his way through a college program, stayed out of drugs and gangs and things like that as your neighbor.”

The programs are also intended to create better conditions within prisons themselves.

“The education that we're getting here, it's not just affecting the men in the room," said Allen Burnett, a student in the bachelor's program at Lancaster. “It's affecting the whole facility as well as the other institutions.”

That influence may even extend beyond the prison walls.

After he started working toward his bachelor's, Burnett said, his stepdaughter was also inspired to enroll at Cal State Los Angeles, and his nieces and nephews have since started taking college courses. “This thing right here that we're doing, it’s transcending this facility,” he said.

After serving 27 years in prison for aiding and abetting in a murder, Burnett had his life sentence commuted by Newsom last year and is awaiting a parole hearing. He is the fifth inmate in the Cal State Los Angeles program to receive a commutation.

While the money for prison bachelor's programs is welcomed by prison education advocates like Rebecca Silbert, she is also disappointed that so far there's no additional funding in the budget to expand existing prison community college programs.

“If we’re really serious about using our education system to break the cycle of crime and poverty, it makes sense to recognize the burden put on all parts of the system, both the community colleges and the CSU," she said.


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