UC to Launch Its First Bachelor's Program in Prison

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An incarcerated student in Lancaster takes notes during class. He's in a bachelor's degree program run by California State University, Los Angeles — currently the only program of its kind in the state until UC Irvine's program is launched. (J. Emilio Flores/Cal State LA)

UC Irvine and the state prison system have reached a deal to create the first University of California bachelor’s degree program behind bars.

Since California opened the door for community colleges to teach in prisons in 2014, some 2,000 incarcerated men and women across the state have earned associate degrees, said Brant Choate, director of rehabilitative programs for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. But opportunities to earn more advanced degrees are largely limited to correspondence courses of sometimes questionable quality.

higher education in prison

Choate argues changing that is in everyone’s interest.

“We know that people with bachelor's degrees just don't come back to prison,” Choate said, noting the plan's potential cost savings through reduced recidivism.

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.

Through the UC Irvine pilot project, an initial cohort of up to 25 men at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego will take courses toward a degree in sociology. The program relies on an existing transfer agreement between Southwestern College — a community college that runs an associate degree program inside the facility — and UC Irvine’s sociology department. The deal grants automatic admissibility to any Southwestern student who has completed the prerequisites for the major with a minimum 3.5 GPA.

“Taking this step brings us closer to fulfilling the central goal of the state’s Master Plan for Higher Education — that anyone from anywhere can earn a college degree,” said UCI associate professor Keramet Reiter, founding director of UCI’s LIFTED, the university’s prison education initiative.

Reiter has been developing the pilot program for more than two years. “It's been a dream of mine to see the UCs involved in higher education in prisons,” she said.

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Bachelor's programs are relatively rare in prisons across the country, and public ones even more so; most are run by small private schools. National estimates put the number of colleges teaching in prisons at around 200, and a majority of those are community college associate degree programs.

“Part of my excitement about this is figuring out how to make this a public university model that's scalable," Reiter said.

CDCR Secretary Kathleen Allison, UC Irvine Chancellor Howard Gillman and UCI associate professor Keramet Reiter at the signing ceremony commemorating the bachelor's program agreement reached between the two institutions.

At a ceremony commemorating the pioneering agreement, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, a longtime champion for criminal justice reform, sent a video message in support of the program.

“The urgency of the work you’re doing is so, so real,” he said. “We have to understand the sheer truth that investing in the education of folks who are behind bars actually helps them flourish when they get out.”

The UC Irvine pilot is expected to roll out fully in 2022, with professors teaching four courses per semester at the prison. The project has received some grant funding to support administrative costs, but Reiter expects most students will be eligible to have their tuition covered through UC’s Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan, which extends aid to students whose families earn less than $80,000 per year.

Reiter's goal is for the pilot to lay the groundwork for other UC campuses to create similar programs. This summer, the University of California Academic Senate endorsed a set of principles to guide the system in developing educational programs for incarcerated students.

Choate is heartened by the momentum. “Let’s start with the cohort of 30," he said. "Maybe a few years from now we’ll have a cohort of 3,000.”

Incarcerated men 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 Los Angeles. (J. Emilio Flores/Cal State LA)

For now, the only public bachelor's degree program offered in a California prison is run by California State University, Los Angeles at a men's maximum security facility in Lancaster.

In his initial budget proposal this year, Gov. Gavin Newsom set aside funding to help expand CSU's bachelor's programs to several more prisons around the state, but the pandemic put an end to that for the foreseeable future. Still, Choate of CDCR says he’s confident in the governor’s commitment to the goal and expects funding to be made available when the economy allows.

In the meantime, Choate said, Sacramento State and Fresno State are still moving ahead with their own prison bachelor's programs, which he expects will launch in the coming months.