College changed my life, but I didn’t think it would. I enrolled in Truett-McConnell College in Georgia in 1985 because I thought it would make my record look better when I came up for parole. I had been locked up in May, and sent to prison in October with a fresh life sentence. I hated high school, and I thought college would be more of the same.
It only took a few quarters to change my mind. I was still a teenager, but the instructors treated me as an adult. They valued what I said, but they also challenged my opinions and ideas. Because of the mutual respect we established, I was able to hear them in a way I had never heard adults. I became less certain of my own understanding, which was a good thing, since it had led me to commit a terrible crime.
The ground for the changes that I would make over the next 24 years of my incarceration, and for the work I do today. Sadly, lack of support for prison college programs led to the program ending in Georgia in the early ‘90s.
The mood of the country has shifted in the last few years though, and a college education is again being recognized as a powerful strategy to help prisoners reach their potential. The recently announced Renewing Communities project in California is an ambitious part of this resurgence.
The Opportunity Institute and the Stanford Criminal Justice Center announced this week that “an unprecedented collaboration among nine state and national foundations” has awarded seven grants, totaling $5.9 million over three years, to support college education programs for current and former prisoners.
The nine foundations funding Renewing Communities are The California Endowment, The California Wellness Foundation, Roy & Patricia Disney Family Foundation, ECMC Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Rosenberg Foundation.
Each grant will fund a pilot project. To support sustainability each project will be required to get 25 percent of their funding from public sources. Also, The Opportunity Institute will combine the funding with a larger effort to “remove barriers and assist all California’s public higher education institutes in making high-quality college educations available to currently and formerly incarcerated students.”
The seven programs include:
- A partnership between Bakersfield College and several nearby prisons and other correctional settings along with community-based reentry organizations that will provide transferable credits to incarcerated students and support justice-involved students on campus.
- An in-person bachelor’s degree program from California State University, Los Angeles.
- A replication of an existing in-person associate's degree program that has been successful at the California Institute for Women and the California Institute for Men, near Chaffey College. The program will potentially serve as a model for other California community colleges.
- The Five Keys Charter School, which already runs a successful high school and GED program in several California jails, will partner with City College of San Francisco to offer college courses that can be continued upon a prisoner’s release. The program is designed to then be replicated in other areas where Five Keys has programs.
- San Francisco State University will replicate its successful Project Rebound, in operation for 40 years, in seven other colleges and universities. The project is being supported with $200,000 from the Office of the California State University Chancellor and is planned to expand to 23 campuses within three years.
- Shasta College and Shasta County Jail will partner to offer an expansion of their program that releases convicted nonviolent offenders into the community to attend the college for career certificates and degrees.
- Street Scholars, a nonprofit housed at Merritt College in Alameda County, will expand to four other area colleges. They will replicate their successful peer mentoring program for students on parole working toward an AA degree, with the goal of transferring to a four-year college.
Research has shown that prison college programs can lower recidivism rates. At least part of their success is an increase in a prisoner’s ability to get a job once released. The success of these programs goes much deeper though.
In my experience these programs not only give students skills and certifications, they can restore the prisoners dignity and unleash their creativity. Supporting these and other programs isn’t only the smart thing to do, it’s the right thing too.