San Quentin State Prison was a life-changing experience for Sean Simms, but not in the way most people would imagine.
Before being transferred to San Quentin, the only worthwhile things he learned in prison yards were how to play dominoes and cards. After he enrolled in the Prison University Project at San Quentin in Northern California, Simms said, “I got hope from my peers who had been in school before me. They had such a set program. They had to hurry up and get to work on time, get in some exercise, and hurry up and get to school. I loved how busy they were. I wanted to follow those guys, those guys who were busy and had stuff going on and had hope.”
Simms earned a college degree through the Prison University Project, which he credits with giving him the social skills and confidence he needed to do well in job interviews and succeed in his current positions as a fiber-optic technician and a personal driver. It is the only in-person college program that exists for individuals incarcerated in California.
More Programs Needed
A new report from the Stanford Criminal Justice Center at Stanford Law School and the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Society Policy at U.C. Berkeley School of Law documents a tremendous need for programs like this one. Published today, “Degrees of Freedom: Expanding College Opportunities for Currently and Formerly Incarcerated Californians” identifies the state’s 112 community colleges and 33 public colleges and universities as gateways to help students learn while in custody and succeed after release.
The report recommends leveraging funding available through Senate Bill 1391, signed by Governor Jerry Brown in 2014, to provide community college courses inside prisons and jails. It identifies other laws, policies and funding sources that can be used to build high-quality college gateways. It also identifies support systems that are needed to help these students succeed, such as stable living and working conditions, programs that help students become ready for college-level coursework and counseling about workforce options that match their training. It calls for the criminal justice and education administrators to break the “silos” they usually work in and create partnerships to help those in custody succeed.
“College changes lives, strengthens our communities and decreases the likelihood that a person will return to crime. But high-quality college opportunities are few and far between for currently and formerly incarcerated students. This report provides a roadmap to build sustainable and replicable pathways to college for these aspiring students,” said co-author Debbie Mukamal, executive director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center at Stanford Law School. The center has organized a class taught by Stanford graduate students through the Prison University Project for several years.
“We cannot ignore the thousands of potential students waiting to improve their lives and break the cycle of incarceration. We know how to help these students succeed, and it is time to use that knowledge,” said co-author Rebecca Silbert, executive director of the Warren Institute at U.C. Berkeley School of Law.
A Way to Reduce Recidivism
The report notes that more than 50,000 individuals will be released from California’s prisons during the next two years, and thousands more will be released from county jails. Proposition 47, approved by voters last year, reduces penalties for some crimes and is expected to make those numbers swell. The report cites a recent RAND study that found the participants in prison college programs have a 51 percent greater chance of recidivating that those who do not participate and, after release, the odds of obtaining employment are higher for those who participate in education.
Meanwhile, the state’s need for college-educated workers is growing and is expected to outpace the number of citizens with a college education. By 2015, 41 percent of jobs will require at least a bachelor’s degree.
Although California has the largest public education system in the nation, the state’s commitment to educating individuals in custody often stops with a general equivalency diploma (GED) or high school degree, and there are long waiting lists for the few programs that help these men and women become college graduates. During the 1990s, many college programs in the state’s prisons and campus-based transition programs for the formerly incarcerated were replaced with low-quality, noninteractive correspondence-based distance education.
The 154-page report is based on more than 175 interviews, academic research and historical investigation. It is aimed at policymakers, potential students and college administrators in California and also provides a blueprint for other states seeking to build pathways to education for those in the criminal justice system. The research and publication of the report were supported by the Ford Foundation as part of its Renewing Communities initiative.