Students at the Bard Prison Initiative receive college degrees at Eastern New York Correctional Facility in 2013. Photo courtesy of Bard Prison Initiative.
California once led the nation in correctional education: In 1979, in-person college courses were available in nearly every state prison. But those programs were decimated in the early 1990s and mostly replaced with low-quality correspondence-based distance education. The result is a dearth of higher educational opportunities for anyone in the prison system, exacerbating the probability of post-release recidivism and unemployment.
A new report, Degrees of Freedom: Expanding College Opportunities for Currently and Formerly Incarcerated Californians, documents the state’s need for college programs for these students, examines the state’s existing institutions and reveals the numerous challenges that result in inadequate access to education. The report is a joint project of the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at UC Berkeley School of Law and the Stanford Criminal Justice Center at Stanford Law School.
The report’s co-authors cite a recent RAND study that found that those who participated in college programs while in custody had a 51 percent lower chance of recidivating than those who did not. The RAND study also found that, after release, individuals who participated in educational programs had a 13 percent higher chance of obtaining employment than nonparticipants.
Degrees of Freedom co-authors argue that the state’s 112 community colleges and 33 public colleges and universities can provide affordable, high-quality gateways to help students learn and succeed while in custody and after release.
“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 Rebecca Silbert, executive director of Berkeley Law’s Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy and report co-author.
“College changes lives, strengthens economies 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 report notes that California has the largest public higher education system in the nation and is known for its innovative approaches to social issues. The vast majority of its colleges and universities are located near a prison, or jail, or in a community with high concentrations of formerly incarcerated residents. But California’s current commitment to educating individuals in custody often stops with a general equivalency diploma (GED) or high school degree, and there are long waiting lists throughout California for the few programs that help these underserved students become college graduates.
“Through mass incarceration we have chosen a punitive path over a rehabilitative one. The time has come to reverse this decades-long, wrong-headed approach to our justice system,” said Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, which supported the research and publication of the report, as part of its Renewing Communities initiative.
The 154-page report is based on 175 interviews, extensive academic research and historical investigation. It targets policymakers, potential students and college administrators in California, while providing a valuable blueprint for other states seeking to build pathways to education for those in the criminal justice system.
The issue has been embraced by State Sen. Loni Hancock, who will hold an oversight hearing on March 10 in Sacramento on Effective Inmate Educational Programming. Testimony will be provided by the report’s co-authors, as well as Douglas Wood from the Ford Foundation, Robert Bozick from the RAND Corporation, representatives from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the California Community College Chancellor’s Office.