California Ramps Up College Education Behind Bars

AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

Inmates walk the exercise yard at a prison in Vacaville, California. 

Capital & Main is an award-winning publication that reports from California on economic, political and social issues. The American Prospect is co-publishing this piece.

In January 2017, Peter Fulks, a former police officer, stepped inside the California Correctional Institution (CCI), a sprawling supermax prison of more than 4,000 inmates, located just west of the foothill community of Tehachapi. The previous year, Fulks had accepted a teaching job at Cerro Coso Community College, which serves the sparsely populated eastern end of Kern County. The baby-faced 32-year-old had only a semester under his belt when he had volunteered to take his course about criminal justice inside a criminal justice facility, part of a daring experiment in California to provide face-to-face college courses to people behind bars.

Fulks wasn’t sure what to expect at CCI. He admired the idea of teaching prisoners, and believed education could be transformative, but he was also prepared for resistance. “I was ready to argue for four months straight,” he said. The first day was rocky. After he announced that he would be dividing the inmates into groups, a man at the back of the classroom interjected, “Professor, I believe we have already established our groups.” Fulks looked at his new students, who had organized their seating arrangements by race, as so much else was organized inside the prison, and let it be.

Like Fulks, his students seemed to believe in the value of education—they had signed up for his intro course, after all—but he sensed they were skeptical that anything positive could come from their time in prison. (And for good reason, Fulks conceded.) The skepticism didn’t last. During the semester, they studied the history of prisons, analyzed the budget of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), and wrote letters to elected officials regarding various public safety bills. The inmates were enthusiastic and sharp, and they were soon high-fiving and chest-bumping each other without regard to the institution’s racial order.

“I got to see in front of my eyes a complete breakdown of the prison’s subculture,” Fulks told me. He also saw a side of the criminal justice system that hadn’t been visible from the perspective of a beat cop: the talent, drive and dreams of the people he had once put away. After that first semester, he set out with his colleagues to scale up the program and has turned Cerro Coso into what is likely the largest provider of face-to-face college education in the nation. This academic year, 10 full-time and 36 part-time Cerro Coso instructors will teach more than 1,200 inmates at CCI and another state prison located in Kern County, the California City Correctional Facility.

Fulks and Cerro Cosostand at the forefront of a remarkable effort to turn California’s prisons into de facto institutions of higher learning, made possible by the passage, in 2014, of state Senate Bill 1391. Inmates had previously been mostly limited to GED, career technical and correspondence programs, but the new law allowed community college professors to teach inside prisons and be compensated for instructing inmates as if they were students on the outside. Though the experiment has been operating largely below the radar, the results have been striking: In the fall of 2018, nearly 5,000 inmates from all security clearance levels took face-to-face college courses. That’s more than in any other state, and more than the total number of students enrolled in the federal Second Chance Pell Pilot Program, which began under the Obama administration in 2016.

There is plenty of evidence to support bringing higher education classes into prisons. Nearly all inmates will eventually be released, and a comprehensive 2013 RAND Corporation study found that inmates who participated in educational programs lowered their chances of recidivating by 43 percent. The RAND study also found that each dollar invested in correctional education returns between four and five dollars. And prisoners are often hungry to learn: Thus far, incarcerated students in California who take community college courses are consistently receiving higher grades than their campus counterparts.

One inmate, a student of Fulks who didn’t want to include his name, wrote that he had been transferred to a prison for disciplinary reasons. He described himself as a “multi-striker” who had first entered prison in 1993. After his transfer, he noticed “a buzz around the facility that I have never experienced in this environment. Everywhere I turned, people were talking about what classes they have, what homework they had due, how many units they needed to complete their degree. I had to see what this was all about and signed up for whatever I could get.”

Last fall, he took five courses, including art history and psychology, and is on track to earn his associate degree later this year. “For the first time in a long time, I don’t feel like a ‘lost cause,’” he concluded, adding that he was “on the right path to becoming a success story [and a human being again].”

“People talk about reduced recidivism,safer communities, and saving money, and those things are true,” said Rebecca Silbert, a senior fellow at the Opportunity Institute in Berkeley and co-director of a statewide initiative, Renewing Communities, that supports providing higher education in prison. “But, fundamentally, this matters because we are a nation that believes in opportunity for all. What is the point of public higher education, if not to create opportunity for the public—meaning all of us, even those who made bad decisions in the past?”

Silbert has been heartened by what California has been able to achieve in a relatively short period. Still, challenges remain. Textbooks are expensive, especially for inmates who might earn only 25 cents an hour. Much of the administrative work is labor intensive and unfunded—to register students, someone has to physically travel to the prison yard with a clipboard. And professors must learn how to design lesson plans that don’t require the Internet and avoid assigning banned books, which in California include such titles as Dante’s Infernoand Freud for Beginners. There are delicate relationships, as well, to manage between CDCR and the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the union that represents prison guards. As a teacher in a prison, Fulks told me, “You are entering an area of supreme control, of which you have none.”

However, both Fulks and Silbert feel that California is on the right path and can provide a model for other states. Fulks told me that he had recently returned to teach a more advanced course to his initial students, a handful of whom have earned their associate degrees and want to pursue a PhD program. To meet this demand, Cerro Coso will soon be bringing in doctoral students from the University of California, Los Angeles, who will mentor inmates during their final year in prison and help place them into a bachelors-to-PhD program upon their release.

Fulks laughed, thinking about this prison-to-PhD pipeline: “That has happened zero times with my students on the outside.”

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