Reyes Navarrete | The Poly Post

Formerly incarcerated Californians obtaining undergraduate degrees soars

By Reyes Navarrete and Lann Nguyen, September 19, 2023

The number of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals in California earning their bachelor’s degree has increased due to educational reintegration programs such as Project Rebound at California State Universities in addition to more federal funding.  

Cal Poly Pomona is one of 15 schools at the CSU level providing academic support and building a community for system impacted students with Project Rebound.  

According to Edsource, California holds the second largest prison population in the nation with approximately 95,000 people incarcerated and 230 incarcerated are currently enrolled in a bachelor’s program as of fall 2023. 

The Pell Grant Program, created in 1972, is a needs based program for students attending college. Yet, grant status changed for those who were incarcerated due to the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which excluded incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people from accessing the Pell Grant Program.  

According to KCRW, in 2015, the Department of Education created a Second Chance Pell Pilot Program to reintroduce incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals to higher education. Cal State Los Angeles was the first public college in California to offer a bachelor’s degree for incarcerated people the following year.  

Congress then passed a law in 2020 to restore eligibility for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals to access federal funding. Specifically, it added provisions allowing incarcerated people sentenced to life without parole access to Pell Grant funding.  

At CPP, Rachel Camacho, associate dean of students, student experience and executive director of Project Rebound and Melissa Barragan, a faculty fellow and assistant professor of sociology, run Project Rebound. 

“The Second Chance Pell Grant funding has been a huge point of celebration for a lot of folks in this space,” said Barragan. “That is the primary way that incarcerated people are able to obtain higher education.” 

According to Barragan, gaining access to higher education gives incarcerated people an opportunity to better their lives and broaden their employment scope. 

“This particular legislation was established to ensure successful reentry into society upon release from prison,” said Camacho. “In terms of lessening the odds of reoffending, which leads to higher recidivism rates, the goal is to approach things from an intrinsic humanized perspective by successfully reconnecting them to their education and not only does this reap great benefits to society but especially to their localized communities by reducing chances of reoffending by upwards of 40%.” 

Charles Biddle, outreach coordinator for Project Rebound, was formerly incarcerated. His involvement with Project Rebound began in 2019 when he was a transfer student from Mt. San Antonio College. Biddle was offered the opportunity to work for Project Rebound given his personal experience and began providing resources for recently incarcerated students with support for housing, transportation and resources to become self-sufficient. 

“We have an open-door policy in terms of the type of offense, and part of that is because we truly believe in transformation, and that is a core value for us,” said Camacho. “It’s the intrinsic value of humans, so if we’re going to practice what we preach, we need to be willing to understand that this is a person’s past and what we really want to support is them moving forward.” 

Reyes Navarrete | The Poly Post

According to Edsource, an increase in four-year colleges partnering with California state correctional facilities made earning a bachelor’s degree more accessible while behind bars. Before only associate degrees were offered at 33 out of 34 adult prisons in California. Eight schools now partner directly with prisons across the state to offer four-year degrees to incarcerated people.  

According to Biddle, there are two options for education while currently incarcerated, one being correspondence courses or going to community college. He explained transferring to a four-year college is a logical next step from community college.  

“Why not us too?” said Biddle, referring to those who were formerly incarcerated.  

Project Rebound does not admit students who are currently incarcerated but provides correspondence and guidance for inmates interested in receiving their associate degree and transferring to a four-year university.  

To learn more, visit Project Rebound’s website. 

According to Vera, a nonprofit criminal justice policy advocacy institute, the success of formerly incarcerated students depend on the partnership between colleges and correction agencies. Biddle had similar insight, explaining when a partnership from prison to higher education is not successful. 

“The culture at the prison or the facility is so bad, and they’re not pushing their education,” said Biddle. “Even for the people inside, they’re like, well, they’re not emphasizing it. What should I care for?”  

Biddle has a more humanistic approach when considering his role as outreach coordinator, trying to pay it forward through community building. 

“I’ve seen it in motion, like me helping somebody else and then seeing that grow. … I hope within the next five years, every CSU has a Project Rebound, and I hope our numbers grow,” said Biddle. “I hope we’re still doing this. There’s still going to be people that are formerly incarcerated that want education.” 

For those incarcerated, education is an escape from the conditions of their sentence. That was the case for Jonathan Torres, a Landscape Architecture student. Torres spent 16 years behind bars for a robbery he committed when he was 22 years old. 

While incarcerated, Torres heard about Project Rebound and started writing letters expressing interest in higher education. Project Rebound helped Torres with the college application process and transferred from Mt. SAC to CPP in his second semester, but it was not without its challenges. 

“It was definitely a culture shock because of how many years I spent in prison,” Torres said. I became like an introvert. So, when I came to the campus, it was hard for me because, as you know, sometimes they’ll partner you up in groups in class and whatnot. So I felt really uncomfortable, and even my teacher noticed, and we talked. All the professors know my situation from the landscape architecture department.”  

Currently, Torres is a student associate for Project Rebound, processing the mail received from prisoners and contacting prisoners with avenues for higher education, just as he did when he was incarcerated.

Biddle described why people who are incarcerated might pursue higher education more now.  

“The same reason you see all these other people out here pursuing their master’s degrees and all that,” Biddle said. “The thing is now, especially for us that are formerly incarcerated, we know what’s possible. The secret’s out. Like, there’s assistance already at the level here to get a BA, and then we’ve seen it for people that are like us to get their masters. We know it is possible. We can get it, too.” 

Project Rebound continues to grow its sphere of influence and expanded its consortium to 15 Cal State campuses, including Cal Poly Pomona. 

Adam Hsu attended CPP as a freshman but said he was “addicted to the fast life” and began failing his classes. Life changed when Hsu was then incarcerated, serving three years out of a seven year sentence in Solano State Prison. He now has one foot in custody and one foot toward freedom, wearing an ankle monitor and continuing his education with help from Project Rebound. 

“You know, I was in school, and it was a good way for me to get out, get out of the mix,” said Hsu. “Not be in the yard, politicking outside. It was a good way for me to stay out of trouble.”  

Feature image courtesy of Reyes Navarrete

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