Newswise — Even though the United States represents about five percent of the global population, we account for nearly a quarter of the world's prisoners. In the United States, 2.3 million people are behind bars. California's rate of incarceration is 581 per 100,000 people.
“Since the 1970s, instead of addressing and resolving social problems related to unemployment, housing insecurity, food insecurity and mental health, the U.S. criminal justice system has served as a catch-all solution," says Brady Heiner, Ph.D., chair of the CSU Project Rebound Consortium and executive director of Project Rebound at California State University, Fullerton. “We need to address the underlying social problems that lead people to the track that lands them in prison."
The CSU firmly believes that education can create alternatives to the justice system's revolving door policy. The university's commitment to offering options to those touched by incarceration is evident in programs such as Project Rebound, which is active at multiple campuses, and the Prison BA Graduation Initiative at California State University, Los Angeles.
Ultimately, these students aren't the only ones who benefit from such programs. For every incarcerated person who doesn't return to prison, the state of California saves $75,000 per year. And, eventually, the majority of them will leave prison and return home. Education is key to their ability to find employment and contribute to their families and their communities when they do.
“For incarcerated men and women, education can provide ways of reflecting upon what led them to prison, not just individual choices, but also the broader social set of forces and conditions that shaped their lives," says Bidhan Chandra Roy, Ph.D., Cal State LA English professor. “For many, this can provide a deeper sense of awareness of the conditions of incarceration and the possibilities for transformation for themselves, their communities and the world."
Part 1: PURSUING A BACHELOR’S BEHIND BARS
Students become higher-education advocates in Cal State LA’s Prison BA Program.
“The power of prison education is about hope. When our students take these classes, they are transformed.” — Taffany Lim, senior director of the Center for Engagement, Service, and the Public Good at Cal State LA
It's 1 o'clock on a Friday afternoon in November 2019, and students are starting to file into their health communications class. Some arrived early and are typing away at computers while others chat with the professor at his desk. This seemingly ordinary scenario wouldn't stand out from any other university across America, if it weren't for the fact that the site is housed at Lancaster State Prison.
“In 2016, the Department of Communication Studies at California State University, Los Angeles became the first department in California to hold classes inside a maximum-security prison facility, offering incarcerated students the opportunity to achieve a bachelor's degree in communication," says Taffany Lim, senior director of the Center for Engagement, Service, and the Public Good.
The program emerged from simple beginnings: Cal State LA English Professor Bidhan Chandra Roy, Ph.D., started volunteering at the prison in 2013, teaching writing and English among the chin-up bars in the yard. As he formed relationships with the men over time, Dr. Roy learned that a number of them had earned associate degrees via correspondence courses, but they were eager for the next educational step.
“I was struck by the desire of the men to learn and their thirst for meaningful intellectual engagement with someone from outside the walls," Roy says. “There was a palpable desire for a critical awareness of their context and a reminder that education only needs a desire to learn and an object of study. All the classrooms, degrees and institutions of education mean nothing without this desire to learn and be open to the transformation that new ideas can bring."
Three years later, Cal State LA welcomed its first and second cohorts (consisting of 42 students total) to the university's bachelor's degree program in communication, which offers two courses a semester. “It's the same classes taught by the same instructors we offer on the main campus," Lim explains. “We offer the same high quality and set the same expectations—if not higher. It's helped them to improve their communication with cellmates and people on their yard. Now they're better able to understand those dynamics and interactions. It's also helped improve communication with their families."
The endeavor took the diligent efforts of a team led by Cal State LA President William Covino, Executive Vice President Jose Gomez and Anti-Recidivism Coalition founder Scott Budnick. “The program really speaks to the leadership of Cal State LA," Lim says. “They embraced it and felt it's part of our mission to serve these students."
In today's class, Kamran Afary, Cal State LA assistant professor, Intersectional Identities and Relationships, is having students take part in narradrama. Traumatic situations from their pasts are acted out, then re-enacted with a healthier outcome. Jimmie Gilmer, 52, walks to the front of the room with a classmate. Together, they perform a brief skit in which a young, dyslexic Gilmer is driving in a car with his father. Filled with shame, the child is unable to read a stop sign, which prompts his father to utter, "I always knew you were stupid." Act two involves the duo pulling up to the same stop sign, but when Gilmer has trouble reading it, his dad says, "You know what? I got all day. Let's work on it together."
“This approach helps students become deeply invested in the process of learning," says Afary, who has driven 75 miles to the prison each way once a week for the past three years. “It releases vast creative energies and helps them process traumatic oppressive problem-saturated narratives." (Due to the pandemic, Afary currently teaches through correspondence and prerecorded weekly video lectures.)
“Having educational programs can both transform the conditions inside the prison and serve as a bridge to transition to the outside world after release." — Kamran Afary, Cal State LA assistant professor, Intersectional Identities and Relationships
That bond is palpable to onlookers, as those in the audience listen attentively and vocally support one another. At one point, the entire cohort stands and forms a group hug around a student who has broken down crying.
“Having a vibrant, properly funded and staffed educational facility can do wonders for prisoners who are locked up in tiny cells most of the time," Afary says. “It transforms the space from one of punishment and constant regurgitating of shame into one of growth and rehabilitation. These are men who have long made their amends for past wrongs but are caught in a system that can be very unforgiving."
The Ripple Effect
The program is not just an outlet for incarcerated people. One of the service learning options coordinated by Roy at Cal State LA is an anonymous pen pal program between main-campus students and those at Lancaster State Prison. The two groups are assigned concurrent projects, such as reading the same books and analyzing the same texts.
“They exchange their ideas about what they're reading and how it applies to their own lives," Lim says. “Students share in very profound ways. It changes their understanding of who an incarcerated individual might be and deepens their understanding that people aren't born bad and people can rise above their worst mistakes. They develop a deeper empathy and understand the role trauma or institutional racism plays in incarceration."
There are also a number of on-campus students whose lives have been affected by the prison system. This experience has helped them resolve some of their own pain.
Additionally, animation students at Cal State LA have collaborated with students at Lancaster State Prison on a series of documentaries that feature the latter's writing and narration. The shorts depict life in the prison system.
“I love to see the students from Lancaster arrive on our campus and finish their degree with us," says David Olsen, chair of the Department of Communication Studies. “They bring a perspective to our L.A. campus students that is enriching and rewarding for all involved."
“[Incarcerated people] who participate in correctional education programs had a 43 percent lower odds of recidivating than those who did not. This translates to a reduction in the risk of recidivating of 13 percentage points. It may improve their chances of obtaining employment after release." — RAND Corporation
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Lancaster State Prison's first university cohort was scheduled to graduate in summer 2020. They are now on track to finish their capstones at the end of this calendar year.
“Some of these guys may never get out of prison," Lim says. “It's still a worthy investment because they've become huge advocates for education. Now their friends and family—oftentimes individuals who never saw college education for themselves—are pursuing higher education. They're mentors to people in the yard. They're like, 'Hey, don't make the same mistake I did. Go to school, find education, transform your life. Make a difference.'"
Part 2: PROJECT REBOUND: THE ROAD TO REDEMPTION
The CSU’s groundbreaking program offers formerly incarcerated students a hand up.
“Education has been my re-entry practice. It's given me structure, self-esteem, some place to show up every day and consistent people in my life. It creates goals and boundaries." — Ginny Oshiro, Cal State Fullerton alumna
Ginny Oshiro stepped out of her car and onto the California State University, Fullerton campus on her first day of class in 2018. This was her dream, to earn a college degree. And yet, she just couldn't shake the negative thoughts racing through her mind: I don't belong here. I'm terrified. People are going to know.
The Bay Area native was afraid others would find out about her past: her battle with addiction and the multiple arrests. Thankfully, she had Project Rebound in her corner, a CSU program that supports the reintegration and education of the formerly incarcerated.
Oshiro found her way to Program Director Romarilyn Ralston's office and cried. “She told me, 'Not only do you belong here, but you need to sit in the front of the class and ask questions,'" Oshiro recalls. “'And if you don't have a question, raise your hand and add a comment.' She was the first person to tell me I belonged and I was allowed to take up space in a classroom."
Project Rebound has played a pivotal role in Oshiro's success, from those shaky first days to her recent graduation with a bachelor's degree in criminal justice. In the fall, she'll enter University of California, Irvine's Criminology, Law, and Society Ph.D. program. “The CSU prepared me to go directly into a Ph.D. program as opposed to getting my master's and then going in," she says. “If Project Rebound hadn't looked holistically at my application, chances are I wouldn't have been at Cal State Fullerton. It changed my life completely."
Oshiro's is just one of a multitude of lives transformed by Project Rebound. For more than 50 years, the program has exemplified its mission of providing equitable access to a quality education.
The Birth of Project Rebound
While serving five years in prison for armed robbery, John Irwin enrolled in a few college classes and was inspired to learn more. Upon his release, he earned a bachelor's degree from the University of California, Los Angeles and a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley. In 1967, he created Project Rebound at San Francisco State University, where he was a professor of sociology and criminology for 27 years.
“Irwin built Project Rebound as a mechanism for onboarding and supporting people from the prison system into the California State University system," says Brady Heiner, Ph.D., chair of the CSU Project Rebound Consortium, founder and executive director of Project Rebound at CSUF and associate professor of philosophy.
“Ninety-eight percent of people who are incarcerated are going to be released. In what state do we want them to come home? It's in everyone's interest that they have an ability to live meaningful, prosperous and purposeful lives. Investing in opportunities for formerly incarcerated people is a public safety intervention." — Brady Heiner, Ph.D., chair of the CSU Project Rebound Consortium and executive director of Project Rebound at Cal State Fullerton
In 2016, the program expanded to seven more CSU campuses and is now offered at a total of nine: California State University, Bakersfield; California State University, Fresno; CSUF; California State University, Los Angeles; California State Polytechnic University, Pomona; California State University, Sacramento; California State University, San Bernardino; San Diego State University and SFSU. In the fall, the Project Rebound Consortium will launch programs at five additional campuses: Humboldt, Long Beach, Northridge, San Marcos and Stanislaus.
“The CSU works to build pathways for historically marginalized people to more purposeful and prosperous lives," Dr. Heiner says. “Project Rebound, which is designed to give people a second chance, is very much in alignment with the CSU's mission."
Transitioning from prison back into society is daunting in its own right. Navigating all that comes along with college can be even more challenging. That's why Project Rebound assists students every step of the way—even while they are still incarcerated.
“Thousands of letters go back and forth from the CSU to folks inside the prison system," Heiner explains. “We do individualized pre-matriculation advising and academic assessments and help with applications, transcripts and fees not covered by financial aid. Once students are enrolled, we fold them into a caring community of people who are themselves formerly incarcerated. We have students who have learned to reach back and provide mentorship and training to those coming out."
The program offers assistance with legal services, counseling, tutoring, computer literacy, mentorship, employment, housing, transportation and food security. Often what students struggle with, Heiner says, is not academics—it's all the barriers between home and getting to class. What Project Rebound strives to do is remove those obstacles.
“We don't just say, 'Hey, here's this resource, here's this office on campus, here's this agency in the community that could be of assistance to you,'" he says. “We walk them there and connect them with a person we have a relationship with.
“Most of our students didn't receive a real first chance," Heiner continues. “They are foster youth or survivors of violence and come from communities in which chronic under-education, unemployment and substance abuse were prevalent. One of the things we're intentional about doing is providing opportunities for our students and staff to mentor youth."
When Project Rebound first started at Cal State Fullerton, it had four students. The campus now serves 75.
“The state of California spends more than $72,000 a year to keep someone in a cage. For a fraction of that, Project Rebound can provide folks with a community and meaningful access to opportunity. The cost benefit analysis is clear." — Brady Heiner, Ph.D., chair of the CSU Project Rebound Consortium and executive director of Project Rebound at Cal State Fullerton
Road to Redemption
In the end, Oshiro took Ralston's advice and sat in the front of each class, raising her hand and engaging whenever possible. Project Rebound helped pay for textbooks, parking and meals. That support boosted her self-esteem and allowed her to focus on schoolwork. She also found the community she so needed. “Immediately, I had this space on campus that provided a safe place to go with people who'd been where I'd been and understood why this journey could be terrifying and exciting," she recalls. “It was a constant reminder I wasn't alone in this."
The support worked. Oshiro made the CSUF Dean's List every semester. And with help from her mentors Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice Veronica Herrera, Ph.D., and Ralston, she quickly developed into a leader on campus who focused on giving back to the community.
“Romarilyn supported me in creating Rebound Scholars, which is our student organization," she says. “There have been countless opportunities where Project Rebound has invited me to speak in classrooms, in communities and at events. I was also connected with the Women's Policy Institute, where I have a statewide fellowship."
Oshiro was the recipient of the Titans Leaving Their Legacy award, Student Organization President of the Year, the John Irwin Memorial Merit Scholarship, the William G. Pollack Scholarship, the 2018 Project Rebound Award for Community Service and Engagement and the 2019 Project Rebound Award for Outstanding Leadership.
“I wouldn't have these opportunities if I hadn't got the second, third, fourth chance Project Rebound gave me," Oshiro says. “They taught me I don't have to hide from my past. I don't have to dwell on it, either. I've been empowered to integrate who I've been with who I am today with who I'd like to be. It's entirely reshaped my realm of possibilities."
Oshiro now considers the CSU family. And once she completes her doctorate with a focus on corrections, it's one to which she hopes to return.
“I'm excited about the possibility of coming back to the CSU system to teach," she says. “My criminal justice teachers at Cal State Fullerton have impacted my trajectory. The CSU system is a great place to touch hearts and minds while also educating people and potentially being that mentor for someone else. I'm going to do whatever it takes to not just pay it back but pay it forward."
Find out more about the opportunities Project Rebound provides incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students.
Part 3: EAR HUSTLE
Sacramento State professor’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated podcast eavesdrops on life in San Quentin.
“I wanted to do a project about everyday things, not about crime or sensationalizing what prison is like and how horrible it is." – Professor Nigel Poor, Sacramento State
Prior to Nigel Poor's time as a volunteer professor for The Prison University Project at San Quentin State Prison, her perception of life behind bars was based on bad television portrayals and one-sided media coverage. As a result, when the California State University, Sacramento professor of photography was first buzzed through the gates in 2011, she braced for an atmosphere of anger and intimidation.
“What shocked me was how it was like going into this small village where people were polite and interested," she recalls. “My students loved having conversations and had so many questions. The guys were excited to have the class."
During her three years teaching history of photography at the prison, Poor got to know quite a few people. One of them was Earlonne Woods, who was serving life under the three-strikes law. Together, they came up with the concept for Ear Hustle (prison slang for eavesdropping), a podcast that would be available inside all prisons within the California Department of Corrections.
“The idea was for me to be the outside person and Earlonne to be the inside person," she explains. “We wanted to tell stories about life inside and also outside post-incarceration from the perspective of people who live it, but Earlonne and I would escort listeners through the story."
Poor then heard about a Radiotopia PRX contest in search of a new podcast to pick up. “We ended up winning," she says. “It was crazy." With approval from the prison administration and under the supervision of Lieutenant Sam Robinson, Ear Hustle hit the airwaves in June 2017. Within the first month, they'd secured a million downloads.
The allure of Ear Hustle can be chalked up to a targeted approach to humanize life in lockup. “A lot of people are curious about prison," Poor says. “Ear Hustle addresses those curiosities in a different way. In every episode we use humor and intelligence, combined with stories about pain, deprivation and violence. I don't think that's really been done before. We make stories with the same emotions that could take place anywhere. It happens to be that they take place in prison."
The show produces two seasons a year in spring and fall, with all recording and editing taking place at the media lab at San Quentin. Stories showcasing those who've been released are created at the Ear Hustle office in Emeryville at The Center for Investigative Reporting.
“A lot of the guys in San Quentin are proud of it and want to be part of it," Poor says. “There's definitely some who shy away. The old-timers who've been in there 30, 40 years tend to have a code about not talking to the media. But in general, it's pretty easy for us to get folks involved. They tell me their family listens to Ear Hustle and it's the first time they really understand what their life is like."
The podcast explores topics such as:
- What is it like having a cellmate?
- What happens when you're a parent in prison and you can't be around your children?
- What is it like the first time you have a family visit?
- How do you keep pets in prison?
- How do you cook?
- What's it like to be a transgender woman in a men's prison?
- What happens when you're not a legal resident?
- What are jobs like?
- What is prison like for sex offenders?
“I wanted to do a project about everyday things, not about crime or sensationalizing what prison is like and how horrible it is," Poor says. “I'm not a journalist. People's minds get changed when they hear first-person narratives and they get to look into somebody's life and see commonality. I learn through connecting with people and I thought, 'Well, that changes my mind. That's going to change other people's minds, too.' That was really my overarching goal—to use artistic storytelling as a way to connect people and get them to listen."
And listen, they do. Ear Hustle is now played in all 33 prisons throughout California, in facilities across the country and in 114 prisons in the United Kingdom. In May 2020, the podcast was honored as a Pulitzer Prize finalist in the first-ever audio recording category. “Humbly, I have to say it's pretty neat," Poor says regarding the accomplishment.
On November 21, 2018, Woods's sentence was commuted by then-Governor Jerry Brown and he was released from San Quentin. A search was conducted for his replacement and Rashaan Thomas was brought on board. Poor, Woods and Thomas now host Ear Hustle together.
After experiencing such profound stories, Poor says she can't help but have them inform her teaching at Sacramento State. As a result, she has noticed more dialogue and a greater air of acceptance on campus.
“A lot of my students know what I do, and I have so many people come up to me after class to tell me about what's happening in their lives," she says. “I've noticed students bring up issues about their family members being incarcerated, and the other people in class are very respectful and listen. I can see they feel they can talk about it without feeling shame or discomfort or that someone's judging them. I hope that Ear Hustle had something to do with that."
To see what life in prison is really like, listen to the Ear Hustle podcast.