Project Rebound helps formerly incarcerated gain an education

By Forrest Lee Jones

A popular program is helping formerly incarcerated inmates obtain a college education.

The program called Project Rebound (PR) is based at San Francisco State University. It has a dramatically impressive success rate, reports Emily DeRuy of The Atlantic.

It was started in 1967 by a formerly incarcerated inmate and professor of sociology named John Irwin, said DeRuy.

Irwin’s idea was that when former inmates obtain a college degree, it reduces the chance they will return to prison.

The study also showed a major contrast in graduation rates among PR students compared to university students: 90 percent for PR students and 50 percent for university students.

Jason Bell, who became director of PR in 2005, says the men and women who participate in the program have “a psychological hardiness.” Bell spent his twenties in prison for attempted murder in a brutal fight that turned bad.

Earning a diploma during his high school years was difficult for him. While incarcerated, he continued his education and earned a high school diploma. After earning 25 credits from Ohio University, he paroled and transferred to San Francisco State, where he obtained his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, then became president of PR.

“I knew what it did for me, and I didn’t want to see it fold,” he said of succeeding John Irwin.

The work of Bell and his staff consists of answering correspondence from prisoners, processing applications, setting up an email account for students, teaching students how to submit their work online and providing food vouchers, transportation stipends, and money for books and housing assistance.

During Bell’s tenure, more than 140 students graduated through PR, and those numbers tend to increase. Currently, Bell is expanding the program to seven other colleges in the California State University system.

The expansion is designed to help reduce California’s 44.6 percent recidivism rate, according to SF State officials. A 2010 study showed only 3 percent of PR participants re-offend, said DeRuy.

Although San Francisco State supports the program, some students believe it would have more success if run by a felony-free person. Joseph Miles, a formerly incarcerated student who is finishing up his senior year through the program, disagrees.

“There’s just no replacing that experience (of incarceration)” Miles says. Students need to trust that the people running the program know what they’ve been through, and it’s important for students to see people with similar backgrounds go on to earn degrees and be successful.

Miles went to prison for selling narcotics in his late 20s and early 30s. He said the program was helpful to him because, “There was a camaraderie here.” After DeRuy’s visit, a spokesman for San Francisco State wrote her an email, saying that the school president has always believed that the mission and goals of PR are best served with a leader who was formerly incarcerated.

Curtis Penn, the new director of PR and a former San Quentin prisoner, added, “When we receive letters from men and women behind the wall who are interested in achieving higher levels of educational attainment, we cannot help but to act with a since of urgency and empathy, as we are them and they are us.”

Bell, nevertheless, believes the program will succeed regardless of any adversity.

Whenever prisoners are offered access to college, he said, “People are lining up around the yard.” The opportunity to actually complete a degree after their release is the logical next step.

“It’s like a new beginning.”


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