A new program offering bachelor’s degrees to prison inmates is thriving in Los Angeles County.
“It’s about making people who can reach all their potential,” said Bidhan Roy, an English professor for the program at Lancaster in the Mojave Desert.
The bachelor’s program allows each student to take up to two classes per semester. It currently relies mostly on donations and/or private money from the nonprofit Renewing Communities. This nonprofit gave the school $256,984 as a three-year grant for the classes.
California now spends nearly $81,200 per year for each prisoner housed in a state prison. It only costs an additional $5,000 for a prisoner’s full time college enrollment, according to Wayne D’Orio for The Hechinger Report printed in USA Today on July 12.
Many of prison college education programs were gutted when President Clinton and then Sen. Joe Biden barred prison inmates from gaining Pell Grants to pay for college classes.
The Obama administration installed a pilot program to allow Pell Grants for some prisoners. As a result, the number of prisoners in college programs grew from 1,504 in 2016 to 5,000 prisoners in 2017, according to USA Today.
Since 2014, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reports the number of inmates who received passing grades increased from 5,725 to 13,301 the following year.
California is the only state that offers community college classes in almost every prison, the report noted. The tuition for these classes is paid by the state’s taxpayers. The number of students in these colleges in 2017 was 4,500, a number that was zero in 2014, according to the article.
There are teachers who feel some students need remedial education before college classes. Some “may have not read an entire book in their life,” said Jody Lewen, executive director of the Prison University Project (PUP) at San Quentin.
PUP has conducted college classes at San Quentin for nearly 20 years. Lewen added, although the faculty she has met has been “fantastic” taking their work seriously, she worries the quality of the education may be threatened by some colleges wanting to expand too quickly, according to the article.
Cerro Coso Community College is another degree- rich college. It has expanded its degree program to seven degree programs. It currently has close to 900 prisoners enrolled. That demographic makes up nearly 18% of the college population. The college serves two prisons and has 45 classes at these two prisons.
In June, the Andrew W. Melon Foundation gave Cal State LA a three-year grant of $750,000 to continue the bachelor’s program offered at CSP Lancaster.
One of the students in Lancaster, Bradley Arrowood, is now free on parole.
“When I was a kid, I was told I’d never amount to any- thing,” said Arrowood. “Had I not gone in for this offense, I was either going to end up dead or kill someone else.” In 1995 he was sentenced to life without parole, and I “de- served every bit of my sentence,” Arrowood, now 49, said.
The Lancaster program was started by Bidhan Roy, an English professor, while he was volunteering at the prison. He saw the ambitions of the students and persisted with Tiffany Lim, Cal State LA administrator to start a Bachelor’s degree program.
The success of the pro- gram is because of the students’ willingness to learn and transform their lives. Many of them know that as a lifer serving a sentence for murder, or attempted murder, it’s unlikely they’ll have a career, said CDCR Lt. Richard Ochoa. But their studies also impact their family members, encouraging some of them to aspire to college too.