Some California prisoners are working hard on college degrees to help them be successful when they return to their communities.
One of the latest examples is the English 99 class at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa, which leads to an associate of arts college degree.
“The level of critical thought and commentary is much higher than I would typically get from a room where I’m teaching 18- to 21-year-olds,” said John Rieder of Southwestern College, who teaches the class.
“According to a RAND analysis, every $1 invested in such [inmate] education generates at least $4 in economic return,” reports Fast Company.
“The state typically spends $71,000 a year to house an inmate. It costs about $5,000 total to help put one [incarcerated] student through community college”, reports Fast Company.
The higher education opportunity for prisoners is part of an Obama-era pilot program that extended Pell Grants to 12,000 prisoners.
A KPBS news story in April said the Trump administration could end the grants, so the focus of the program is to get those involved into caps and gowns, reduce recidivism, and demonstrate to the government the importance of the Second Chance Pell Grant program.
The class has helped defuse racial tension on a population yard where there has been racial politics, according to Jason Hicks, who helps coordinate the Southwestern program.
According to Hicks, racial tension disappears when they get into a classroom, “You’ll notice that the guys are willing to help each other out. I think it really show rehabilitation at its best.”
Collectively the students had a 3.91 grade point average at the beginning of the semester, according to the article.
For many California department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) prisoners, their only option to earn an associate degree prior to the program was distant learning courses. These correspondence courses require prisoners to purchase books most could not afford without the Pell Grants.
Rieder said his class draws on psychology, philosophy, and poetry to explore the themes of education and power.
He added, “Higher education leads to empowerment.’ And that’s a great narrative. I love that narrative.”
The students wear light blue shirts and navy pants with CDCR PRISONER printed in bold yellow letters. They carry their books, papers and pens in clear plastic bags instead of book bags.
Student Kyle Baughman, 31, who has hazel eyes and a star tattooed onto his shaved head, brings up critical discussions in class about education.
“Hey, do you guys see some kind of connection?” he asks his classmates. “The kids of judges and lawyers and the people that make all this money, they’re taught differently, as opposed to the way we’re taught.”
He grew up in Orange County’s criminal justice system, according to the article. He earned his high school diploma while in Juvenile Hall.
“Most of the schools I went to growing up were probation schools,” Baughman said. “I felt like, if I didn’t go, I’m going to get locked up.”
His involvement with criminals and a gang resulted in crimes of carjacking and robbery, which earned him an enhanced sentence of 15 years to life.
In Rieder’s class, Baughman has the opportunity to work out some of the large things that may have brought him to prison, according to the KPBS article.
“The inmate is now looking at things in a different light. They are looking to see how to better themselves,” said Lance Eshelman, the Donovan Community Resources Manager.