For the first time in California history, a group of incarcerated men received their Bachelor of Arts degrees from a California University during a commencement ceremony held inside of a prison.
The 25 graduates wore black caps, gowns, and face masks as they walked across a makeshift stage at the Lancaster prison to receive their degrees in Communications. The California State University of Los Angeles is also the first university to offer a Communications degree to incarcerated people.
“Cal State LA is proud of you the graduates, in our prison education program,” said Jose A. Gomez, provost and executive vice-president. “They have demonstrated the power of education to transform lives,” The Antelope Valley Times reported.
The Graduation Initiative is the first in-person Bachelor’s degree completion program for incarcerated students in California. It was started in 2016 with support from President Barack Obama’s Second Chance Pell Federal Pilot Program. It is also supported by the Andrew Mellon Foundation.
The men received face-to-face instruction through video lessons where students can interact live with faculty, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations (CDCR).
“Obtaining a higher education in a prison setting through a partner like Cal State LA is an opportunity for incarcerated people to have a true second chance, said CDCR Secretary Kathleen Allison. “There is no resource more powerful than an education, where people can gain new skills and learn new perspectives.”
California now leads the nation in post-secondary education for justice-involved people, according to a report from Stanford Law School’s Criminal Justice Center and the Opportunity Institute’s Corrections to College Program, a project that morphed into the Rising Scholars
Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 417, which requires that post-secondary opportunities be provided to all Californians, including those who are justice-involved. The Rising Scholar Network will provide greater support to California community colleges to provide academic instruction and support services for justice-involved students.
The bill allocates $10 million for the State’s community colleges to increase access to justice-involved students. AB 417 authorizes 50 new California colleges to join the rising Scholars Network.
Newsom also signed Senate Bill 416, which requires CDCR to make college programs available for the benefit of incarcerated people who already have a general education development certificate or equivalent or a high school diploma.
This bill requires that college programs be provided by the California community college system, the California State University system, the University of California system, or other regionally-accredited, nonprofit colleges or universities.
SB 416 further requires that any student enrolled in a full-time college program consisting of 12 semester units or the equivalent thereof, leading to an associate or bachelor’s degree, be deemed by the department to be assigned to a full-time work or training assignment.
“I am grateful that Newsom saw the necessity in us having access to higher education in prison,” said Jerry Gearin, a student at Mount Tamalpais College, who is finishing up his associate degree. “A lot of people in here are still learning how to think and that’s what education does. It teaches people how to think and make good choices in life.”
The Department of Education will also expand the Second Chance Pell Grant experiment in 2022-2023. The initiative will allow incarcerated people at certain federal and state prisons to receive need-based Pell grants for college education. The award is worth up to $6,495 for the upcoming school year.
Lawmakers ended a 1994 ban on providing federal financial aid to people in prison in December 2020, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that secondary education programs help lower recidivism. Incarcerated people who obtain their associate’s degree only have a 14% recidivism rate. Those who earn a bachelor’s degree have a 5.6% rate of recidivism and those who earn their master’s degree have a 0% rate of recidivism.
“This is the best thing that’s happened since peanut butter & jelly,” said Earnest “Ben-Shua” Woods. “People need education like peanut butter needs jelly,” he said smiling.