Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP) is a level four facility reserved for the most serious of California’s offenders. Half of the prison houses maximum-security inmates in a general population setting. The other half of the prison holds inmates in segregation units such as the Security Housing Unit (SHU) or Administrative Segregation Unit (ASU) designed for violent inmates and prison gang members and leaders. None of this, however, means the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) isn’t working to improve the lives of the inmates in one of California’s most notorious prisons.
The Tsunami Adult School operates inside PBSP under Principal Janice Nelson, who has more than 16 years of correctional education experience. She leads a team of educators dedicated to helping these inmates get an education.
Initially, every inmate in CDCR is given an Adult Basic Education assessment to determine his or her reading level. The inmate may fall into one of four categories, the first being Adult Basic Education (ABE) I for those who read between a zero and 3.9 grade reading level, ABE II for those reading at a fourth to 6.9 grade level, and ABE III for those who read between a seventh and 8.9 grade level. All others who read above a ninth-grade level can work to obtain either their high school diploma or general education degree (GED).
For the academically low-functioning, PBSP’s Tsunami Adult School offers the Alternative Program (AP) classes. Due to the intensive nature, the class sizes are only around 54 students and most of the teachers meet their students in two groups per day. Teachers group their students by ability or subject area depending on the needs of the student.
The Voluntary Education Program (VEP) largely provides instruction via distance learning and video programs. This is how PBSP is able to reach segregated populations such as those in the SHU and ASU. This same program also works well for inmate students who have jobs, such as kitchen workers or landscapers, who want to complete their high school diploma or GED. There currently are six VEP teachers at PBSP with one solely dedicated to college students.
PBSP’s newest education program is within the Enhanced Outpatient Program (EOP). The EOP is reserved for mentally ill inmates, particularly those suffering from psychotic disorders. Due to the extreme needs of these inmate-students, the class sizes are typically less than half of the AP courses.
Obtaining a high school diploma requires more work than getting a GED. High school diploma students need at least 130 hours of course credit, which isn’t necessary for a GED. However, some inmate-students are determined to get their high school diploma despite the extra hurdles.
Recent changes to rules for GED testing made it mandatory to take the test via computer. This presents a unique challenge, especially for a maximum-security institution like PBSP. Currently, inmate students at PBSP must take a computer literacy course before they can take the GED test. Certain inmates, like those in the SHU or ASU, cannot access computers due to security issues.
|“We realize that with this being Pelican Bay and
the level of inmate we house it may
not be as possible as other prisons, but we’ll try”|
While access to computers does pose a hindrance for GED testing, requiring inmates to take the computer literacy course is proving to be a positive experience, according to those involved.
“In the computer class, inmates will sit next to each other and help each other,” one PBSP correctional officer said. “They may not necessarily do that on the yard, given prison politics.”
If the inmate-student has already obtained a high school diploma or GED, then teachers at PBSP can help them enroll in college courses to earn certificates or Associates or Bachelors degrees.
In order to enroll in college courses, the inmate student must first decide which college he wishes to enroll in and figure out how he is going to pay for the education. College education for inmates is not funded by CDCR. Inmate students must request fee waivers or coordinate with friends/family members to pay for their tuition and the cost of the textbooks.
If the inmate student decides on a college and can pay the costs, then PBSP’s College Coordinator works to enroll the student in the school, typically on a first-come, first-served basis.
Currently at PBSP, there are two students enrolled in Ohio State, 37 in Coastline Community College, 35 at Feather River Community College, and next semester there will 32 attending Lassen Community College.
On March 19, there were five inmate-students housed in the SHU who were taking their college mid-terms via Feather River Community College.
Again, all courses are taught via distance learning models but that may soon change thanks to Senate Bill (SB) 1391.
The passage of SB 1391, authored by State Senator Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) last year, provided CDCR the ability to contract with the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office to create and support at least four pilot sites, still to be determined, to allow inmate students to earn college credits and have access to college counseling, placement, and disability support services. College professors may now teach college courses inside state prisons and receive compensation as if they were teaching the class to the public.
PBSP doesn’t currently have an agreement with the local community college, College of the Redwoods, but PBSP VEP College Coordinator Kari Telaro is hoping this will change in the near future.
“I hope inmates will be able to have the traditional learning experience and be together instead of teaching at this individual level,” Telaro said. “We realize that with this being Pelican Bay and the level of inmate we house it may not be as possible as other prisons, but we’ll try.”
There are currently more than 200 people on a waiting list to enroll in Feather River, which completely compensates inmates’ tuition and textbooks. Lassen Community College compensates inmates’ tuition, but the inmate must pay for his textbooks. Coastline Community College requires inmates to pay for both tuition and textbooks.
PBSP’s Education staff is in discussions to begin a college textbook lending program where inmates who have previously bought the textbook for a course may donate it to the lending program to allow other inmates to avoid paying the cost.
Due to the unique qualities of PBSP, such as level of violence, heavy fog, frequent modified programs, etc., the education staff has to rely on creative ways to reach and educate students. Despite the hurdles the staff must overcome to motivate the inmate-students to complete their requirements, it’s working. Last year, 120 inmates graduated with their GEDs and so far this year 50 have graduated.
When asked about their secret to success, PBSP Testing Coordinator Corrine Thogmartin said, “(It’s due to) dedicated teachers who love to teach, thinking outside the box to ensure education is continuously delivered despite all outside factors and working with custody. We sure appreciate those who assist in getting our students to us and keeping us all safe.”