Higher Education

Propelling prisoners to bachelor’s degrees in California

As the First Step Act is set to release more federal prisoners and Congress considers offering additional inmates financial aid for college, California’s overhaul of prison education offers a blueprint for other states.

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prison education programs

Tehachapi students working to create oral reports on how various communities in California enforce the three strikes law.

LOS ANGELES — The first time someone in jail tried to give Bradley Arrowood a textbook, he laughed at him. Education was the last thing on his mind. “When I was a kid, I was told I’d never amount to anything,” Arrowood said.

Arrowood grew up in Orange County, dropped out of school at 16, and supported himself with “illegal activities” until he was 23 years old, when he killed a man he suspected of cheating with his wife. He was sentenced to life without parole in 1995, and said he “deserved every bit of my sentence.”

But Arrowood ended up taking the book and joining the prison’s ad hoc study group, in which members purchased college textbooks and taught themselves various subjects. He worked toward his GED and a paralegal certificate, then earned two associate degrees via correspondence courses from Coastline Community College. He eventually received a commutation of his sentence, because he had “turned away from violence and drugs and instead dedicated himself to rehabilitation and education.”

Last October, 23 years after he received a life sentence, he was released. Now Arrowood, 49, counts the days he’s spent on the outside rekindling a connection with his 25-year-old daughter, Lena, and finding joy even in Los Angeles’ epic traffic jams. On his 127th day of freedom, he was sitting among the palm trees on the campus of California State University, Los Angeles, just 24 credits away from earning a bachelor’s degree.

“Had I not gone in for this offense, I was either going to end up dead or kill someone else,” he said.

Instead, he may be the first in his family to finish college.

Arrowood is one of the beneficiaries of California’s policy to provide face-to-face higher education classes in almost all of its prisons. Prisoners were restricted to correspondence courses until a law passed in 2014 allowing in-person classes. That year, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reports, the number of successfully completed college classes jumped to 13,301 from the previous year’s 5,725.

By 2017, about 4,500 prisoners were enrolled in community college with tuition paid for by taxpayers through a state financial aid program, up from zero prisoners in 2014. While other states have some prisons that offer in-person education, California is the only state offering classes in nearly every prison, taught by educators from nearby colleges, for credits that can transfer and count toward degrees.

“It’s hard to overstate how critical” face-to-face classes are, says Rebecca Silbert, the director of Renewing Communities, which aims to boost education for prisoners. “To learn the critical-thinking skills that come from being in a classroom is something you just don’t get with correspondence courses.”

The prison where Arrowood enrolled in college is aiming for an even bigger impact. California State Prison, Los Angeles County has helped create a bachelor’s degree program for prisoners, including those with life sentences. The hope: that the benefits of an education will ripple out not just to the men who sign up, but to other inmates and even family members.

prison education programs

Both Antelope Valley College and Cal State Los Angeles offer classes at this prison in Lancaster.

‘Hell’s half-acre’

The prison — known unofficially as Lancaster for the Mojave Desert town in which it is located — sits about 70 miles north of Los Angeles. It’s “hell’s half-acre,” says Jeff Stein, a recently released prisoner, of the barren landscape, with snow-capped mountains barely visible in the distance. The penitentiary currently holds more than 3,000 prisoners, most of them in maximum security, in four yards covering 262 acres.

To the left of one yard’s large outdoor exercise area sits a long, one-story building that houses health facilities, office space for prison guards and the prison’s two classrooms. Inside, students sit at desks with their highlighted textbooks in front of them. With the notable exception of the men’s attire — baby blue shirts stamped with yellow block letters, “CDCR Prisoner” — it can be easy to forget that an electrified fence surrounds the premises. As Nina O’Brien, a professor in Cal State LA’s Department of Communication Studies, talks about cognitive dissonance, a mix of students, ranging from age 30 to 60-plus, raise their hands.

“Shy is not a problem,” she says. “They are serious. They ask good questions.”

Related: Will thousands of prison inmates lose access to college?

The Cal State LA program enrolls 42 students in two cohorts, administrators said. The inmates take two classes per semester toward a bachelor’s in communications. To provide the courses, the university  mainly relies on private money from the nonprofit Renewing Communities, which provided the school with a three-year grant for $750,000.*

prison education programs

Prisoners learn the basics of how to conduct accurate polls in Cal State LA’s communication research class at Lancaster prison.

While most of the prisoners wanted to work toward a business degree, Cal State LA’s Taffany Lim says their lack of math knowledge made it impractical. The communications major has wider application, since talking to and relating to people are critical in most careers the men might pursue if they’re released.

“It’s about making people who can reach all of their potential, rather than just [telling released prisoners]: ‘Don’t stab someone,’ ” says English professor Bidhan Roy. “Critical self-reflection is really important. You can’t just teach them to do spreadsheets and expect them to do well.”

Ninety-five percent of the nation’s 2.1 million prisoners will eventually be released, but because of a new federal law President Donald Trump signed this January, thousands of federal prisoners will be freed early in the coming years.

Preparing them to succeed after incarceration will be critical. Research has found recidivism rates are 43% lower for prisoners who took college courseswhile incarcerated.

That’s one reason politicians from both parties are rethinking policies from the tough-on-crime era. A law written by then-Senator Joe Biden and signed by President Bill Clinton barred prison inmates from using federal Pell Grants to pay for college courses. Nearly all the roughly 750 college programs running in 1,300 prisons nationwide closed.

Under President Barack Obama’s administration, a pilot program to allow Pell Grant financial aid for some prisoners led to a boom in incarcerated college students. More than 5,000 prisoners took college classes in the fall of 2017, more than triple the previous year’s total of 1,504. Cal State LA is part of the Pell Grant pilot, but collected just $6,000 last year from that source.

Now, a bipartisan group of lawmakers are pushing to eliminate the Pell Grant ban completely. About 463,000 prisoners nationwide would be eligible for that financial aid, says Brian Walsh, of the Vera Institute of Justice, an advocacy group.

A college degree in prison, inspiring his stepdaughter outside

Roy, the English professor, first visited Lancaster as a volunteer and realized the prisoners had academic ambitions to go beyond an associate degree. He asked Lim, the Cal State LA administrator, every week about starting a bachelor’s program, until she finally went to the prison and met the inmates. After she created a plan, the university’s president, William Covino, agreed, saying the work would fit Cal State LA’s mission of “public good.”

Roy says prisoners’ academic readiness can vary greatly. Some of the men had passed correspondence classes in English without ever writing a paper. “It really wasn’t an intellectual endeavor,” he says.

prison education programs

Jeff Stein (left) and Bradley Arrowood are both former inmates now taking classes on campus at Cal State LA.

Arrowood says his grades improved dramatically when he switched from correspondence courses to Cal State LA’s in-person classes. “With professors actually there to guide you and work with you one-on-one it makes a world of difference,” he said.

Many of the program’s graduates realize their degrees will never lead to a career. Cal State LA’s program serves the prisoners in Lancaster’s Yard A, most of whom are serving life sentences for murder or attempted murder, said Lt. Richard Ochoa of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Lim, who oversees the university’s public service efforts, said the goal of the program isn’t just to help inmates adjust when they leave prison; it’s to impact “the generational cycle of incarceration by helping to break that.”

Allen Burnett, 45, was arrested at 18 and convicted of aiding and abetting in a murder, and was eventually sentenced to life without parole. He bounced around seven prisons before landing at Lancaster, where he became part of the book group with Arrowood.

He earned an associate degree through correspondence courses and eventually joined Cal State LA’s first cohort. He said the lessons he’s learned in class have helped defuse situations with fellow prisoners. “There’s so much segregation here, the slightest thing can turn into an issue,” he said.

Related: Special education too often leads to jail for thousands of American children

His efforts were an inspiration to his 40-year-old sister, who went back to college herself. But he’s most proud of the impact his education is having on his stepdaughter Zion Holmes.

Holmes was born after Burnett was arrested, but he built a relationship with Holmes through visits and phone calls. They played Monopoly during visits, although “it was hard to have those little moments” together because every phone call is recorded, said Holmes, now 19. But when it came time to decide where she wanted to study, she asked for her stepfather’s advice.

His eyes water when he recounts their conversation. He told her how caring the staff at Cal State LA was and promised her if she went there, there would always be someone on campus who was looking out for her.

Today she’s a sophomore at Cal State LA, while Burnett is eight classes short of graduating. “There’s an emotional connection,” he said. “We talk about end-of-semester stress.”

“He’s a lot more studious than I am,” Holmes said. Her stepfather, an early riser who’s up at 4 a.m. most days, got A’s in both of his classes last semester. “I haven’t done that … yet,” she said.

No girls, parties or cellphones

California’s crowded dormitories and high death rates have been symbols of America’s prison problems, but now its investment in education could provide a blueprint at a seminal moment for the U.S. criminal justice system.

Despite the academic gaps some inmates started with, Cal State LA’s incarcerated prisoners earned a 3.61 GPA in 2017 compared to their on-campus counterparts’ 3.25. Arrowood jokes that the reasons the prisoners do better are obvious: no girls, parties or cellphones to distract from their studies.

The success is widespread across the state’s prisons: A 2018 report found 85% of California prisoners are passing their classes, better than the 75% rate of students at community college campuses.

“If California plays out well and the statistics continue to hold, we could see a major change in recidivism rates and prison population,” Walsh said.

California spends about $81,200 a year for each prisoner; full-time community college enrollment adds about $5,000 to that total, for tuition and other administrative costs, according to state figures. Cal State LA’s bachelor’s degree program costs about twice that per student, its officials said.

prison education programs

Cerro Coso Community College associate professor Peter Fulks goes over an assignment with one of his students during his Concepts of Criminal Law class at Tehachapi prison.

Other education institutions in the state have expanded aggressively into prison education as the state has helped foot the bill for inmates. Cerro Coso Community College now serves nearly 900 prisoners at two sites, about 18% of its student population, according to Lisa Stephens, the director of its prison program. The school recently expanded to seven degree programs and more than 45 classes at both prisons it serves, with waitlists for each course.

Seven university presidents have contacted Brant R. Choate, who directs rehabilitative programs at the Department of Corrections, about starting additional bachelor’s degree programs, he said. Lim recently held a workshop on her campus to tell other college administrators what it takes to start and maintain a program like hers.

But some worry for-credit classes may move too fast. Jody Lewen is the executive director of the Prison University Project, a private group that has conducted college classes at San Quentin prison for almost 20 years. She said many prisoners need remedial education. Some “may not have read an entire book in their life,” she said. Although the faculty she has met are “fantastic” and taking their work seriously, she worries some colleges might press to grow programs too quickly, harming the quality of education offered.

Several officials and advocates rejected the idea that colleges would create prison classes just to make money. “It’s hard work and it takes time,” said Walsh, of the Vera Institute.

Cal State’s Lim said the work is the most satisfying she’s done in her career, but it’s also the most difficult. She and the rest of the university staff have to walk a fine line between offering support and allowing their students to make their own decisions, even if some of them seem questionable.

Arrowood took four classes this semester, ran his own dog-training business and worked at the university’s Project Rebound office, helping other prisoners reacclimate to society.

He said that before he went to jail, he had a ferocious temper. Now, Arrowood tries to deal with his anger by expressing his feelings. That has led to problems. “I’m mindful that can sound intimidating to others, especially looking at who I was,” he said. “I’ve had to adjust.

prison education programs

While technology is a challenge in all prison classes, some elements of college are the same inside a prison as on campus.

Living today in Los Angeles after being imprisoned a quarter of a century sometimes makes Arrowood feel like he’s “waking up from something and placed in time somewhere else,” he says. For instance, using a cellphone or a computer continues to befuddle him. “I hear the guys inside laughing. Every time I try to type something, a pop-up bothers me,” he said with a shake of his head.

When he had to take a midterm exam online, Arrowood’s difficulties with technology resulted in him skipping questions only to discover he couldn’t go back and answer them. “I was really disappointed in myself and I panicked,” he said. His class attendance wavered and his grades fell off.

His mother died in the middle of the spring semester, and he drifted further from his studies. “It hit me harder than I expected it would,” he said. Although Arrowood was in danger of failing his classes, he rallied to pass all four courses and he remains on track to graduate after the fall semester.

 In June, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation gave Cal State LA a three-year $750,000 grant to continue its bachelor’s program at Lancaster. Lim said the school would start a third cohort of students once the original group graduates after the Spring 2020 semester.

*Correction: This story has been updated with the correct amount of the grant.

This story about prison education programs was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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