Cal State Los Angeles teaches and helps inmates get their bachelor's degrees, changing lives

LOS ANGELES, California (NV) – Cal State Los Angeles is California’s only university with a program that helps many inmates earn bachelor’s degrees through multiple classes in the Los Angeles County jail.

The program called the “Prison BA Graduation Initiative” is helping many inmates in Southern California change their lives.

Professor Taffany Lim (centre) with inmates graduating in July 2021. (Image: calstatela.edu)

“Prison BA Graduation Initiative” was initiated in 2014, when Professor Bidhan Chandra Roy volunteered in prison. At that time, he taught literature and wrote to many inmates in the cell and in the common yard.

The professor said at that time the prisoners were very studious, and they wanted to learn more. Many inmates have earned college degrees because the SB 1391 Act of 2014 allowed them to attend community college programs. However, they cannot get a bachelor’s degree.

In 2016, Cal State University Los Angeles officially opened the “Prison BA Graduation Initiative” program with support from the grant program of President Barack Obama.

This program is a collaboration between many departments and departments of Cal State University Los Angeles such as the contact center and community service, the department of communications, and the department of global information.

Through the “Prison BA Graduation Initiative,” inmates will take one or two classes each semester toward a bachelor’s degree in communications. For many, this is their first chance to go higher in their education.

Professor Bidhan Chandra Roy teaches inmates. (Image: calstatela.edu)

Professor Roy said: “Bachelor’s degree means something else for prisoners. This program will change the way they see their future and self-worth.”

According to research by the RAND Corporation and Vera Institute of Justice, prison education programs help many inmates to re-offend less often after they leave prison.

The Harvard University prison study found that the factors that make former inmates less likely to re-offend are their greater chances of finding work, and the changes in thinking and behavior brought about by educational programs. education created.

Clifton Gibson, released from prison in 2019 and earning his bachelor’s degree in 2020, said college certificates are essential for many aspects of life.

“The guidance of my professors and Cal State Los Angeles was very important not only to my transition, but also to my personal growth. It gave me a different perspective on life, knowing what I wanted to do, and knowing what my past was like,” Mr. Gibson said.

In a short documentary produced by the school’s students in 2018, one inmate said English, communication, literature, and public speaking classes helped them a lot. Everyone in the class respects each other, is always studious, and helps each other to develop.

Two inmates studied for a bachelor’s degree in a program from Cal State University Los Angeles. (Image: calstatela.edu)

The “Prison BA Graduation Initiative” program not only helps inmates get a bachelor’s degree, but also helps them return to society.

Student Allen Burnett, released from prison in 2020, said he was initially unable to keep up with the school’s programs because he was haunted by many childhood memories. He was once vilified for his academic deficiencies, but the inmate program helped him overcome those difficulties, and graduated with many other inmates and former inmates in July of this year.

“For me, a bachelor’s degree is more than just a piece of paper. I have a responsibility to go back to school to make up for those who have been harmed by me,” Mr. Burnett said.

Not only prisoners, many professors who teach in prison say that this program also changes them, especially the way they see people in prison.

“This program completely changed the way I looked at prisoners and the prison system,” said Cynthia Wang, an assistant professor in the department of communications at Cal State University Los Angeles.

Most inmates who study for a bachelor’s degree have spent decades in prison, and many are in prison as teenagers. The “Prison BA Graduation Initiative” helps them become the first in their family to earn a college degree.

Lifetime prisoners who have their sentences reduced now say they have the opportunity to contribute to society, and feel they have changed in a very positive way.

The professors say the program embodies the spirit of Cal State Los Angeles and the Cal State university system.

Before the pandemic, Ms. Wang and other staff from the communications department drove 90 miles from school to the prison in the Mojave Desert to teach inmates.

Inmates hug each other in a prison classroom. (Image: calstatela.edu)

By Fall 2021, more than 30 inmates have earned their bachelor’s degrees since the “Prison BA Graduation Initiative” began.

On July 28, a total of nine inmates attended the school’s graduation ceremony after earning their bachelor’s degrees, four in the 2020 school year, and five in the 2021 school year.

Tin Nguyen, a graduate of the 2021 school year, shared: “I used to think I could only go back and forth in the visiting room. I cannot describe the feeling when walking on the stage of the graduation ceremony. I can only say it was one of the best moments of my life.”

Several other California universities are following in the footsteps of Cal State Los Angeles to open programs for inmates to earn bachelor’s degrees.

UC Irvine will open a similar program in San Diego in the fall of 2022, and Pitzer University in Claremont, Los Angeles County, announced a new program opening in Norco, Riverside County.

Many other universities may offer similar programs because the federal government allows prisoners to apply for subsidies to pay for college tuition.

Currently, the “Prison BA Graduation Initiative” is open to men only, but Cal State University Los Angeles is about to expand to include more women in prison. They will partner with the California Women’s Institute in Chino and Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga. (TL) [đ.d.]

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