The missing link between colleges & prisons in CA

The majority of people incarcerated in CA on any given day — around 130,000 as of June ’17 — are in state prisons. 96% of these individuals will eventually return to the community, and over 50,000 are within 2 years of release. In CA, 21 of the 35 prisons are located within 20 miles of a community college.


In 1971-72, all but one CDCR facility had at least one college course offered in its prison. Between the 1970’s and today the prison population grew by more than 700%, but access to college inside prisons didn’t keep pace. In 1976, approximately 21,000 men and women were incarcerated in CA prisons. That same year, 1,725 students (8.6% of state prison inmates) were enrolled in college. By 1983, the prison population had nearly doubled, but the number of students enrolled in college had grown only to 1,849 (4.7% of the CDCR population). For the next several decades, the CA prison population continued to grow rapidly, reaching a peak of over 172,000 in 2006. By 2013, only 4.4% (5,849 of 134,339) of the state prison population was enrolled in college.


In-person courses in CA prisons dropped dramatically in the early 1990’s. This drop can be attributed to many factors, including reductions in prison education budgets and a loss of funding streams that were previously available to community colleges. Additionally, the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act prohibited students incarcerated in state prison from receiving Pell Grants. (Reminder that Bill Clinton had really, really bad ideas about criminal justice). These factors combined to decimate the number of college programs offered inside CA prison walls. Only one in-person program was restarted – at San Quentin State Prison – and it currently exists as an independent nonprofit organization, partnering with a private college and relying on foundation grants, donations, and volunteer instructors.

Today, CDCR has an office of Correctional Education that oversees the education programs offered across CA’s prisons. Every CDCR facility has an education department, but the majority of their education resources go to ABE (Adult Basic Education), GED or high school equivalency classes, and CTE (Career Technical Education). This is largely due to the low achievement of incarcerated folks. Men incarcerated in CA prisons have an average reading score of 8.3 (indicating an 8th grade reading level), language score of 6.2, and a math score of 6.8. Women have average scores of 9.1, 7.2, and 6.8, respectively.

CA should improve and expand high-quality college offerings in prison, given the many benefits that accrue from a college education. For individuals returning home from prison, a college education can offer increased job prospects and greatly improves their chances of successfully reintegrating into their communities. Making life easier, not harder, for recently released inmates needs to be implemented into the prison equation.

This blogger understands that dismantling the roots of recidivism is not as simple as increasing the amount of college courses available in prison. But meta-analyses have found that participation of any kind in educational programs during incarceration reduces an individual’s likelihood of recidivating by 43%.  These findings are supplemented by an evaluation at San Quentin that found the three-year recidivism rate for both new offenders and parole violations among Prison University Project graduates was 17%. In the 11 years since the program began collecting data – during which time it served over 1,000 students – no Prison University Project graduate has returned to prison for committing a violent crime. The bottom line is that a college education is the ticket to autonomy in life, for UC students as much as incarcerated students.

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