On March 10, Debbie Mukamal, executive director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center (SCJC) at Stanford Law School testified before the California State Senate Public Safety Committee’s hearing on higher education for currently and formerly incarcerated individuals (she was joined by Douglas Wood of the Ford Foundation, Robert Bozick of the RAND Corporation, and Rebecca Silbert of the Warren Institute at UC Berkeley School of Law).
Mukamal and the SCJC recently co-published “Degrees of Freedom: Expanding College Opportunities for Currently and Formerly Incarcerated Californians,” a blueprint for creating education opportunities that identifies the state’s 112 community colleges and 33 public colleges and universities as gateways to help prisoners learn while in custody and succeed after release. The study is a joint project of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center at Stanford Law School and the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at UC Berkeley School of Law.
The report recommends leveraging funding available through Senate Bill 1391, signed by Governor Jerry Brown in 2014, to provide community college courses inside prisons and jails. It also identifies other laws, policies and funding sources that can be used to build effective “gateways,” for high-quality college education from incarceration through release to the community. It calls for the criminal justice and education fields to break the “silos” they usually work in and create partnerships to help those in custody so that they do not return to prison.
In this Q&A, Mukamal explains the key points of the report.
What are the highlights from this new report, Degrees of Freedom?
California needs an educated workforce, and this need is expected to grow significantly over the next decade. We cannot afford to overlook those involved in the criminal justice system as we educate our workers. Ninety-six percent of the people in our state’s jails and prisons will serve their time and be released—a projected 50,000 in the next two years alone and thousands more through relief offered through Proposition 47. Yet we currently provide inadequate and mostly low-quality college opportunities while students are incarcerated in jail or prison. Offering them educational opportunities can improve our communities by reducing their likelihood of recidivism and improving their opportunities for gainful employment.
California has the infrastructure to build these partnerships and provide this education: we have a well-regarded and extensive public higher education system with 112 community colleges and 33 four-year public colleges and Universities, many of which are adjacent to our jails and prisons and in the cities to where people are returning home.
So this goes beyond in-prison education?
Yes. This is about creating pathways to success from incarceration through release. Education would start in prison and jail and continue after the student has been released. It will embolden our colleges to be stakeholders in successful prisoner reentry. Someone might begin a program in prison and then finish his or her certificate or degree once he or she returns home.
This seems like an enormous undertaking—
Years ago, California had in-person college classes inside every one of its prisons. Today we have only one prison – San Quentin, through the Prison University Project – that offers an in-person college program. We also had special programs at half of our California State University campuses and many community colleges to provide support to formerly incarcerated students in their academic success. Today there are only a handful of small programs. We also know there are educators excited to serve these students. SB 1391 gives them the opportunity and financial mechanism to do so.
Why did California dismantle its extensive in-prison college programs?
Those programs lost funding in the 1990s. For example, the Federal Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act made prisoners ineligible to receive Pell grants, which covered the costs of tuition and other educational expenses. Today, the costs of tuition for community college can be covered through Board of Governors fee waivers.
Isn’t the public higher education system under-stress, overcrowded and underfunded? How can this proposal work?
We think that the best partner for this program is the California Community College system, which includes 112 colleges throughout the state. They have capacity and experience. SB 1391 paves the way by allowing community colleges to get reimbursed for teaching prisoner students, just like they would for students on their college campuses. Also, community colleges have experience supporting academically disadvantaged students and have the structures in place to serve them. For instance, the EOPS program provides special counseling services, book stipends, and other services. Also, community college tuition is affordable, and for those with economic needs (including those who are incarcerated), they can apply for a Board of Governors waiver to cover tuition costs.
The report highlights the explosion in California’s prison population, which has ballooned by 700 percent since the 1970s. Is that a right?
Yes. In 1976 California incarcerated 1700 people in its prison system. By 2014, the number had climbed to 134,000. (Page 41 of the report).
Can you explain the financial case for diverting money from prisons to education?
It costs $52,000 per year to incarcerate a person in California. So if this works, instead of re-sending people to prison we could reinvest those dollars into our college system and other important funding priorities.
What is the recidivism rate in California, the prison revolving door?
It’s about 60%, a figure we know can be reduced significantly with education.
You spoke to the California State Senate Public Safety Committee on higher education for prison inmates yesterday. Have you been working with the state on this report?
Yes. We’ve been working closely with the state and benefitted from many conversations we held with state leaders. We’re hoping the concrete recommendations we identify in the second half of the report can help the state as it works to expand the number and quality of college opportunities available to currently and formerly incarcerated people. We are fortunate to have a number of dedicated and effective correctional and higher education leaders who can deliver on the promise to make our communities stronger and safer.
The 154-page report is based on more than 175 interviews, academic research and historical investigation. It is aimed at policymakers, potential students and college administrators in California and also provides a blueprint for other states seeking to build pathways to education for those in the criminal justice system. The research and publication of the report were supported by the Ford Foundation as part of its Renewing Communities initiative. “Degrees of Freedom” is available here