In August 2020, eight incarcerated students from California Rehabilitation Center (CRC) in Norco began their journey toward earning a Bachelor of Art (BA) degree from Pitzer College. And if offering a bachelor’s degree program inside a prison isn’t challenging enough, the COVID-19 pandemic took away the option of doing face-to-face classes and necessitated a shift to virtual learning – also very challenging inside a state prison.
“Pitzer College is one of the most prestigious colleges in the country, and to see the efforts of CRC staff and Pitzer faculty bring our dream to fruition is astounding,” shared Warden Cynthia Tampkins. “I do not believe there are enough adjectives in the dictionary to describe how I feel – I am blessed that CRC is drastically changing lives for the better.”
The commencement of the program has been highly anticipated by students and staff. The creation of the program and the curriculum have been in the works for several years. The collaboration of Pitzer College, Warden Tampkins, CRC Principal Michael Weaver, and Norco College Prison Education Director Dr. Jessica Cobb has resulted in an accelerated program, in which incarcerated students are able earn a degree in Organizational Studies using the credits earned while working toward their associate degree from Norco College. The students are expected to complete the bachelor degree by the end of 2021.
First ‘Inside-Out’ in-prison bachelor’s program
This is the first ever in-prison bachelor’s program built on the “Inside-Out” curriculum. In this model, each class is made up of an equal number of CRC students (inside) and Claremont Colleges (outside) students. Staff from five Claremont Colleges provide face-to-face instruction and administrative support, with the final degree awarded by Pitzer College.
The Inside Out model has been wildly popular for years, as Pitzer students worked alongside incarcerated students earning their AA degrees. “There’s an intensity to them that is phenomenal.”
“These are the best classes we have,” said Nigel Boyle, Professor of Political Studies and Interim Dean of Faculty and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Pitzer.”
“Pitzer College has given us a voice both academically and socially to allow us to change the lenses through which we are viewed and how we think about ourselves,” shared incarcerated student Jeremy Manning.
While “Inside-Out” was built for face-to-face instruction, the current pandemic required the use of innovation, in particular a specially equipped classroom that digitally and securely connects students and instructors. While the traditional Pitzer students were able to transition to online learning, the students at CRC moved to correspondence while a solution was worked out.
Finding solutions during the pandemic
Working together, the Office of Correctional Education (OCE), Enterprise Information Systems (EIS), the colleges and CRC were able to establish a secure classroom inside the prison where students use Pitzer-provided laptops to access videoconferencing software. The students are monitored at all times, and are only able to access course content.
The virtually supported program empowers Pitzer faculty to conduct an online version of Inside-Out curriculum and allows all students to benefit from the interaction between the two sets of students, as well as the professor.
“That benefits of face-to-face education can be maintained even in the face of this pandemic is a remarkable achievement made possible by the willingness of CDCR leadership to think outside the box and the collaborative support received from college community partners,” Tampkins said. “Together remarkable rehabilitative and educational goals for the incarcerated population are achieved.”
The Pitzer program was one of many reasons CRC’s Vista Del Rio Adult School was honored as the 2020 California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) 2020 Distinguished School. This award recognizes exemplary academic achievements within CDCR’s adult schools.
High standards for education
Michael Weaver, CRC Principal, observed that the bachelor’s program raises the bar for all students, as it allows one more possibility on their educational path. Through OCE, students can earn their high school diploma, community college degree, and now move on to a bachelor’s, all taught in-person (when there’s not a global pandemic).
“My philosophy is that the best way to rehabilitate is to let people know there are alternatives to the lifestyles they’ve lived,” Weaver said. “It increases hope, it increases their whole life focus. They see there are other ways to live and more opportunities than they ever dreamed were possible.”
“This unique, real college experience allows us to engage in thought-provoking and extremely rewarding elements that help us grow both personally and intellectually,” said incarcerated student Ron Britt.
It’s not just the students who are impacted. Boyle pointed out that when he began teaching Inside Out courses in 2013, he noticed other faculty who came on board experienced a revived passion for teaching. As word of mouth spread, more faculty came on board and more students became involved, inspiring the push to begin the bachelors’ program.
“One student completed eight associate degrees inside,” Boyle said. “He’s beside himself to be able to take it to the next level and do a bachelor’s degree. The pent-up demand for this is pretty staggering.”
Program benefits students inside and out
Pitzer pays the tuition for the incarcerated students, citing the benefit to both traditional and incarcerated students as well worth the expense.
Tyee Griffith, Founding Manager of the Justice Education Initiative at Pitzer, has been instrumental in working with the institution, EIS, faculty, outside students and inside students to ensure the program is running smoothly. It’s a huge job, but for her it was all worth it to see all the students reunite via video for their first virtual class after working via correspondence since the beginning of the pandemic.
“It was so amazing to reconnect with the students, because we hadn’t seen them since March,” she said. “It creates a more powerful connection when folks see each other.”
“Correctional Education is transformative,” remarked OCE Superintendent Shannon Swain. “In addition to the growth in critical thinking skills, the improved self-concept, and the enhanced future career opportunities, higher education helps change the culture inside the prisons, making it cool to go to school. Education is truly a gift that, once earned, can never be taken away.”