Event salutes Pelican Bay prison college efforts

Rising Scholars prison college program celebrates success

The head of California’s Community College system and officials at Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP) held a joint virtual webinar Feb. 5 to recognize the institution’s Rising Scholars program and Project Rebound. Hundreds attended the virtual event including faculty members, corrections officials, students and media representatives.

Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley, of the California Community Colleges, singled out PBSP Jim Robertson and Principal Joe Cummings for PBSP’s successful Rising Scholar Network.

Oakley thanked both for working with the program and making it possible for students to participate.

What is Rising Scholar?

Rising Scholar is a network of California Community Colleges. They commit to serving current and formerly incarcerated students by offering degree programs in correctional facilities and on-campus support for students who have experienced the criminal justice system. The community college network builds strong pathways from incarceration to higher education.

PBSP has 400 active participants in the Rising Scholars program.

“Project Rebound supports incarcerated and previously incarcerated individuals in higher education and successful reintegration, with a hands-on approach. Likewise, the Rising Scholars network comprises community colleges who serve system-impacted students, by way of providing support indirectly to our incarcerated students and directly to the college itself,” said Tory Eagles, Pelican Bay Scholars Program coordinator.

Principal Cummings said he was pleased with the event.

“The availability of college, and especially on-site classes, has greatly improved the atmosphere and given those residing in the state prison system an opportunity for a much better life when their status changes to formerly incarcerated,” he said. “Events such as these demonstrate that past reputation does not have to be the reality for those who are incarcerated, as well as the prisons housing those individuals. Pelican Bay works very hard to be innovative and foster an environment emphasizing support of these positive programs.”

College participants: Prison education is vital

Thabiti Wilson, a student at the College of the Redwoods, participated in the event at Pelican Bay prison. He said he was “appreciative to be able to use his voice.”

He credits the Rising Scholars program for helping mend racial division in prisons.

“Education is essential for our rehabilitation. The communities that we come from deserve for us to come back and give to the communities that we took from,” Wilson said.

There were two other currently or formally incarcerated participants on the webinar.

The participants also said education will reduce recidivism.

“Having education and the skills and resources to utilize them post-incarceration is a goal that our criminal justice system should be working towards. The rewards will be invaluable,” one of the participants said.

‘Education creates opportunities’

Reginald Dwayne Betts, formerly incarcerated in Virginia, was a guest speaker during the webinar. Betts shared that upon release from prison he went to community college and earned his associate’s degree. He said he attempted to get into Maryland University but had no understanding of the process.

While speaking with admissions at Maryland he was educated on the community college system and proceeded to achieve his two-year degree.

Two years later he was offered a scholarship at Howard University, however during the admittance process he disclosed he was formerly incarcerated and was declined entry.

Subsequently, The University of Maryland offered him a scholarship and he completed his education there.

Betts, is now a scholar, poet, and author – as well as a graduate from Yale Law School.

“Education creates opportunities for other stories in life,” Betts told the group. “The Rising Scholars program makes it possible for former and current incarcerated people to achieve their degree and continue their education. “

(Note: Video may not play on a CDCR computer.) To view the Voices of Freedom webinar, visit:

By Lt. Kenny Price, AA/PIO

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