25 incarcerated students earn bachelor’s degrees

A man receives a degree during a ceremony.
One of 25 graduates from CSP-Los Angeles County receives a bachelor's degree from Jose A. Gomez, university provost.

Milestone in correctional education

When Jason Keaton envisions the day he will graduate from college, he thinks about the faces of his family members. Keaton said he can never forget their tears when a judge sentenced him to 21 years in prison.

“I broke their hearts into a thousand pieces that day,” Keaton said. “When I think about my graduation, I’m looking forward to seeing the look in their eyes. I’m doing something positive, despite being incarcerated.”

On Oct. 5, Keaton was among 25 incarcerated students at California State Prison, Los Angeles County (LAC) receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree from Cal State Los Angeles. The event marks a major milestone for correctional education – the first time a four-year degree is conferred to incarcerated students from a public university in California.

For incarcerated students, bachelor’s degree is life-changing

“The impact on our students is tremendous,” said Shannon Swain, superintendent of CDCR’s Office of Correctional Education. “These two large state agencies have broken down their silos to clear a pathway to a bachelor’s degree.”

Through the program, incarcerated students take one or two courses per semester toward a bachelor’s degree in communications studies, with a focus on organizational communication. Coursework equips students with critical thinking skills, writing abilities and experiences that foster personal transformations.

In July, nine graduates from the same program were able to participate in commencement ceremonies on the Cal State LA campus. All had their life sentences commuted by Gov. Jerry Brown or Gov. Gavin Newsom, or were released due to changes in the law. Five of those graduates have since been accepted to graduate school programs at Cal State LA.

“Cal State LA is proud of the graduates in our prison education program,” said Jose A. Gomez, Cal State LA’s provost and executive vice president. “They have demonstrated the power of education to transform lives.”

During her many visits to CDCR institutions, Swain said she was struck to hear from many dedicated students who had earned multiple associates degrees. It was clear CDCR needed to provide additional bachelor’s degree options to allow students to take the next step in their education.

LAC is first state prison to offer face-to-face bachelor’s program

While CDCR for years has offered correspondence bachelor’s degrees, LAC is the first prison in the state to offer a face-to-face pathway to a BA degree by one of the California State Universities.

Darren Robinson said the enthusiasm provided by classroom instructors was instrumental in his success.

“There was feedback – they helped me get a better understanding of concepts,” he said. “They bent over backwards to help.”

CDCR is now a national leader in its face-to-face college programs. The number of CDCR offenders completing college courses has climbed significantly since the implementation of face-to-face programming for community college courses in 2014. This success is highlighted in the California Community Colleges 2018 Report on Incarcerated Students.

“College is much less expensive than incarceration, and recidivism rates for students who have taken college classes are vastly lower than for those who have not,” Swain said. “Correctional Education helps create safer neighborhoods with less crime, helps create citizens who work and pay taxes and contribute to their communities, and has a multi-generational positive impact.”

Project Rebound supports students on educational journey

Students say another key component to the LAC college program is the support they receive from Cal State LA’s Project Rebound, which helps ensure the students in the program are provided assistance while incarcerated and following their release. Project Rebound offers students assistance through legal services, peer-to-peer counseling, tutoring, purchasing textbooks, mentorship, employment, housing, transportation and food vouchers. Project Rebound can now be found on nine CSU campuses, supporting incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students.

Partial funding for the BA program is provided through the federal Second Chance Pell Program. Cal State LA also received support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The Cal State LA Bachelor Degree program is one of the original 66 Experimental Second Chance Pell locations nationally. These original 66 programs have proven so successful that recent changes in federal law mean access to Pell grants for incarcerated students will be significantly expanded beginning in July 2023.

Multiple studies have shown that inmates who receive educational instruction inside a correctional environment are significantly less likely to return to prison.

Many of the graduates said when they were first incarcerated they had no idea that they could ever achieve a college degree. Jesse Crespin said his confidence and drive to achieve slowly built as he earned a GED, then an AA degree and then began the BA program. “It’s been nothing but a blessing and a big benefit to my rehabilitation,” he said of his education journey.

Program is ’emotional and powerful’

“Being able to see our students graduate and witnessing the impact their achievement has on their families is incredibly emotional and powerful,” said Taffany Lim, executive director for the Center for Engagement, Service, and the Public Good at Cal State LA. “The program really speaks to what Cal State LA and the whole CSU is all about—helping to lift up and offer social mobility to people who may not have thought it was an option for them.”

Beyond lessons in the classroom, the graduates said the degree program has caused them to rethink the way they lead their lives, as well as their future.

Graduate Bertho Gauthier discovered a skill in mathematics and has written a book on the subject. He has shared the importance of education with his 9-year-old son, who will watch him receive his diploma.

“I’ve made mistakes but I’m striving to make my life better,” Gauthier said. “The sky’s the limit.”

By Terri Hardy, Information Officer II
Office of Public and Employee Communications

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