CDCR Secretary, colleges outline future

Three people on a stage speaking in front of an audience of educators.
Secretary Kathleen Allison, center, speaks to educators during the Convening of Colleges.

At the Sacramento Convening of Colleges, hosted by the California Community College Foundation, CDCR Secretary Kathleen Allison and Daisy Gonzales, the interim chancellor of the California Community Colleges system, celebrated their collaboration, outlined their vision for the future and shared the importance of higher education in their personal and professional lives.

It was a summit for two massive state agencies, representing an unprecedented higher education collaboration for the incarcerated population. Secretary Allison and Chancellor Gonzales participated in a side-by-side, keynote panel presentation before correctional educators on November 4, 2022. Together, these agencies have signed milestone agreements to create and expand in-person associate degree programs statewide.

“California is the leader in this space,” Allison said. “We are number one in providing face-to-face college courses in a correctional environment.”

A paradigm shift began in 2015 when CDCR and the community college system agreed to bring community college instructors into the institutions. This allowed more students to have more educational options beyond correspondence courses.

Since that shift, CDCR has continued to work with community colleges on creating a pathway to four-year degree programs, helping to bridge that gap and enable students to successfully transfer their credits to bachelor degrees and beyond.

More than 10,000 students are now enrolled in face-to-face and correspondence college courses at 28 institutions state-wide. Building on the innovative foundation of the community college model, CDCR has added bachelor’s degree programs at seven institutions through a nearby university or college:

  • Central California Women’s Facility and Valley State Prison collaborate with California State University (CSU), Fresno;
  • Folsom State Prison and Mule Creek State Prison team with CSU, Sacramento;
  • California State Prison, Los Angeles County, works with CSU, Los Angeles;
  • and California Rehabilitation Center has joined with Pitzer College.

In addition, this fall, Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility began its educational partnership with the University of California (UC), Irvine.

Gonzales credited correctional educators involved in this multi-system college initiative in California’s prisons with starting a “movement.”  

“You are bringing people together across segments, nowhere else is this being done,” Gonzales said.

“I’ll never forget meeting this one gentleman who told me had earned 14 AA degrees,” Allison said. “Fourteen degrees.”

Both women acknowledged the transformational nature of education. Both have seen the studies that show those with college degrees are much less likely to recidivate, and they have both witnessed the hope it provides the incarcerated population. But more than this, they have both experienced and felt in their own personal lives the cathartic power of education.

Gonzales was in foster care as a child. “I was lucky to be alive. Getting an education liberated me from pain.”

Allison said not many know she dropped out of high school at age 16 to get married. “I don’t recommend that,” she laughed.

Eventually she went back to school, getting a higher education degree as a young mother with a full time job.

While the progress they’ve made is impressive, neither leader said they want to stop.

“It’s time to scale up,” Gonzales said.

Beyond the face-to-face courses in prisons, Gonzales wants to add more programs on community college campuses for justice-impacted students.

Allison had her own vision. “I want four-year, in-person college programs at every single one of my facilities (and) laptops in every single person’s hands. I want the space and freedom to have easy access [to higher education] and none of the barriers that we currently experience.”

And she added one more item – a “big vision” idea: College courses at the institutions that can also be attended by staff.

Also during the event, Superintendent Shannon Swain and Supervisor of Correctional Education Programs Dr. Lynne Ruvalcaba presented a session on the role of technology in higher education within CDCR.

The Division of Rehabilitative Programs (DRP) is rolling out about 30,000 secure laptops to incarcerated students attending academic and rehabilitative programs, focusing first on those in face-to-face college. More laptops will be distributed to students in Adult Secondary Education next year. The computers come loaded with access to the DRP Learning Network and other approved bookmarks, giving students access to internet sites approved by instructors as appropriate for research.

In addition, DRP Director Brant Choate, Regional Associate Superintendents Rod Braly and Genevie Candelaria, and Associate Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Martin Griffin had the opportunity to participate and engage with partners from the various colleges. 

During her 35-year career, Allison said her “ah-ha” moment came watching the impact of rehabilitation programs for incarcerated people.

[When you] give someone an education, you give them skills, [and] you give them hope. After that, they are not coming back to prison,” Allison said. “That is public safety.”

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