Photo: Megan Burks for KPBS
The Michelson 20MM Smart Justice Initiative (SJI) launched in 2019 to support individuals and communities impacted by our country’s punitive legal system forge brighter, more prosperous futures. The initiative leverages higher education as a catalytic force for transforming the lives of system impacted individuals and works to advance higher education in prison programming.
According to the Public Policy Institute of California, approximately 115,000 individuals are incarcerated in prisons across the state. An estimated 95 percent will eventually be released, making it critical that educational programs exist inside our prisons, as such programs have been shown to go a long way in ensuring better outcomes for returning citizens and our communities. RAND estimates that every $1 invested in prison education generates $4 in economic return, which makes education not only a cheaper alternative to prison, but also enhances public safety since prisoners who receive a college education are half as likely to recidivate as those who do not. Most importantly, we’ve seen first-hand the personal transformation of incarcerated participants time after time as a result of higher education programming. Despite all this, there is but one Bachelor’s program offered by a single California’s public university in our Cal State University system and none in our University of California (UC) system. But that may soon change.
We are excited to announce a Michelson Spark Grant has been awarded to the University of California, Irvine (UCI) as part of our Smart Justice funding round. UCI will establish the first UC bachelor’s degree-granting program in a California state prison. The project will provide an innovative pathway to higher education for justice-involved students. By 2022, working in partnership with Southwestern College, a First Chance Pell Site already offering an associate’s degree in Sociology to students incarcerated at Richard J. Donovan Prison (RJD), UCI plans to matriculate 20-25 students into UCI’s Department of Sociology.
The outcomes of this work will stretch far beyond the initial student cohort. The project is highly replicable, designed to grow in reach and impact over time, catalyzing other successful partnerships between community colleges, prisons, and University of California campuses to successfully provide bachelors degrees and high quality higher education for individuals incarcerated throughout the Golden State. The pathway UCI is building for people in California prisons to earn a UC BA will be a proverbial “first,” utilizing existing protocols guaranteeing transfer into the UC from community colleges. Not only are they building an infrastructure replicable across the UCs, but they are conceptualizing the program as an engine of discovery, generating knowledge to support better prison higher education programs in California and elsewhere. Our hope is that the learnings of this work will help seed similar programs throughout the state and beyond.
The evidence is clear that extending higher education to people who are currently or formerly incarcerated benefits individuals, families, communities, and society. For individuals, completion of a B.A. degree is a proven and effective step to successful reentry from prison to community, ultimately enabling formerly incarcerated individuals to support themselves and their families. As California continues to lead the nation in reforming its sentencing laws to shorten terms of incarceration, the public safety benefits of prison education, especially the impressive evidence that higher education cuts recidivism rates in half, is increasingly relevant to communities across the state. Finally, society benefits as the overall cost of incarceration falls, the tax-base of the state increases, crime rates decrease, and higher education benefits the upward economic mobility of more Californians.
“Investing in UCI to establish the first UC Bachelor degree program will help unlock the brilliance and genius of individuals behind bars.” says Dr. Gary K. Michelson, Founder of Michelson 20MM. “These investments embody the ethos of our work— innovative, catalytic, and transformational. We hope it will spark additional systemwide programs to ensure students in our prisons achieve their highest academic potential.”
It is our privilege and pleasure to partner with UCI in support of this innovative initiative. We hope it will spark similar UC bachelor’s degree programs in prison settings all across the state, as providing such educational pathways benefits all of society.
The Michelson 20MM Foundation was founded thanks to the generous support of renowned spinal surgeon and inventor Dr. Gary K. Michelson and his wife, Alya Michelson. Michelson 20MM is dedicated to supporting and investing in leading organizations, technologies, and initiatives that seek to transform learning and improve access to educational opportunities that lead to a meaningful career.
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