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By Kenia Miranda Verdugo

Guided by the belief that higher education can lead to a better quality of life for currently and formerly incarcerated students, their families, and entire communities, the Michelson 20MM Foundation, in partnership with Root and Rebound, formed the Smart Justice Think Tank with the goal of mapping out California’s Best Practices for supporting currently and formerly incarcerated students throughout their educational journey. Building on California’s success in growing access to higher education for currently and formerly incarcerated individuals, our webinar series, which began on September 14, seeks to lay out detailed strategies to support students across three key phases:

  • Students currently incarcerated
  • Students transitioning from prison to campus
  • Students enrolled on campus who were previously incarcerated

The inaugural conversation was moderated by Michelson 20MM’s Smart Justice Fellow, Danny Murillo, who is a graduate student at California State University, Long Beach, where his research focuses on the social and cultural analysis of education in urban and international contexts. As a co-founder of the Underground Scholars Initiative at the University of California, Berkeley, Danny led monthly conversations with the coalition where the Best Practices were conceptualized, drafted, voted on, analyzed by currently incarcerated students, and ultimately brought into fruition. The webinar also included a panel discussion with the following participants: 

  • Martin Leyva, Program Coordinator at CSU San Marcos Project Rebound
  • Romarilyn Ralston, Program Director at CSU Fullerton Project Rebound
  • Gail Yen, California Policy Director at Root and Rebound
  • Azadeh Zohrabi, JD, Executive Director at UC Berkeley Underground Scholars

The Framework

The webinar is a resource for the public and stakeholders interested in the positive impacts of investing in higher education, improving on-campus support programs, and creating pathways to career opportunities. Danny initiated the conversation by stating, “The Smart Justice Think Tank has an opportunity to position postsecondary education as a best practice for investing and transforming the lives of incarcerated or partially impacted students, while also positioning higher education solutions as alternatives to address our country’s socio economic issues without the reliance of the carceral system.” 

California’s Best Practices reinforce the idea that students deserve equitable access to quality face-to-face education, as well as student support services, regardless of location. There are recommendations for postsecondary education in prison, on-campus programs, and nonprofit organizations to establish pathways from prison to college. The Best Practices focus on three critical phases of a carceral students’ experience as they are in prison, transitioning out of prison, and on postsecondary campuses. We will break down each phase with its respective best practices during its own webinar.

Why is this coalition the adequate driver for recommendations in this space?

The Smart Justice Think Tank is truly diverse, and each person brings a unique experience and perspective to approaching this work through the lens of higher education, policy, and the impact of incarceration. The group is also an intersegmental collaboration across all levels of postsecondary education. That includes faculty, students, program staff, and administrators, people who have been involved in higher education in prison, and/or formerly incarcerated people. 

The coalition intentionally set out to position postsecondary education as a solution for investing in and transforming currently and formerly incarcerated students, while also setting higher education solutions to reform our country’s punitive legal system. The purpose of the Smart Justice Think Tank is to use our collective voices and influence to spearhead public conversations that encourage higher education solutions and reduce the reliance on jails and prisons. Martin Leyva shared the following thoughts on the coalition: 

“The greatest education we have is our lived experience. The greatest education doesn’t necessarily come from a book or from a classroom, it really does come from this lived experience on how we can change policy, how we can change the outcome, and how we can create alternatives to incarceration or change the lived experiences of our people.”

The Smart Justice Think Tank embodies lived experience and brings those who have it to the forefront of driving recommendations and creating the Best Practices.

What other pathways outside of education need to be addressed?

While formerly incarcerated people know firsthand that being on parole or probation means they’re no longer behind bars, it doesn’t mean that they have the freedom to live as they please since individuals on parole are subjected to a variety of strict rules and oppressive terms and conditions. Many are accepted to educational programs outside of their county and aren’t able to attend due to the ambiguity of parole transfer. Gail Yen from Root and Rebound, in partnership with the Michelson Center of Public Policy and Underground Scholars, is working on Senate Bill 990 (Hueso), which is currently on the Governor of California’s desk awaiting a signature. 

“The bill would amend parole transfer practices to allow people on parole the option to transfer from prison directly to the county where a postsecondary educational opportunity, vocational training program, work opportunity, or housing opportunity exists or where their family is located rather than to the county of their last legal residence. And so, this way, there are more relocation options for formerly incarcerated people, which allows for parole agents to have less of a chance to deny parole transfers and kind of gives them less of that discretion.”

The bill is an attempt to break down unnecessary barriers during a student’s transition out of prison phase. The Best Practices, however, look at the whole picture, at every phase in which a student encounters barriers due to their incarceration. While we will be diving into each phase individually, we know that these Best Practices will ultimately benefit incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students in each transition phase. 

To continue the conversation, members in this space are invited to join our next webinar in the series in November, where we will discuss Best Practices for students within prison institutions. In the meantime, a recording of September’s conversation is available on YouTube and a full transcript is also available here.

Michelson 20MM is a private, nonprofit foundation seeking to accelerate progress towards a more just world through grantmaking, operating programs, and impact investing. Co-chaired and funded by Alya and Gary Michelson, Michelson 20MM is part of the Michelson Philanthropies network of foundations.

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