By Kenia Miranda Verdugo

Research has shown time and time again that higher education can lead to a better quality of life for currently and formerly incarcerated students, their families, and entire communities. Although California is one of the leading states in growing access to higher education for currently and formerly incarcerated individuals, these students still encounter many barriers in their educational pursuit including within the prison, with parole boards, as they pursue financial aid, etc. The California’s Best Practices; Pathways From Prison to College Webinar Series intends to address these barriers and provide solutions informed by our Smart Justice Think Tank.  

The second webinar of the series, which occurred on November 9, discussed the barriers that students inside prisons face and how the Best Practices can ensure that adopting institutions break them down. The webinar included two panel discussions with the following participants: 

  • Peter Fulks, Prison Faculty Lead, Cerro Coso Community College
  • Tyee Griffith, Justice Education Manager, The Claremont Colleges
  • Kevin McCarthy, Incarcerated Scholars Program Coordinator, Underground Scholars UC Berkeley
  • Matt Barnes, Scholar, College of the Redwoods Pelican Bay Scholars Program
  • Jaime Navarro, Scholar, College of the Redwoods Pelican Bay Scholars Program

During the first discussion, the panelists shared what they think makes for a good instructor teaching inside prisons. The overall consensus was that in order to create trust and rapport between the students and the faculty, the academic institution must establish a clear distinction between themselves and the carceral institution. “Bringing community into the classroom, I think is an important thing. At first it is like understanding what our relative role is within the classroom, that we’re not just another function that we may be performing the R within CDCR within our state, but we are not CDCR employees. That’s something that we’ve seen within our program that we have to actively work to encourage faculty to distinguish themselves as different from the structural system of the correctional department,” said Peter Fulks. 

Sometimes, however, the greatest barriers to helping incarcerated students are the academic institutions that ultimately want to help them. When it comes to direct access for students and getting them everything that they need, the academic institution itself is the barrier. Higher education institutions create barriers and have for hundreds of years. Although these institutions are open access, and have great intentions, some of the barriers that arise are things like random fees, transcript fees, the inability for counseling to meet with all the students, effective educational planning, BOG waiver now known as the Cal Promise waiver proceedings, and whether or not the offered degree pathways are barriers within themselves due to having different requirements at one location versus another location or within one department versus another department. 

The second panel discussion included two scholars from the College of the Redwoods Pelican Bay Scholars Program, Jaime Navarro and Matthew Barnes. We were very fortunate to learn how education has shaped their experiences inside prison, share joy in their hopes for the future, and hear their feedback on the Best Practices. 

“When I came to prison, one question that always had: Why is it that some people have better opportunities than others? I started to read, I started to question, and I started to get involved with education. It wasn’t a big thing, it was just something like reading books and having inquisitive conversations with people who probably knew a little bit more about it, could inform me better, and give me a righteous path to follow,’ Jaime shared  “So when the opportunity presented itself for me to attend college, I realized this is something I need to do, this is something that I need to actually apply myself to.”

The scholars emphasized how education has inspired them and changed their lives for the better. Although we’d love for everyone on the inside to have access to education programs, we are confronted with the issue of space. A lot of these programs have long waiting lists of folks trying to enroll in college education; however, the scholars gave us ideas of what can be done to increase access to those that are on waiting lists, such as using recreational areas as spaces for academics.  

Jaime and Matt also emphasized how students must learn patience and time management, which is something that comes with the experience of incarceration. A lot of incarcerated scholars carry trauma, PTSD, anxiety, depression, etc., and sometimes those feelings leave them feeling stuck and paralyzed. In order to be able to thrive in educational programs on the inside, it’s important to have access to mental health services, and also to have mental health technicians look at them from a holistic perspective and not just as a number. We need mental health services that are going to center the students first, particularly since Jaime and Matt highlighted how difficult it is to change from the mindset of talking to a therapist being seen as a sign of weakness—especially on the inside, it is so tough to view seeking therapy as a sign of strength and vocalize to somebody when you need help when you were never conditioned to ask for help and always conditioned to do it on your own. 

Through his educational journey, Matt realized he could be part of the solution by breaking the cycle of incarceration and changing his community. He was raised in the gang atmosphere, and knows the destruction and negativity that that lifestyle brings. Matt believes he can show the constructive and pro-social lifestyle through his testimony and poetry. He went on to underscore a vital framework to drive positive change: Those who have experienced the problem of incarceration are best situated to create the solutions. That is what the Best Practices are centered around—having those with the lived experience be at the forefront of creating the solutions. 

To continue the conversation, members in this space are invited to join our next webinar in the series on January 18, 2023, where we will discuss Best Practices for Students Transitioning From Prison to Campus

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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