By Kenia Miranda Verdugo

Underground Scholars at University of California, Irvine and Project Rebound at California State University, Long Beach’s (CSULB,  Second Annual Prison to University Conference occurred from August 3rd – 4th, 2023, which The Michelson 20MM Foundation was proud to sponsor. The event brought together higher education practitioners, policy advocates, organizations serving the justice-impacted population, and students from around the state, all united by two common interests: increasing access to higher educational opportunities and removing barriers for students impacted by the carceral legal system. 

The conference consisted of two days of workshops, inspirational keynote speakers, and networking with stakeholders committed to creating a prison-to-university pipeline in California, which would provide a transformative approach to addressing the interconnected challenges of criminal justice reform and higher education accessibility. One of the keynote speakers , Dr. James Binnall, executive director of Project Rebound at CSULB and a panelist from our California’s Best Practices: Pathways From Prison to College webinar series, highlighted the importance of having those with lived experience becoming a part of the process that determines their outcomes. Dr. Binnall fought to include those with felony convictions in the jury process and continues to advocate for access to legal professions for those with prior convictions. The current prison system often perpetuates a cycle of incarceration and recidivism, leaving individuals without adequate opportunities for rehabilitation and reintegration into society. By establishing a structured pathway that guides individuals from the prison system into higher education, California can break this cycle and offer meaningful alternatives for personal growth and societal contribution. 

Workshops included how to recruit and encourage formerly incarcerated individuals to pursue higher education and one led by Michelson 20MM on SB 416, a bill co-sponsored by the Michelson Center for Public Policy that protects incarcerated students from for-profit universities. The bill was also written to emphasize the importance of education in order to reduce and ultimately cease recidivism. SB 416 was the state’s way of agreeing to further support and invest into educational programs for currently and formerly incarcerated students. The SB 416 workshop walked attendees through the entire legislative process, explained the obstacles of getting  the bill signed, and also prompted next steps to ensure that the state is adhering to the law.

Speakers highlighted how a prison-to-university pipeline would not only equip incarcerated individuals with the skills and knowledge necessary to reintegrate successfully into their communities, but also foster a sense of empowerment, purpose, and self-worth, which are essential for success. 

As an added benefit, a prison-to-university pipeline would prompt stronger collaboration amongst organizations such as Project Rebound; Underground Scholars; Rising Scholars Network; the University of California, Irvine, Leveraging Inspiring Futures Through Educational Degrees (UCI LIFTED); and others. The Prison to University Conference is the only gathering of its kind that includes stakeholders from all different California institutions in one venue, discussing similar goals and the different pathways these stakeholders take in order to move the needle forward. 

At the conclusion of the conference, we were left with a strong sense of community and are already planning next steps to build this beneficial pipeline. By having a gathering of the minds to collectively pursue these goals, we hope to accomplish them much faster. 

Michelson 20MM is a private, nonprofit foundation working toward equity for underserved and historically underrepresented communities by expanding access to educational and employment opportunities, increasing affordability of educational programs, and ensuring the necessary supports are in place for individuals to thrive. To do so, we work in the following verticals: Digital Equity, Intellectual Property, Smart Justice, Student Basic Needs, and Open Educational Resources (OER). Co-chaired and funded by Alya and Gary Michelson, Michelson 20MM is part of the Michelson Philanthropies network of foundations.

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