Colleges and universities have a long history of partnering with prisons to provide postsecondary education programs for inmates. Research shows that prison programs are highly significant in producing positive outcomes post-incarceration. One study shows that recidivism rates are reduced by a staggering 43% for those prisoners who participate in prison education programs. The recidivism rate is only 14% for those who receive an associate’s degree, 5.6% for those who obtain a bachelor’s degree, and 0% for those who obtain a master’s degree. Formerly incarcerated individuals who participate in postsecondary education programs also are more likely to find employment after release.

As you can see, this is a public health and safety issue.

I still remember receiving a call from the president of the Accrediting Commission for Junior and Community Colleges president asking me if I would be interested in leading the accreditation team for the Prison University Project in San Quentin State Prison. First I was surprised about the request, and then I was excited about the opportunity to learn about this college program.

During a visit to the San Quentin State Prison, I met individual students who were from the neighborhood where I grew up. People from our community. They were surprised to see a young Black male (at least at that time, I felt young) as a community college president. And I didn’t take that lightly. Hearing those students talk about their higher education experiences while incarcerated was incredibly inspirational and motivational. And then, it made me wonder.

What kind of support is in place to help them in their higher education journeys during incarceration? Can an inmate in postsecondary education access a tutor? Can he or she talk to a mental health practitioner? Do they have access to career guidance professionals? And so forth. I believe that they deserve the same opportunities that other college students receive, ensuring that they can be successful as they pursue a higher education and reap the rewards of their hard work and determination.

When I got back from my visit, I had some reflection to do. What could we do better at Compton College to support formerly incarcerated students? For one, we could improve the programs and services we provide to students in our Rising Scholars – Formerly Incarcerated Students in Transition. When formerly incarcerated students are released, I want to make sure we can truly support them when they’re on our campus (More thoughts on this tomorrow, in my next thought). The Prison University Project is now under the operations of Mount Tamalpais College, and it is an example of how programs can be offered at prisons to serve students.

Prison education programs continue to be a benefit to the incarcerated as well as the nation’s workforce, encouraging policymakers to support access to these programs. Most recently, the FAFSA Simplification Act reinstated Pell eligibility for incarcerated students. Not only do prison education programs have political backing, but they also have increasing support from institutions, not just community colleges.

More colleges and universities are beginning partnerships with prisons to provide postsecondary education to the incarcerated or expanding existing programs. For example, now the San Quentin State Prison in California has developed strong partnerships with postsecondary institutions over the years. Recently, the California State University has set a precedent by offering guaranteed transfer admission in collaboration with Mount Tamalpais College. Students who complete their associate degree at Mount Tamalpais will receive priority admission at any of the California State University (CSU) campuses. Mount Tamalpais College has served incarcerated students in San Quentin for 25 years and is the first institution operating its main campus in a state prison to become accredited. It is the hope that policymakers, institutions like CSU and Mount Tamalpais College, and society continue to support and push for greater access to prison education programs for the benefit of all.

As we begin the 2024 year, I encourage colleges and universities to seek partnership opportunities with prisons to support their students. All students deserve the opportunity to be a success story, no matter their past or present situation.