Things That Matter

Inmates Graduate College At First-Ever Ceremony Inside A California Prison

Graduating from college is hard enough. Now, imagine having to study and complete assignments and maintain the motivation while you’re serving out a sentence inside a state penitentiary.

Well, that’s exactly what a group of California state prison inmates just accomplished after graduating from a special Cal State LA program with their Bachelor’s degrees.

A group of inmates just made history after being part of first-ever graduation ceremony inside a state prison.

Earlier this week, the California State Prison in Los Angeles County hosted a graduation ceremony for 25 incarcerated students. The students graduated with their Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications Studies through an educational partnership with California State University, Los Angeles (Cal State LA). The ceremony marked the first time that a state prison in California hosted a college graduation.

“Obtaining a higher education in a prison setting through a partner like Cal State LA is an opportunity for incarcerated people to have a true second chance. There is no resource more powerful than an education, where people can gain new skills and learn new perspectives,” said Secretary Kathleen Allison, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

One of the graduates, Jason Keaton, spoke to ABC7 LA, saying he couldn’t believe he had just become a college graduate, and shared his plans for the future.

“It’s upon me to get myself together and then go back to the community that I helped tear down, and help build that community up,” Keaton said.

“I can’t change what happened in the past, but all I can do is change what I’m doing now,” another inmate and now graduate Dara Win told ABC7 LA.

California prisons have long offered a path to education for inmates but this program with Cal State LA is new.

The California Department of Corrections has long had correspondence programs that allowed inmates to earn associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, the Los Angeles County facility is the first in the state to offer face-to-face learning from a California State University campus.

According to department data from fiscal year 2018-19, people who earn some type of academic achievement while incarcerated are nearly 40 percent less likely to recidivate than those with no academic completions.

“Cal State LA is proud of the graduates in our prison education program,” Jose A. Gomez, Cal State LA’s provost and executive vice president, told ABC7 LA. “They have demonstrated the power of education to transform lives.”

“College is much less expensive than incarceration, and recidivism rates for students who have taken college classes are vastly lower than for those who have not,” according to Shannon Swain, superintendent of CDCR’s Office of Correctional Education. “Correctional education helps create safer neighborhoods with less crime, helps create citizens who work and pay taxes and contribute to their communities, and has a multi-generational positive impact.”

Other states are also experimenting with education as a way to reduce recidivism among inmates.

A fitness studio in Ohio has been working with incarcerated women to provide them with personal trainer qualifications that allow them to get living-wage jobs. Far too often, women leaving the justice system are forced to work several jobs, often low-paying ones that increase the chance of recidivism.

Rocquel (Rokki) Bonner, the co-founder of Fit to Navigate, says that fitness helped save her life and is working to share that experience with others. Bonner overcame mental health and auto-immune problems with fitness and has been connecting imprisoned women to the fitness industry since 2017. Bonner says there’s been zero recidivism in the women who’ve gone through the Fit to Navigate program.

“So you think about fitness as being away, an outlet, to move thoughts through your body,” Bonner explained to NBC4 News. “To also get clarity in yourself. To release some things in a non-violent or non-numbing way.”

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