The proud walk from a prison block to the Cal State L.A. graduation stage

By Jose A. Gomez, Special to CalMatters

When the four classmates cross the stage at Cal State LA’s commencement ceremonies in May, shake hands with the university president and bask in the audience’s cheers, they will join 7,000 other new graduates who will have achieved their dream of earning college degrees.

As the four students savor the formal recognition of their bachelor’s degrees in communication studies, they will constitute a most unusual — and inspiring — group among those thousands of new grads:

The men became classmates at Lancaster State Prison, 70 miles north of Cal State LA.

They are the products of the only program in California that enables incarcerated students to study for their bachelor’s degrees, working face to face with university professors. 

These first graduates won’t be the last. Six other students from the Prison B.A. Graduation Initiative will be arriving at Cal State LA in the next 10 months to complete the studies that they have begun in prison.  

And a proposal in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s 2020-21 budget request promises to expand such ranks dramatically by enabling the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to partner with the California State University to establish bachelor’s degree programs at several state prisons. 

The governor’s proposal calls for $1.7 million in 2020-21 and $3.5 million annually after that for tuition, books, materials, training and equipment. It is a modest item in the $222 billion budget, easy to overlook. 

But it is a promising plank among varied efforts to create what Gov. Newsom terms “a more effective, rational and equitable criminal justice system,” along with programs to increase inmate literacy and prepare parolees to reenter the workforce, among others.

Like the four-year-old Cal State LA B.A. program, these efforts come against a backdrop of increased societal focus on rehabilitation as an essential element of prison reform.  

California voters have shown overwhelming support for providing rehabilitation services and increasing parole opportunities. As thousands of inmates begin to be released, many after spending much of their adult lives in prison, we must find creative, effective ways to help them return successfully to our communities.

Studies have shown that in-prison education can reduce rates of recidivism. A 2013 analysis by RAND Corp., drawing on 50-plus empirical research studies, calculated that parolees who had taken part in prison educational programs of any kind were as much as 43% less likely to return to prison for new offenses.

A 2019 report from the Vera Institute of Justice found that restoring the eligibility of incarcerated students to apply for federal Pell Grants to pursue degrees would decrease recidivism and the costs of reincarceration. California alone, the researchers say, could save nearly $70 million a year.

The Cal State LA B.A. program represents one approach that has already delivered results. 

The university, working with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, has enrolled nearly four dozen incarcerated students who had earned their associate degrees in prison but previously could go no further.

The program has changed life inside Lancaster for participants, and helped them connect with the wider university. In personal notes to program administrators and comments with others, students have opened up about their experiences.

“Because of Cal State LA,” one said, “we are no longer consumed by war stories of past wounds. We are not reminiscing on where we have been but talking about where we are going.”

Another said: “The program has enabled me to change and grow in ways that society has not. I am motivated every day for what I am going to learn.”

And a third said: “As if developing bonds with professors and each person in my cohort was not enough, I truly feel a connection to the Cal State LA student body as a whole.” 

The students in Lancaster are motivated. Five have received commutations of their sentences, and others will have their final parole hearings soon, in part because of their enrollment in the B.A. program.

Brantley Choate, director for the Division of Rehabilitative Programs in the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, has been central to building the Cal State LA program. 

He has described the initiative as “the crown jewel of all of our programs,” adding: “It is this elite program that programs everywhere should aspire to.” 

We at Cal State LA urge state legislators to take up the challenge presented by Gov. Newsom’s proposal for new bachelor’s degree programs in state prisons, and add their support as the budget moves toward final approval. 

Only with such forward-looking approaches can California continue to lead the way on prison reform and make a meaningful, measurable difference for the incarcerated and our communities.


Jose A. Gomez is executive vice president and provost at Cal State LA, [email protected] He wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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