​When the late San Francisco State Professor Dr. John Irwin, an ex-convict, founded Project Rebound nearly a half century ago, he had no idea that his vision for post-prison education would be a nationwide success. At that time, most criminals did their time, were released back on the streets and ended up behind bars faster than you could say "guilty as charged".

Irwin, who served five years at Soledad State Prison for armed robbery and was released in 1957, decided then and there he wanted no part of that vicious crime cycle. Instead, he channeled all of his time and passion into prison and prisoner reform. By the time he died in 2010, he had authored six highly regarded books on criminal justice and continued to marvel at how his original reform movement mushroomed into what it is today.

During high school in the San Fernando Valley, Irwin skipped a lot of classes and slipped into a life of crime. Upon his release from prison, however, he applied to San Francisco State but made the mistake of revealing that he was an ex-con on parole.

"They made quite a fuss," he recalled. "They didn't have a policy and didn't know what to do with me. They set up a committee and admitted me." After he went off parole, he went to UCLA and finished his undergraduate degree, displaying a discipline and appetite for knowledge that would mold his career in academia. He earned his doctorate at UC Berkeley with his thesis topic, "The Felon." In 1969, as a tenured professor, his program to get prisoners into schools was accepted and Project Rebound was born.

As of today, a total of seven CSU campuses -- Sacramento, San Bernardino, Fresno, Bakersfield, Fullerton, San Diego and Pomona -- are enrolling former convicted felons into the program, allowing them to obtain GEDs, earn advanced academic degrees and become valuable members of society.

The program's expansion is due in large part to a new three-year, half-million dollar "Renewing Opportunities" grant from The Opportunity Institute.

"It's incredibly difficult to get from prison to college," says Mary Maguire, who chairs the Division of Criminal Justice at Sacramento State and directs the campus' Project Rebound program. "If previously incarcerated people get themselves successfully admitted to the university, it means they are ready for college and really want their degree."

According to Dr. Emma Hughes, acting chair of the Department of Criminology at Fresno State, "Accepted students will be enveloped within a support network, with strong connections to student success services, peer mentors, advising services and assistance with financial aid." Support in the form of textbook stipends, transportation and meal vouchers and assistance with housing, employment and legal aid is also available.

Overseeing the program at Cal State Fullerton is Brady Heiner, assistant professor of philosophy. He added that the campus' pilot program will be staffed by formerly incarcerated individuals who have achieved academic success.

Hoping to become one of those success stories is Jorge Mota, a student of psychology at San Francisco State. After serving 17 years in prison for a drug-related attempted murder charge, he learned of Project Rebound from other inmates. Rebound staff helped him earn his associate of arts degree through correspondence courses, apply to San Francisco State and request financial aid.

"They kept telling me, 'Hang in there," he says. "It kept me going, knowing I could get my degree."

For Leo Vasquez, former Project Rebound director at San Francisco State, the road from jail to prison reform advocacy is similar to Irwin's.

He spent seven years behind bars on drug and battery charges. He suffered from depression and nearly killed himself. "I was out of control for 10 years," he said. "All I knew was the Army to Sixteenth Street in the Mission District of San Francisco where I grew up. A pretty small universe."

Now, when Vasquez enters a California correctional facility, he is an ambassador for higher education and a role model for rehabilitation. "When I go into the joint, they don't think I know what they feel, but I do know," he said. "I was afraid of change. We're all afraid of change. In prison, you get used to 'three hots and a cot.' But I tell them about my life, and what school has done for me." Today he is a career prison pre-release counselor, the chief executive officer of his firm, Ready4Change, and holds a bachelor's degree in social work.

Like him, many of the former Project Rebound students have gone on to have productive careers as writers, counselors, teachers and even college professors.

Despite the challenges they face, these students are studying in all fields, including highly competitive majors such as nursing, engineering, law and business management. Many are now running their own businesses as entrepreneurs.

As former SFSU criminal justice lecturer Dennis Bianchi once said: "There is little, if any, rehabilitation available for the thousands of prisoners in California. Just because someone's locked up, they shouldn't be written off. We owe it to ourselves to reclaim some of these lives."