Pursuing a Bachelor’s Behind Bars

Students become higher-education advocates in Cal State LA’s Prison BA Program.

 

“The power of prison education is about hope. When our students take these classes, they are transformed."

​ — Taffany Lim, senior director of the Center for Engagement, Service, and the Public Good at Cal State LA


It's 1 o'clock on a Friday afternoon in November 2019, and students are starting to file into their health communications class. Some arrived early and are typing away at computers while others chat with the professor at his desk. This seemingly ordinary scenario wouldn't stand out from any other university across America, if it weren't for the fact that the site is housed at Lancaster State Prison.

“In 2016, the Department of Communication Studies at California State University, Los Angeles became the first department in California to hold classes inside a maximum-security prison facility, offering incarcerated students the opportunity to achieve a bachelor's degree in communication," says Taffany Lim, senior director of the Center for Engagement, Service, and the Public Good.

The program emerged from simple beginnings: Cal State LA English Professor Bidhan Chandra Roy, Ph.D., started volunteering at the prison in 2013, teaching writing and English among the chin-up bars in the yard. As he formed relationships with the men over time, Dr. Roy learned that a number of them had earned associate degrees via correspondence courses, but they were eager for the next educational step.

Cal State LA English Professor Bidhan Chandra Roy, Ph.D. talks with a student at Lancaster Prison. Photo: Emilio Flores

“I was struck by the desire of the men to learn and their thirst for meaningful intellectual engagement with someone from outside the walls," ​Roy says. “There was a palpable desire for a critical awareness of their context and a reminder that education only needs a desire to learn and an object of study. All the classrooms, degrees and institutions of education mean nothing without this desire to learn and be open to the transformation that new ideas can bring."

Three years later, Cal State LA welcomed its first and second cohorts (consisting of 42 students total) to the university's bachelor's degree program in communication, which offers two courses a semester. “It's the same classes taught by the same instructors we offer on the main campus," Lim explains. “We offer the same high quality and set the same expectations—if not higher. It's helped them to improve their communication with cellmates and people on their yard. Now they're better able to understand those dynamics and interactions. It's also helped improve communication with their families."

The endeavor took the diligent efforts of a team led by Cal State LA President William Covino, Executive Vice President Jose Gomez and Anti-Recidivism Coalition founder Scott Budnick. “The program really speaks to the leadership of Cal State LA," Lim says. “They embraced it and felt it's part of our mission to serve these students."

CONVERTING TRAUMA

In today's class, Kamran Afary, Cal State LA assistant professor, Intersectional Identities and Relationships, is having students take part in narradrama. Traumatic situations from their pasts are acted out, then re-enacted with a healthier outcome. Jimmie Gilmer, 52, walks to the front of the room with a classmate. Together, they perform a brief skit in which a young, dyslexic Gilmer is driving in a car with his father. Filled with shame, the child is unable to read a stop sign, which prompts his father to utter, "I always knew you were stupid." Act two involves the duo pulling up to the same stop sign, but when Gilmer has trouble reading it, his dad says, "You know what? I got all day. Let's work on it together."

"I use an approach called narradrama to deepen book learning," says Kamran Afary, Cal State LA assistant professor. "It helps students see themselves and relate to each other as artists and scholars and creates a deep bonding and camaraderie among the cohort."   

“This approach helps students become deeply invested in the process of learning," says Afary, who has driven 75 miles to the prison each way once a week for the past three years. “It releases vast creative energies and helps them process traumatic oppressive problem-saturated narratives." (Due to the pandemic, Afary currently teaches through correspondence and prerecorded weekly video lectures.)


“Having educational programs can both transform the conditions inside the prison and serve as a bridge to transition to the outside world after release."

 Kamran Afary, Cal State LA assistant professor, Intersectional Identities and Relationships 


That bond is palpable to onlookers, as those in the audience listen attentively and vocally support one another. At one point, the entire cohort stands and forms a group hug around a student who has broken down crying.

“Having a vibrant, properly funded and staffed educational facility can do wonders for prisoners who are locked up in tiny cells most of the time," Afary says. “It transforms the space from one of punishment and constant regurgitating of shame into one of growth and rehabilitation. These are men who have long made their amends for past wrongs but are caught in a system that can be very unforgiving."

Taffany Lim, senior director of Cal State LA's Center for Engagement, Service, and the Public Good, speaks to the class at Lancaster Prison.

THE RIPPLE EFFECT

The program is not just an outlet for incarcerated people. One of the service learning options coordinated by Roy at Cal State LA is an anonymous pen pal program between main-campus students and those at Lancaster State Prison. The two groups are assigned concurrent projects, such as reading the same books and analyzing the same texts.

“They exchange their ideas about what they're reading and how it applies to their own lives," Lim says. “Students share in very profound ways. It changes their understanding of who an incarcerated individual might be and deepens their understanding that people aren't born bad and people can rise above their worst mistakes. They develop a deeper empathy and understand the role trauma or institutional racism plays in incarceration."

Lancaster Prison student Allen Burnett shows off a poem he had published.

There are also a number of on-campus students whose lives have been affected by the prison system. This experience has helped them resolve some of their own pain.

Additionally, animation students at Cal State LA have collaborated with students at Lancaster State Prison on a series of documentaries that feature the latter's writing and narration. The shorts depict life in the prison system.

“I love to see the students from Lancaster arrive on our campus and finish their degree with us," says David Olsen, chair of the Department of Communication Studies. “They bring a perspective to our L.A. campus students that is enriching and rewarding for all involved."


“[Incarcerated people] who participate in correctional education programs had a 43 percent lower odds of recidivating than those who did not. This translates to a reduction in the risk of recidivating of 13 percentage points. It may improve their chances of obtaining employment after release."

 RAND Corporation


Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Lancaster State Prison's first university cohort was scheduled to graduate in summer 2020. They are now on track to finish their capstones at the end of this calendar year.

“Some of these guys may never get out of prison," Lim says. “It's still a worthy investment because they've become huge advocates for education. Now their friends and family—oftentimes individuals who never saw college education for themselves—are pursuing higher education. They're mentors to people in the yard. They're like, 'Hey, don't make the same mistake I did. Go to school, find education, transform your life. Make a difference.'"

Allen Burnett, left, and Thomas Wheelock work on projects before the start of class.
 
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James Cain, 54
“I had no idea what getting my bachelor's entailed. It helped me to grow and enabled me to mature. In the free world, I only had a high school education. It's given me a perspective of the world I hadn't considered. It's made me an empathetic and caring person. I love it. It changed me. I've watched men transform around me—from convicts to scholars. I understand people now and care about them. I know it will carry over into life and make me a productive member of society."

 
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Jesse Crespin, 39
“I dropped out in 11th grade. I got my GED and AA here. When my mother passed away, I reflected and wanted to make my family proud of me. There's a misconception that we have a lot of time, but we're busy all the time. Research is the biggest hurdle because we don't have the same access for our papers. Our professors are so effective. They come in here and speak to us in a way we're not used to—like we're regular students. They've become my role models on how to be prosocial. I think, How would they approach this situation?"

 
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Terry Evans, 61
“I have a bachelor's in social sciences from San José State. I've seen these men grow and become proficient. There was a lot of nervousness at first for them. I'm used to technical writing, so I was a little rebellious at first about communications. Now I appreciate it because I can write holistically. I've been a tutor for 25 years. The majority of people are in here because they are functionally illiterate. They were told they were dumb, so they were afraid to learn. Once they develop confidence and realize they can do the work, they change themselves and transform. They become a better person. Education is the key."

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Jimmie Gilmer, 52
“In high school, I was a football star, but I got hurt. I always wanted to go to college. I couldn't let this opportunity pass me by. Education has become the priority of my life. The professors learn from you and you learn from other students. Ideas bounce off each other. You share knowledge. The professors are the most intelligent people I've come across. They make learning easy. I never thought I'd earn my bachelor's. It's a blessing. We're the first ones to do this so we can't fail. It's a legacy and we all help each other to make it across the line."

 
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James Heard, 42
“I want to finish my education and be a model for my two daughters. I get up at three or four in the morning to get ready for my job. Then I have my college courses, I volunteer for Convicts Reaching Out to People and I crochet beanies for Children's Hospital and battered women's shelters. I go to bed at seven or eight at night. I was surprised by the reception of the instructors. They didn't have any preconceived notions of us. They're the best of the best. Graduation will be bittersweet because I will miss the classes. I want to pursue a master's in public policy."

 
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Stephen Houston, 65
“This was an opportunity to better myself. The camaraderie within the cohort is an overwhelming experience. I received my AA in 2009. It was a mountain I didn't know I could climb. Now I know I can write with the best of them. It's amazing what you can do when you apply yourself. I did one presentation and received a standing ovation. I know what a golden opportunity this is. You have to crawl before you can walk. I have two more classes to go before I graduate. I might even get emotional. Hard work pays off. You just have to have ability, drive and tenacity."

 
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Allen Burnett, 46 (released June 2020)
“This program has helped me to communicate with my peers and family. In prison, races segregate. That got torn down here. I inspired my daughter, and she's now attending Cal State LA. What I'm learning can be applied to real-world situations. It helps inmates when they see new guys and can communicate with them. Change is possible. I started to believe I could write. I've been published five times. I don't think the same anymore. Graduation will be bittersweet. I'm going to miss school. I'm hoping to get out and be able to graduate on campus. I'm thinking of pursuing my master's."

 
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Marvin Edward Johnson, 46
“I have a lot of defects, but I was always smart. Failing out of college gave me a lot of shame. This program has helped me deal with that shame. We all communicate, so you wouldn't think it needs to be learned, but it does. There's so much to learn. The hardest part is overcoming boundaries. There's always a rule to follow. The professors are remarkable—the nicest people you'll ever meet. They make sure we're learning. Earning my degree will be one of the most significant achievements of my entire life."

 
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Duncan Martinez, 49
“Learning new communications styles is a huge benefit. There's a change in the yard in general. Men in prison suffer from a lack of self-esteem. I was nervous I wasn't going to be good enough. I didn't think I was a good writer, but when I earned my AA, I started to have some self-esteem. It used to take me weeks to write my first draft for school. Now I can do it in two days. After a lifetime of hearing 'You're stupid,' it's hard to get over that. We feel unheard. Being in school is our chance to get someone to listen."

 
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Robert Mosley, 65
“One of my life goals was to get my bachelor's. I come from a family of educators. I see communication not only as how you express yourself but how you achieve behavioral objectives. It's changed my perspective. People think prisoners are dummies. There's a quote by Epictetus: 'We must not believe the many who say that only free people ought to be educated, but we should rather believe the philosophers who say that only the educated are free.' I'm in a hurry; I want that degree, but I want to gain more knowledge and wisdom. With this degree, I don't see myself coming back to prison."

 
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Tin Nguyen, 46 (granted sentence commutation, now in ICE custody)
“I dropped out of high school in 10th grade. My dad and brother told me I was dumb. I wanted an opportunity to prove I was not dumb. My mom was the only one who said, 'My son is smart.' I got my AA in 2009 and got a 4.0. My mom said she would take the bus to my graduation if no one drove her. It was so great to see the pride on her face. My sentence got commuted last year so I am hoping to graduate on campus. She will definitely be there. This program changed my thinking. I did a 180."

 
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Darren Robinson, 50
“This program has rounded off my edges. I always knew I lacked education. I'm the worst student here, with four Bs. When the professors walk in, we give them our full focus. We're used to being told no all the time. For the teacher to come in here and say, 'How can I help you to learn?' we go from feeling subhuman to human. They treat us like a real person and it makes me want to thrive. Being in this program has made every one of my relationships more positive because I can show them I am someone who has accomplished something instead of feeling like a failure."

 
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Jarold Walton, 46
“My mother and father didn't go to college. I wasn't able to go to college. I have three daughters and I want to be a role model. I tell them, 'If I'm in here doing it, you can do it.' This program has helped me mature. It's the courses but also the guys I'm around. I don't talk a lot, so the communications courses have forced me to come out of that. I've never read so much in my life. There's so little time to get it done. I'm proud of myself. I hope my daughters can come to my graduation."

 
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Thomas Wheelock, 42 (granted sentence commutation, awaiting parole)
“I have five AA degrees. I went from hating school to loving it. I didn't think I was good enough or smart enough. It helped to get rid of my insecurities and built up my self-esteem. When I get released next year, I'm going to pursue my master's in communications at Cal State LA, and it's all because of this program. I thought I was going to grow old and die in prison. Jerry Brown commuted my sentence. I want to expand my horizons. I want to work for prison reform and with youth. I went from a high school dropout to this."

 
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Daniel Whitlow, 39 (granted sentence commutation, awaiting parole)
“This is a dream come true for my mom. She finished her degree as an adult at CSU San Marcos. It's such an abnormal thing to be in prison. It's hard to stay motivated because there are so many distractions and it can be a negative environment, but you just have to condition your brain to do it. How I see myself has changed. I had no self-worth and a lot of self-doubt. The first time I got an A from such a prestigious university as Cal State LA, part of me started to mend. It has done wonders for my self-esteem. I now have a 3.8 GPA."

 
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Dortell Williams, 52
“I had a lot of trauma in my childhood. I was told, 'You're not worth anything.' I got my AA in prison through a correspondence course and made the dean's list. My favorite part of the program through Cal State LA is the interaction with the professors. This one time, we were learning about Venn diagrams and no matter what, I couldn't figure it out. A professor from Cal State LA explained it and I understood it in five minutes. Communication is extremely helpful for prisoners. It helps you see patterns in behavior and teaches you how to communicate and respond better to authority. It works for everyone."​