By Chris Adams

California has the largest higher education system in the nation, with a vast collection of universities and community colleges aimed at teaching students at all levels.

It’s now marshaling those resources for the state’s prisoners and former prisoners, helping them get the kind of jobs that will help them prosper long-term.

“What’s different about California is we are trying to get our educational system to own this,” said Debbie Mukamal, executive director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center. “What we are doing here can actually be replicated in other places.”

In a session with National Press Foundation fellows, Mukamal and Rebecca Silbert discussed Corrections to College, the project they direct that has built a network of education programs and systems to get the incarcerated and the formerly incarcerated in front of the teachers.

From 2014 to 2017, the educational opportunities for that population in California has exploded. In 2014, there was one prison with face-to-face college options; in 2017, there were 34. In 2014, 10 of the state’s universities and community colleges had programs serving formerly incarcerated students; in 2017, 37 did.

But do those college offerings work? Do they teach what needs to be taught and help students advance in their lives? Some of that research is ongoing, but one study of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students from 2018 found that the students were outperforming their counterparts on campus and system wide.

“Both our incarcerated and our formerly incarcerated students are doing much better,” Mukamal said.

There are hurdles, however, and much of their work is trying to mitigate those. For example, what happens when a prisoner is moved from one facility to another mid-semester – something over which they have no control? Previously, those students would lose out on their semester; now, a new “excused withdrawal” is allowed – essentially, the same thing offered to a member of the military forced to leave mid-semester.