Can California’s colleges help reintegrate former prisoners?

Illustration of a person holding up a diploma, while the handcuffs around their wrists break
Aishwarya Jayadeep/Senior Staff

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Since March, the population in California’s prison system has shrunk by more than 22,000 inmates, returning to levels not seen since 1992. Those individuals who have recently left prison have come home to unprecedented challenges created by a global health crisis, major economic downturn and social services stretched thin.

Even in normal times, people returning home from prison face multiple challenges: residential instability, a parole system that can seem to prioritize surveillance and punishment over reintegration, stigma against those with criminal records in housing and labor markets and mental health and substance abuse issues.

California can do more to reintegrate formerly incarcerated people into society. Our recently published book, After Prison, Navigating Adulthood in the Shadow of the Justice System, suggests that higher education can improve the chances of formerly incarcerated individuals by focusing on 1,300 young men returning home from prison in Michigan. Much to our surprise, our research found that more than one-quarter of the young men we studied enrolled in college sometime after leaving prison.

While it is widely known that education improves employment prospects, college attendance also provides social, cultural and public safety benefits. Among the young men we studied, colleges were one of the only supportive institutions they encountered after prison. Attending college provides not only intellectual development but also opportunities to establish pro-social peer groups, new social identities and a sense of belonging and purpose. Engaging with educational institutions can also reduce the likelihood of recidivism, or the chance a person will be rearrested, reconvicted or reimprisoned.

Colleges also benefit from accepting formerly incarcerated students. At UC Berkeley, members of the Berkeley Underground Scholars, an organization of students who have been incarcerated or otherwise impacted by the justice system, have excelled in academics, leadership and public service as they work to improve college access and campus life for first-generation students and students of color. Across California, more and more universities are launching Underground Scholars and similar programs, such as Project Rebound, to support formerly incarcerated students.

The transition from prison to college, however, comes with many challenges. Most of the men we studied in Michigan struggled for years to establish themselves in the labor market before starting college. And even once they enrolled, few stayed in school long enough to earn a degree. There are multiple ways that California colleges can improve the chances of formerly incarcerated students succeeding in school.

Like low-income and first-generation students, formerly incarcerated students are more likely to need support services such as academic counseling to help them plan their academic careers, succeed in class and connect to extracurricular activities and support. Work-study opportunities and campus housing, which are sometimes denied to those with criminal records, can create economic stability that promotes academic success.

According to our research, most formerly incarcerated students enroll in community colleges rather than in four-year universities. Ongoing research from the Public Policy Institute of California shows how to help more students from marginalized groups earn credentials and degrees. Faced with the challenges of poverty and the need to support families, formerly incarcerated students would benefit from opportunities to develop industry-specific skills while working in career-building jobs.

By building job skills into credit-bearing courses, providing apprenticeship programs, creating paid internships to “earn and learn” and offering well-defined, stackable curricula that lead first to certifications and then to degrees, community colleges can create pathways from prison to the middle class.

Ensuring that extremely low-income students such as the formerly incarcerated have the support they need outside the classroom is critical. We found that 41% of the young men we studied were parents. In California, formerly incarcerated parents can receive cash assistance and other support through CalWORKs while they attend college. But that assistance may not be enough to enable them to succeed: less than one in four CalWORKs students completes a degree. Community colleges that augment supplemental service offerings, such as child care, transportation and counseling, see greater success among their low-income student parents.

Building a robust “prison-to-college” pipeline that begins during incarceration and continues post-release would improve access to college for formerly incarcerated Californians. Before the pandemic, community colleges across California provided face-to-face instruction in the state’s prisons. In 2017, approximately 7,000 inmates, about 6% of the average daily population, took advantage of college offerings.

Although California is a national leader in providing higher education in prisons, there is room for improvement. The state should help proliferate individual colleges’ successful models. Prison housing policies can enable prisoners to stay enrolled at the same college while they are incarcerated and continue at that school after they are released. Creating continuity of support and education would also ease the transition out of prison, improve the likelihood that formerly incarcerated individuals earn degrees and help address labor shortages in areas of the state where many prisons and community colleges are located.

After release, parole officials should support college attendance by treating school like employment for the purposes of compliance with parole requirements. People on parole who complete certificates or degrees should be rewarded with less onerous supervision requirements and shorter periods of parole.

California’s community college and university systems are some of its greatest achievements and most important social, cultural and economic resources. With greater investments in policies that have been proven to improve educational opportunities, the state can leverage those resources to improve the reintegration of the thousands of individuals coming home from prison today.

Heather M. Harris is a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. David J. Harding is a professor of sociology at UC Berkeley