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Cal State LA Prepares To Extend Bachelor's Program To Women In Prison

The new program at the California Institution for Women will start with approximately 30 students.
(Christopher Furlong
Getty Images)
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Six years after launching a bachelor’s program at the men’s state prison in Lancaster, Cal State L.A. is getting ready to do the same for incarcerated women. If all goes as planned, the university will offer a similar program at the California Institution for Women in Chino come fall.

The initiative is a partnership with Chaffey College, a public community college in Rancho Cucamonga that typically serves local students, along with those who live in neighboring cities like Fontana, Montclair, Ontario and Upland.

Since 2004, the college has provided those who are incarcerated at the women’s state prison with the opportunity to earn associate’s degrees through its Turning Point program. Each year, Chaffey College awards about 60 degrees to imprisoned women.

Now, students who’ve completed this coursework will get priority enrollment at the Cal State L.A. program, which is offering a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies. The program is set to provide in-person instruction for approximately 30 students.

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Taffany Lim, executive director of Cal State L.A.’s Center for Engagement, Service and the Public Good, co-founded the men’s program in Lancaster and is now spearheading efforts for incarcerated women. The interdisciplinary nature of the liberal studies major, she said, will enable the university to pull faculty from various departments, including anthropology, English and the natural sciences. Ultimately, students will be prepared for potential careers in business, education, government and law.

“But it's not about just getting a college degree,” said Lim. “It's not even about what kind of job they're going to get if they're fortunate enough to get out of prison. It's really about the transformation of the individuals and that ripple effect that they could have on their friends, their families, their children and their communities.” To that end, students who are serving life sentences will not be excluded.

The Same Level Of Education As The Main Campus

Bachelor's degrees for incarcerated women are not common in California. Cal State Fresno offers classes at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla, but students are not yet able to earn bachelor’s degrees.

Just like at Lancaster, Lim wants full-time faculty teaching at the women’s state prison. “We're not interested in hiring a separate pool of faculty who just teach in prisons. We think that it's important for our students to get the same level and quality of education that they would get on our main campus,” she said.

Working with full-time faculty, she added, will enable imprisoned students to interact with non-incarcerated peers. Tenured and tenure track professors “are able to bridge the student learning experience on campus with the student learning experience inside the prison. This enables students to communicate over the same readings. They can share ideas, they can even collaborate on papers and presentations,” Lim said.

What Has CSU-LA Learned From Past Experience?

Moving forward, Cal State L.A. will work to improve its resources for students transitioning out of prison. This, in part, is because a large number of imprisoned students have had their life sentences commuted.

“Lancaster was a pilot,” said Lim. “We didn't really know what we were getting into. Many of the students had life without possibility of parole sentences, so they thought they were going to die in prison.”

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Lim and her colleagues want to ensure that formerly imprisoned students have a smooth experience. This includes a guaranteed spot at Cal State L.A. for those who want to continue pursuing education. The university is also contemplating transitional housing, particularly for students who are parents.

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