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Access To A College Degree Is On The Rise In Prisons. What This Means For Incarcerated Students

 A Black man with his arm across his chest overlaid on an image of a golden-hour sky, next to a photo of multiple people in black graduation gowns, above a small image of a sign that reads "Cal State LA."
Allen Burnett earned his B.A. at Lancaster State Prison. He recently returned to the facility to speak at a graduation ceremony.
(Collage by Alborz Kamalizad / Photos by Alborz Kamalizad and Julia Barajas
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Earlier this month, 25 men put on black caps and gowns at the state prison in Lancaster, a maximum-security facility encased by spiraling razor wire in the Antelope Valley.

Under a scorching October sun, the men’s family and friends gathered around a stage set up on the basketball courts, unfazed by the heat. In prison during a pandemic, the graduates had nevertheless managed to earn bachelor’s degrees from Cal State L.A. — and now it was time to celebrate.

Access To A College Degree Is On The Rise In Prisons. What This Means For Incarcerated Students

The ceremony — the first of its kind for the CSU system — is part of growing efforts to provide incarcerated people with access to higher education. Often, conversations about the value of prison education focus on whether it can serve to keep people from committing future crimes. But for the men who’ve earned their degrees and have since been released, reducing recidivism is a low standard. They have bigger plans.

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Allen Burnett was among the first to earn a bachelor’s degree at California State Prison, Los Angeles County, in Lancaster. After spending nearly three decades behind bars, his sentence was commuted by Governor Gavin Newsom in 2019. Burnett and 11 other formerly incarcerated people walked the stage at a graduation ceremony in Cal State L.A. last summer. Now he’s pursuing a graduate degree.

Burnett returned to Lancaster for the ceremony in early October, where he was tasked with providing remarks.

“I had this whole speech prepared,” he told the graduates when he got to the podium, “and then I got a chance to come here and see y’all and my heart is full. I love y’all. We miss you guys.”

Then, Burnett addressed the professors.

“Y’all changed our lives,” he said. “Through you, we were able to develop the language to go out and advocate for ourselves. You allowed us to believe in ourselves when we didn’t ... And then we taught y’all something, too: that there’s human beings inside these prison walls.”

They held a moment of silence for Terry Evans, a classmate who died in prison during the pandemic. Then, two other formerly incarcerated men called out the candidates’ names, some of whom have sentences of life without the possibility of parole.

A Black man sits at an office desk with a computer and stacks of books. He wears a blue shirt and smiles at the camera.
Allen Burnett sits for a portrait in his office, where a photo of his parents, both deceased, sits on his desk.
(Alborz Kamalizad

Brothers Apart

Daniel Whitlow also earned his degree while he was imprisoned in Lancaster. Released in 2020, he too returned for the ceremony and was in the audience.

“Being able to see all of my brothers again was one of the greatest experiences in recent memory for me,” he said, “and that’s right up there with being released and graduating.” Whitlow, like Burnett, is now a graduate student at Cal State L.A.

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As they left the event, Whitlow, Burnett and the other former prisoners felt a heavy weight.

“The majority of my adult life, I walked it out with the understanding that I was sentenced to death by incarceration,” said Burnett, “and that’s always going to be a part of me.”

“That’s my community,” he added. “I am connected to them. I want them to experience what I’ve experienced. And so, to leave them behind, it hurts.”

Tin Nguyen was also imprisoned at Lancaster for decades and is now at work on an MBA. The trek to the prison, he told LAist, reinvigorated his goal of helping other formerly incarcerated people launch their own businesses.

“I could get in the car, drive away and never look back,” he said. “But I left my brothers behind — guys I’ve known for 10, 15 years.”

An Asian man in front of a blue backdrop wears a plaid collared shirt and looks off to the right, next to an image of a hand holding a keychain with a blue "Dolphins" lanyard.
When asked to share something that's important to him, Tin Nguyen held out his keys. The ability to unlock his own home and use his car to move about freely, he said, brings him great joy.
( Alborz Kamalizad

Nationwide, about 200 colleges offer postsecondary education in prison. Most of these are private schools that solely offer associate’s degrees.

In-prison bachelor’s degree programs have started to crop up in recent years. Cal State L.A. started offering classes in Lancaster in 2015, and launched a full program the following year. Pitzer College, a private liberal arts school in Claremont, started a similar program at a men’s prison in Norco last December. In Fall 2022, UC Irvine will leverage a partnership with Southwestern College to offer sociology degrees at a men’s prison in San Diego.

Postsecondary prison education is nothing new in the United States, but it has had a tumultuous history that reflects changing attitudes toward prisoners.

Through the Higher Education Act of 1965, imprisoned people became eligible to receive a Pell Grant to pay for college. That changed in 1992, following an amendment that made anyone sentenced to death or serving a life sentence without parole ineligible for federal funding. A 1994 federal crime bill took it one step further and banned all imprisoned people from receiving aid.

In California, postsecondary prison education began to reemerge in 2014 after state law allowed community colleges to offer in-person courses and to receive funding for enrolling incarcerated students.

Then, in 2016, the federal Second Chance Pell Pilot Program made 12,000 students in state and federal prisons eligible for financial aid. Cal State L.A. was among the 67 colleges and universities chosen for the initiative.

Under the Trump administration, former education secretary Betsy DeVos expanded the program and urged Congress to make it permanent. The 2020 stimulus package reversed the ban on imprisoned students. And in July 2021, the Biden administration announced that the program would be expanded to 200 colleges and universities.

To date, some 22,000 people have enrolled in the Second Chance program. This amounts to less than one percent of the country’s jail and prison population.

Loosening Regulations

The U.S. Department of Education plans to implement further changes to allow imprisoned students to access federal Pell Grants in July 2023. It also promised to publish accompanying regulations before they go into effect.

Taffany Lim, executive director of Cal State L.A.’s Center for Engagement, Service and the Public Good, co-founded the B.A. program at Lancaster. She told LAist she’s “cautiously optimistic” about the Pell Grant expansion, in part because “history has shown that it can be decimated overnight.”

Navigating administrative processes can bring unique challenges for people behind bars, who don’t have access to the Internet. Jeff Stein, for instance, took several courses at a community college in Orange County before he was imprisoned at Lancaster. Even with Lim’s support, he never got his transcripts. To earn his B.A., he had to start from scratch.

Three men wearing black graduation gowns smile and look into the camera. Their gowns read "Class of 2020" and "Cal State LA."
Jeff Stein (center) earned his B.A. at Lancaster state prison but was released in time to participate in a ceremony at Cal State LA.
(Courtesy of Jeff Stein)

The Trump administration also loosened quality regulations on for-profit colleges. Experts warn that letting institutions access Pell money with scant oversight could be a recipe for disaster.

“There is a real fear that private education providers will essentially be predatory, especially outside of California where students don’t have access to public education in prison,” said Keramet Reiter, a professor in the Department of Criminology, Law and Society at UC Irvine and director of the university’s in-prison B.A. program.

Some of those consequences have already come to light. In 2020, Ashland University in Ohio came under scrutiny after the Marshall Project reported that the private school used Second Chance Pell funding to rapidly expand its tablet-based program, ultimately enrolling thousands of students in more than 100 jails and prisons in 13 states. The investigation also found that students corresponded with professors they never met through a messaging tool and that the university only employed one staffer to manage all of their career plans.

Whitlow, one of the formerly incarcerated students now pursuing a graduate degree, said his experience with correspondence courses was generally positive.

“Do an assignment, put it in an envelope, send it in. It’s very straightforward,” he said. “They were a good stepping stone. They gave me the motivation and encouragement that I could accomplish my goals, and so they served their purpose. But it wasn’t until I was in class that I truly realized my potential as a learner.”

Correspondence courses will likely always be a part of prison education, said Shannon Swain, superintendent of correctional education at the California department of corrections and rehabilitation. This, in part, is because some prisons are in such remote locations that it’s hard to find faculty willing to make the trek. But the department is prioritizing face-to-face instruction and is currently in talks with Cal State L.A. about launching a B.A. program for imprisoned women.

Any Degree You Want, As Long As It’s Communications

At the Lancaster prison, Cal State L.A. places a premium on in-person learning.

Bidhan Chandra Roy, a professor in the English department, launched the program after learning that several men had earned multiple associate’s degrees through correspondence courses affiliated with community colleges.

Many of the imprisoned students expressed interest in business degrees, but they also needed to hone their writing, comprehension and interpersonal skills. Ultimately, the university determined that a B.A. in communication studies, with an emphasis on understanding the inner workings of organizations, would be the best middle ground. David Olsen, the department chair, was initially apprehensive.

“I was all for prison education,” he told LAist, “but we really didn’t know how we were going to do it.” For starters, Olsen wondered, who’d want to drive out to the prison 70 miles away?

“I didn’t even know where Lancaster was,” he said. But after meeting the men in the first cohort, Olsen was convinced that the department was doing the right thing.

“That first visit when you’re going through the gates and the guards and the four IDs and the cage, and they open one side and then the other side, then there’s this long walk — you know, that’s a little nerve-racking,” he said. “But it dissipates. And it dissipates quickly.”

The imprisoned students’ coursework, Roy told LAist, runs the gamut: Students read everything from Aristotle to Shakespeare to Thoreau. And none of it is watered down.

“They obviously have less resources, like access to the library, so you factor that in,” he added. “But you hold them to the same standards.”

Roy and his colleague, Kamran Afary, a professor in the Communication Studies department, also train faculty to think about assignments that enable imprisoned students to “reflect, heal and transform.” This involves drama therapy, which uses performance as a way to process trauma.

Reducing Stigma

Cal State L.A. also creates opportunities for imprisoned students to interact with those at the university campus. In the past, they’ve collaborated with art students to create animated documentaries. And during the worst of the pandemic, when visits were prohibited, Afary made use of the prison’s closed-circuit television system to broadcast student performances and have students in Lancaster critique them.

These interactions, said the professor, don’t just benefit imprisoned students.

“A lot of my students on the campus have family members who are in prison, who are stigmatized and are ashamed of talking about it,” Afaryhe said. “Some of these discussions have helped them deal with that, helped them restore relationships with family members they felt they couldn’t talk to.”

Two men and two women stand hugging and smiling at the camera. One man is in a black graduation gown.
Aaron Benson, currently imprisoned at Lancaster, poses for a graduation photo alongside his family.
(Julia Barajas

Prison education proponents often point to studies, like those by the RAND Corporation and the Vera Institute of Justice, which show that it helps former prisoners find employment, reduces the likelihood that they’ll commit future crimes, and ultimately saves taxpayer dollars. But there’s more at stake, said Reiter, the professor at UC Irvine.

“It’s really vital that we create these bridges for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students to access higher education — whether that’s law school or business school or social work degrees or Ph.D. programs — because I think we’re not going to truly de-stigmatize the impact of incarceration until we have formerly incarcerated people in leadership positions in all walks of life.”

When B.A. students at Lancaster talk about the future, going back to prison is not part of the discussion, said English professor Roy. Plus, because some of them have life sentences, pep talks involving using a degree to land a good job can ring hollow.

“Recidivism to me is, like, the lowest bar you can possibly set,” Roy said. “When you get away from a narrow argument about recidivism, it makes complete sense to educate people who have life without parole, because wherever they are, they can have a positive effect on the world.”

Two potted plants sit on a small table with two chairs. An arm stretches over a standing fan next to the table and points at the stalk of one of the plants.
Burnett names all of his plants. They're thriving, except for these two. "But there's hope," he said, pointing to a single green stalk.
(Alborz Kamalizad

Burnett was one of Roy's students. And when LAist asked about his education, Burnett didn’t harp on his new or future credentials.

“It's great to have a degree,” he said. “But the transformative power of information, of what I received in those classrooms, it struck something in me so deep that I began to change my whole behavior. I walked different. I slept different. I thought different ... Everything was different. And I began to develop a voice and a language to express what it feels like to have life without parole, what it feels like to be a human being, and what it means to take accountability, responsibility, regret and remorse for the harm that I caused.”

When he’s not at work or in class at Cal State L.A., Burnett can often be found at Walmart, printing photos for friends who remain behind bars. There’s no grass at Lancaster state prison, he said, so he went to the Huntington Botanical Gardens to snap pictures of the most impressive trees and flowers.

“I know the value of having something tangible, something beautiful to look at,” said Burnett. “And I always catch a good sunset.”

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