Why Renewing Communities?

By Rebecca Silbert and Deborah Mukamal | Opportunity & Justice

Throughout California, people are excited about bringing the state’s immense public higher education system to the criminal justice table. And why shouldn’t they be? California’s public higher education system is the largest in the nation. We have 113 community colleges serving more than 2 million students, 23 California State Universities (CSU) serving nearly 200,000 students, and 10 University of California campuses serving more than 415,000 students. These schools are uniquely positioned to serve the thousands of men and women who are or have been mired in the justice system. They give these men and women a chance to break the cycle of crime and poverty, and offer an opportunity to build social mobility for themselves and their families. We know it works: recent RAND research shows 51% lower odds of recidivating for individuals who participated in college programs in prison, as well as a savings of $4 to $5 for every dollar invested in correctional education. So, why Renewing Communities?

The answer is that without intentionally and strategically laying the foundation for sustainable long-term change, all this excitement may fade. When faced with the next round of budget cuts, or the next group of new students to target, institutional commitment will wane and these students will be left behind – which is why we need Renewing CommunitiesRenewing Communities is dedicated to ensuring that currently and formerly incarcerated students are welcomed into and effectively served by our state’s public higher education system, now and into the future. The initiative is based on two years of research and human-centered design, and will run from 2016 through the end of 2019. It is jointly led by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center and The Opportunity Institute in Berkeley, California.

The timing of the initiative is ideal, as California is exponentially increasing its higher education offerings for these eager students. We began in 2014 with one in-person college program in one prison; as of the end of 2016 we have in-person college programs in 30 of our 35 prisons, offered by 16 community colleges and serving over 3000 students, and a groundbreaking in-person Bachelor’s Degree program offered by Cal State LA at Lancaster Prison. 

We began with Project Rebound on one CSU campus; this successful program, with a 40-year track record of recruiting formerly incarcerated students into SF State and supporting them through to graduation, is now being replicated on 8 of the 23 CSU campuses with more scheduled for next year. We began with only a few isolated bridge and support programs for formerly incarcerated students attending community college; we now have over a dozen student groups and targeted faculty support programs in our community colleges.

This rapid change is due to the hard work and dedication of numerous faculty, students and staff statewide. But many of these programs are dependent on outside funding streams, including grants provided by Renewing Communities and other grants and foundation and other group support, and these programs continue to encounter hurdles that may derail them in the future. It is Renewing Communities’ goal to build the sustainability of these programs so that they can continue beyond 2019 with full institutional support.

Renewing Communities is unique in California because we are not housed within any particular institution, nor are we advocating for one particular type of program. Instead, we have the ability to cross sectors and partner with those who share our goal of a statewide, sustainable network of high-quality college opportunities and support for currently and formerly incarcerated students. 

We work top-down and bottom-up to ensure that the initiative benefits from the perspectives and input of everyone, from Sacramento leadership to individual students. This means helping the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) draft the Memorandum of Understanding that governs relationships between community colleges and individual prisons, and working directly with a college when it encounters implementation challenges. We respond to questions from the Legislature, and our Soros Justice Fellow is building a student-led network of formerly incarcerated students on college campuses. We talk to individual faculty, staff, and students, and we highlight statewide priorities for the Chancellor of the California Community College system. 

Overriding all of our work is a dedication to uncovering the policy barriers and opportunities, and doing everything possible to increase institutional support and public funding so that these dedicated students, faculty, and staff members can continue their great work into the future.

To develop a supportive and effective ecosystem, we are also creating resources to support the field, build quality, and encourage the development of a community of practice. Foremost among these resources is our new website, CorrectionsToCollegeCA.org, which includes a map and directory of colleges and programs serving currently and formerly incarcerated students in California. This directory will allow faculty and counselors working inside prison to connect students who are paroling with a college on the outside, thus enabling the students to continue their education when they return home. It will also allow returning community members to identify an individual contact at a college near them, easing their transition to the college and increasing the likelihood that they will persist to degree or credential completion.

Our priority now is to set the agenda for the next three years, through the conclusion of the initiative. In this, we are guided by our institutional partners and, most importantly, by students, faculty and staff on the ground. For instance, we know that we lose students in the reentry transition; we need to build local connections with reentry organizations to support immediate reentry needs, especially housing. We know that working inside CDCR takes continued attention to the numerous bureaucratic and institutional hurdles, and faculty and staff on the ground may not have the capacity to address these hurdles. Our webinar on using technology inside CDCR was a step in the right direction, but the field needs more. We know that faculty want support developing teaching resources that accommodate the restrictions posed by CDCR, and we intend to partner with both the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges and California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office to build these. And, we know that budgeting is always challenging. We encourage community colleges to tap into Equity Funds whenever possible, as that is a funding source that has capacity and flexibility in some districts and at some colleges. But we know you need more.

Thanks are due to Brant Choate, State Superintendent of Correctional Education for CDCR, who has worked tirelessly to support the colleges working inside our state prisons. Laura Hope, Dean of Instructional Support at Chaffey College, similarly leads the nation in her dedication to the highest quality education for Chaffey students inside California Institute for Women and California Institute for Men. And of course, thanks to the generous and thoughtful funders supporting Renewing Communities: The California Endowment, California Wellness Foundation, Roy & Patricia Disney Family Foundation, ECMC Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Heising-Simons Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Rosenberg Foundation, and the Weingart Family Foundation.

But most importantly, we need to acknowledge the students, who often struggle with obstacles and hurdles far beyond those faced by mainstream students. Students like Diane at Shasta College, a 49-year old former elementary school teacher who became involved in a physically abusive relationship and began using illegal substances. As a result of her addiction, she was convicted of financial crimes and drug possession and then lost her job. She cycled in and out of jail, unable to find employment and repeatedly re-incarcerated. Last year, Diane was released early from the Shasta County jail in order to participate in the STEP UP program, an innovative partnership between the Sheriff and Shasta College, partially funded by Renewing Communities. Through STEP UP, Diane is pursuing a heavy equipment operations and maintenance certificate, and the college is confident that it can place her in a job when she completes her certificate. She co-founded a student club for students who have been incarcerated (called “Begin Anew”), and she was selected for Providence International’s “Garden of Hope” internship. She has become a leader on campus and in the community, sharing her story with other students and encouraging others to pursue their education. Congratulations to Diane and to all the other students out there.  Your courage and resilience inspires us all.