Scholars in Prison A bill to expand higher education in prisons and juvenile halls is on Gov. Newsom’s desk


By Julie Reynolds Martinez

This story was co-published with The Imprint.

J.P. Solorio is a community college student at the Correctional Training Facility, one of the two state prisons in Soledad. Locked up at age 15 for his role in a teen gang shootout, he’s been slowly working toward a college degree since he was sent to adult prison in 2003.

In addition to his college courses, Solorio, 35, is active in a program that trains puppies to become service dogs for first responders and veterans with post-traumatic stress. He plans to complete an associate degree before going home, and he credits his education at Soledad with the changes he’s made in his internal life.

“I came in hopeless, immature, reckless, selfish, dangerous,” he said in a phone interview with Voices. “I’m a lot more thoughtful and considerate now. I look for positive meaning in my life. I know I hurt so many people and that mindset I came in with, it had to go.”

Yet even for the most dedicated incarcerated men like Solorio, taking college classes has long been a frustrating challenge.

For years, people locked up in California prisons could only attend in-person college classes at San Quentin State Prison, just across the bay from San Francisco. Anyone in the state’s 34 other prisons was typically out of luck.

The correspondence courses offered by two community colleges at Soledad were often filled by the time incarcerated would-be students received application forms, and prison staff were known for slowing down the enrollment process. Family members had a hard time getting timely information to their loved ones. And — following an era when taxpayers complained about giving free education to people convicted of crimes — many local colleges that offered correspondence courses to prisoners downplayed the programs, or buried necessary information in hidden corners of their websites.

Times and public sentiment have changed in recent decades, as more research has shown that rehabilitation efforts are worthwhile investments in public safety.

Now, Hartnell College in nearby Salinas offers in-person classes for the first time at the two state prisons in Soledad, as well as at the county’s Youth Center, a juvenile detention facility.

Today there’s a growing movement in higher education to expand college programs in prisons and juvenile halls, and to ensure formerly incarcerated people get help to succeed at colleges and universities.

The California Legislature in 2010 found that prisons with robust college programs had lower rates of violence and disciplinary issues, saving the state two dollars for every dollar spent on prison college programs. At the time, while roughly 95% of prison inmates were set to be released into society, just 14% received any education or training while locked up.

A 2019 analysis from the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice reported that California taxpayers could save $66.6 million annually, if just half of eligible prisoners attended college. The potential savings were based on projections of lower three-year recidivism rates found by one study in Wisconsin — 30.7% versus 46% for those released without any college.

In addition, people in prison — particularly juveniles — seem to be clamoring for higher education. Researchers who surveyed more than 7,000 incarcerated youth in 2003 found that more than two-thirds of those behind bars aspired to higher education. And that was almost 20 years ago, when far fewer promises were being made to those in detention.

This fall, among the dozens of bills piling up on Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk, is one that could greatly expand college opportunities for incarcerated teens and adults.

The Rising Scholars Network Act, officially known as Assembly Bill 417, passed both houses of the Legislature and was sent to Newsom on Sept. 10. If signed by the governor, who survived a recall election this month, the act would allocate $10 million for the state’s community colleges to increase access to students who are currently and formerly incarcerated, or those who are “justice-involved.”

Under the direction of the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, the Rising Scholars Network officially launched in January — months before AB 417 passed — reaching into juvenile halls and prisons to offer community college courses and support for students.

What’s new about AB 417 is the Legislature’s decision to inject significant cash into the project, with the allocation of $10 million in this year’s budget when the bill is signed into law by Oct. 10.

“Justice-involved students face unique challenges as they strive to reintegrate into their communities and navigate the higher education system,” the bill’s author, Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, said in the Senate’s analysis of the bill. Only 4% of formerly incarcerated people have college degrees, McCarty said, compared to 29% of the general population.

“This is, in part, due to a lack of support services,” he added, “and the absence of a sense of community for justice-involved students on college campuses.”


J.P. Solorio, right, holds the puppy he was training at the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad on April 10, 2018 | Photo by Claudia Meléndez Salinas

Nothing short of remarkable’

California has gradually increased its college offerings to incarcerated students since 2014, when only the San Quentin prison offered face-to-face college classes. The Youth Law Center’s Pathways to Higher Education program aims to expand “the number of postsecondary education opportunities available to young people who are currently or have been involved in the juvenile justice system in California.” Another project out of the College of San Mateo provides courses in that county’s juvenile facilities.

Since then, efforts like Project Rebound, which supports formerly incarcerated people at California state colleges, have grown to the point that the state leads the nation in post-secondary education for justice-involved people, according to a report from Stanford Law School’s Stanford Criminal Justice Center and the Opportunity Institute’s Corrections to College program, a project that ultimately morphed into the Rising Scholars Network.

Titled “Don’t Stop Now,” the 2018 report stated that “collaboration between the higher education and criminal justice systems over the past three years is nothing short of remarkable.”

“The impacts of mass incarceration are vast, and the public higher education system offers our only chance to scale an effective response,” the report’s authors conclude.

Today, nearly all California prisons offer associate degrees from community colleges. Juvenile halls up and down the state are also adding more college programs. McCarty’s bill would authorize 50 California colleges to join the Rising Scholars Network, which would be mandated and funded to increase the number of justice-involved students at community colleges. The network would also have to provide a progress report on its efforts.

‘Something clicks’

At Soledad Prison, Solorio said his college classes are sometimes filled with students who mainly just “want the three-weeks’ credit” off their prison time, without really trying to improve themselves.

But Solorio said even those who take classes “for the wrong reasons” can still learn and change. As a “lifer” — he was originally sentenced to 45 years to life — it was easy to give up on the hope of ever coming home. But the message of change from the many classes and groups he attended slowly began to sink in.

“I sat in a group for years before I finally spoke, and another couple of years before I finally started internalizing those things being taught,” Solorio said by phone. “The people that are going to go back and put in the work for longer periods of time are going to benefit. I’ve seen it — lifer going home after lifer going home. Something clicks and they get it.”

Featured illustration by Christine Ongjoco

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About Julie Reynolds

Julie Reynolds is a freelance journalist who has reported for the Center for Investigative Reporting, The Nation, NPR, PBS, The Imprint, The NewsGuild and other outlets. She is a co-founder of Voices of Monterey Bay and associate editor at The Imprint.