Pitzer launches nation’s first path to bachelor’s degree for incarcerated students based on Inside-Out curriculum

The program launched by Pitzer College and the Claremont Colleges Justice Education Initiative is the first of its kind in the United States. (Courtesy: Layla Elqutami)

When the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act removed funding for college-in-prison programs around the country, those seeking opportunities for quality higher education while incarcerated were dealt a major blow.

Pitzer College and the Claremont Colleges Justice Education Initiative are working to change in-prison education, launching the nation’s first in-prison bachelor’s degree program for currently incarcerated students based on the Inside-Out curriculum in a virtual nationwide launch event Dec. 10. 

At the event, the program’s inaugural cohort — eight men incarcerated at the California Rehabilitation Center — received their letters of matriculation to Pitzer.

“My cohort and I have been blessed with the outstanding opportunity to attain what I thought was impossible — a bachelor’s degree behind bars,” Damian Busby, a member of the inaugural cohort said. 

A partnership with the CRC and the California Department for Corrections and Rehabilitation, the “impossible” program will allow the cohort to take upper-level courses through Pitzer which will go toward the completion of a bachelor’s degree in organizational studies, one of Pitzer’s most popular majors. The cohort is expected to graduate by the end of 2021.

Incarcerated students in the program follow the “same rigorous application process” as other prospective students and are held to the same academic policies, according to Pitzer’s website. The pathway requires up to three years of college credits before entering the program: two years of credit from community colleges and up to one year of credit from an accredited four-year institution. 

Although incarcerated students have had opportunities to obtain associate degrees through face-to-face community college courses and remote correspondence courses, a bachelor’s degree is the next step in their education that has not been offered until now.

“It has long been clear that our students need to be able to extend their learning past the [associate degree] to a bachelor’s degree,” said Shannon Swain, the superintendent of the CDCR. “…Education is a key component to successful community transition.”

Busby earned six associate degrees during his time in prison. However, before the creation of this program, he did not have the opportunity to obtain a higher degree.

“It was a frustrating situation. I am not complaining about the opportunity to learn, but I was frustrated because the ability to advance and receive a bachelor’s degree was beyond my ability,” he said. “I was spinning my wheels.”  

The bachelor’s degree pathway is an expansion of the Inside-Out program Pitzer has participated in since 2014, which allows 5C professors to teach classes at a number of prisons with an equal number of 5C students and incarcerated students in the name of “creating a space for dialogue across difference,” Inside-Out Founder Lori Pompa said.

Currently, the 5Cs provide the densest concentration of Inside-Out classes in the United States, according to Pitzer’s website.

“We all learn new and important things about ourselves, about other people, about the assumptions that we all carry, about communication and working through conflict and, very importantly, about how we all can be change agents in the world,” Pompa said of Inside-Out.

When comparing Inside-Out classes to his remote correspondence courses, CRC student Freddy Cisneros said the difference between the two is measurable.

“If a professor is present, it delivers an awareness that you as a student will be learning via their expertise. This is why I feel there isn’t a correspondence course that can measure up to Pitzer’s pedagogy.”

Cisneros said he attended an Inside-Out seminar on emotional development, where he learned healing practices that later helped him grieve his mother’s death. 

“Practical instructions which focused on improving life’s issues are just one of the many facets which make Pitzer College stand apart from all the rest,” Cisneros said. 

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many changes had to take place to ensure a high quality of learning for the incarcerated students. Through grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Bernard and Audre Rapoport Foundation, Pitzer was able to livestream classes to students at CRC, provide technology to the students and help CRC staff ensure that students could learn in a socially distanced manner. 

For many of the CRC students, this program has offered a new outlook on their future, especially in regard to career opportunities. 

“For me, what being a Pitzer student means is opportunities. Both new opportunities that I had never imagined for myself as well as recovered opportunities that I thought were long lost,”  CRC student Yusef Pierce said at the launch event. 

Pitzer has partnered with programs like the Reintegration Academy to inform them about various job and internship opportunities. 

“I want to get my master’s degree and eventually get a Ph.D. and come back and teach other incarcerated students, because I’ve been so impressed with the professors here at Pitzer and what they do,” Pierce said. 

Pierce is also planning to apply for the Fulbright Scholarship to study abroad in West Africa to learn about how their prison system differs from the U.S. prison system.

While the inaugural program currently only includes eight men, there are hopes to expand cohorts in the future, CRC warden Cynthia Tampkins said. 

“I am looking forward to us growing on a much grander scale so that CRC and Pitzer College will help in a reduction of our recidivism rate for our inmates,” Tampkins said. “I wish our inmates well, and I pray for their success.”

This article was last updated on Dec. 12, 2020 at 3:24 p.m.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the new program was the first pathway to a bachelor’s degree for currently incarcerated students in the United States. The program is the nation’s first pathway to a bachelor’s degree for incarcerated students based on the Inside-Out curriculum — in which incarcerated students receive bachelor’s degrees for classes taught alongside non-incarcerated students.
An earlier version of this article said the cohort obtained associate’s degrees through remote correspondence courses. Some cohort members obtained associate’s degrees in face-to-face classes. TSL regrets these errors.


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