New college program gives ex-convicts support to earn degrees

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Seven California State University campuses are busy this summer putting the finishing touches on a program to help people who were previously incarcerated become successful in college.

The program, called Project Rebound, will create an office where formerly incarcerated students can receive tutoring, counseling on academics and financial aid, and receive cash help to buy meals and books.

The offices will be up and running next academic year on the Cal State campuses in Bakersfield, Fresno, Fullerton, Pomona, Sacramento, San Bernardino and San Diego. The goal is to give these students help applying to a Cal State campus and providing help to earn a degree once they’re enrolled.

“Just some college exposure reduces the recidivism rate by 43 percent,” said Cal State Fullerton Professor Brady Heiner, who’s overseeing the launch of Project Rebound on his campus.

Program officials said recidivism, the rate at which ex-convicts commit new crimes that land them back in jail, is as high as 61 percent within the first three years after a person completes his or her sentence.

“If one is not inclined or persuaded by the social justice argument in favor of expanding access to higher education to currently and formerly incarcerated groups, the cost benefit analysis is crystal clear” because it's cheaper to educate a person than to house them in prison, Heiner said. 

Each campus will start the program with about $75,000 in grant funds. Campuses hope to hire program coordinators who’ve served time in prison and have earned their college degrees. A person with that kind of background will serve as a role model for students and should provide insight into the stumbling blocks the formerly incarcerated face when trying to earn a degree.

“Our idea is to let them know what kind of career that they can have, what kind of barriers there might be,” said CSU San Bernardino professor Annika Anderson.

“If they have a sex offense they probably might want to stay away from careers that involve children or if they have a drug offense maybe that might prohibit them from getting into certain kinds of programs associated with criminal justice,” she said.

Ex-convicts are already enrolled in the Cal State campuses, Anderson said, but officials don’t know how many because the university system doesn’t ask about prior convictions on college applications.

Project Rebound staff will also pay visits to area prisons and jails.

Re-integration programs have been run through the Cal State system before. Claude Gonzales was helped by such a program, after serving two years in prison. He was incarcerated just after graduating from high school when he and a group of friends robbed a liquor store.

“One of my friends hopped over the counter and grabbed the cash register. Me and another friend started grabbing money out of the register,” said Gonzales.

A re-integration program run out of Cal Poly Pomona guided him to apply to the Pomona campus. He filled out the applications and financial aid forms and has sought help mostly on his own. It wasn’t easy, he said, because he had fears of being turned down and feeling out of place on a college campus.

“When you get out the only people you can network with are the people who got you in there in the first place,” Gonzales said “you need to network with people who are successful.”

In the fall Gonzales will begin his third year at the Pomona campus studying Computer Information Systems.

When it comes to role models, it's hard to argue against Jason Bell as the Project Rebound poster child. He's been the director of the Project Rebound office at San Francisco State University for 11 years. That office is serving as a model for the new offices because it’s been operating for nearly fifty years.

“It’s the hands-on support and personal care for each student,” that’s helped hundreds of formerly incarcerated students earn their degrees, Bell said.

He speaks from experience when asked about the barriers for an ex-con to get a college degree. After serving nine years at San Quentin state prison for attempted murder, Project Rebound helped Bell find a place to live while he earned his bachelor’s degree in sociology and his master’s degree in counseling.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said the California recidivism rate was 75 percent. KPCC regrets the error.

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