There has been a rare consensus among the public and politicians alike that it is time to reform the nation’s prison system. Among competing reform initiatives, there has been further consensus around the importance of creating and sustaining effective in-prison and re-entry programs for those who are currently incarcerated, at least 95 percent of whom will return to our communities. More specifically, the public and private sectors alike recognize the benefits of providing education to prisoners and former prisoners. For every $1 invested in prison education, RAND estimates a generation of $5 in economic return. A college education is, in fact, less expensive than a year in a California prison.
California presents an ideal site to launch a demonstration project, providing a seamless pathway to students who are incarcerated to earn a liberal arts BA degree, and the time is right to do so. In 2014, the Governor of California signed legislation that allowed community colleges to teach face-to-face classes in prisons and to be compensated at the same level as regularly enrolled students. Southwestern College (SWC) has been a state leader, offering face-to-face AA-degree coursework, which is transferrable to the University of California, to students who are currently incarcerated. LIFTED at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) is partnering with SWC to launch a demonstration project that extends access to earn a UC BA degree to students enrolled in courses at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility (RJD). The infrastructure LIFTED will build through this initial partnership will be readily replicable across UC-community college-prison collaborations across the state, fulfilling the promise of the state’s Master Plan for higher education: access and excellence.