Friday, January 27, 2012

CDCR’s Youngest Inmates Go to College

Step toward rehab taken on their first day

By Bill Sessa, Information Officer I

For 26 of the state’s youngest inmates, the trip to Ironwood State Prison (ISP) represented more than a bus ride toward their first day in an adult facility.  It also was a bus ride to college.

The 18-year-old inmates, each convicted as an adult, were the most recent to enroll in college classes offered at the prison by the Youthful Offender Program administered by the CDCR. 

Although CDCR offers college courses in many of its 33 facilities, Ironwood and the California Rehabilitation Center (CRC) in San Bernardino County have created a unique learning environment specifically for some of its youngest inmates. It offers them an opportunity to make a constructive change in their lives beginning their first day in prison. 

“An adult prison can be a harsh place for an 18-year-old,” noted CDCR Secretary Mathew Cate. “With this program, we have created an environment where our youngest inmates can focus on their education without some of the distractions that prison offers, so they have a better chance at a constructive life when they are released.” 

The program is open to young inmates being transferred from CDCR’s Division of Juvenile Justice or from juvenile detention in Los Angeles County.  Inmates approved for the program are screened through CDCR’s reception center in Chino and must show a true commitment to education during a personal interview with a committee chaired by the warden at the California Institute for Men (CIM).

At Ironwood and CRC, the young inmates join older inmates in a dormitory set aside exclusively for those enrolled in college.  With photos and murals of Albert Einstein and astronaut Neil Armstrong for inspiration, it is a setting that puts the focus on studying.

“It’s an environment that gives these inmates a chance to shift their identities,” said Scott Budnick, a Los Angeles film producer whose volunteer efforts helped create the Youthful Offender Program. 

“When they were in high school, these guys identified themselves as a criminal or a gang member,” said Budnick.  “When they are in this program, they can identify themselves as college students.”

The inmates can earn a two-year associate degree in arts or business management through online classes offered by Coastline College and Palo Verde Community College.  Inmates, or their families, pay the same fees and tuition as students attending classes on campus.  Only those inmates who meet the same financial criteria as on-campus students receive a fee waiver.

“Some individuals might question why we invest so much effort into educating an inmate, but the reality is that most inmates eventually are released into our communities,” said CDCR Undersecretary Terri McDonald.

“The better educated and better prepared they are, the better chance they have of being successful and staying away from crime after release. That is an overall benefit to the public since success upon parole reduces victims in our communities and reduces costs associated with recidivism.”

In addition to the young inmates who enroll the day they arrive at an adult prison, approximately 600 CDCR inmates under the age of 35 and within seven years of parole are taking college courses at Ironwood, CRC in Norco and CIM in Chino.  Financed by federal funds, the CDCR college courses are heavily supported by volunteers from local community colleges.

Counselors from Palo Verde Community College in Blythe voluntarily travel to Norco to test inmate aptitude in math and English to help inmates enroll in the appropriate courses at CRC. About 50 students from nearby California State Polytechnic University Pomona visit CIM nearly every day, volunteering to proctor exams, mentor or tutor inmates or to give inmates a broader appreciation for college by talking about their majors and daily life on campus.