Pitzer students share knowledge behind bars

By Louise Williams

If you cut down the barbed wire, disregard the rifle-touting guards, and remove the bars from the windows, the outside of the California Rehabilitation Center looks kind of like UCLA. To enter this men’s correctional facility in Norco, you are put through an airport-like security ordeal—but here, the book you are carrying can be confiscated and tossed along with your water bottle. A cell phone is as threatening as a knife. The classrooms inside might remind you of middle school, except that men with beards and tattoos are squeezed into the table-arm desks.

I am sitting in the teacher spot of a classroom usually used for plumbing instruction. Facing me are “my pupils,” a crowd of men twice my age and size. Behind them is a caged wall displaying wrenches, hammers and other sharp metal objects I can’t identify. Each tools is outlined by black paint, like TV crime scene chalk bodies.

They’re looking at me. I’m eventually supposed to talk, but my train of thought keeps being halted by a question—what am I doing here?

The Prison Education Project (PEP) is dedicated to expanding and enhancing the educational opportunities offered to the incarcerated. According to the mission statement, “the ultimate goal is to provide these inmate students with the cognitive tools necessary to function as productive citizens, which will also translate to recidivism reduction.” This year PEP is working with Pitzer College. Along with 11 others, I am among the first Claremont students to become involved. We volunteer once a week for the academic orientation portion of the curriculum.

Dr. Renford Reese of Cal Poly Pomona started the project in 2011 as a part of his Reintegration Academy. The Academy brings a group of recently released and screened parolees to the Cal Poly campus for 10 weeks and immerses them in a life skills program to help enroll them in college. PEP provides prisoners with academic orientation and career development workshops, GED tutoring, and a three-year Interdisciplinary Certificate Program. The project is currently in place in five different correctional facilities throughout Southern California and recruits both graduate and undergraduate students as volunteers.

PEP aims to reduce recidivism in the state by one percent by 2015, saving California approximately $44 million annually. According to Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), a coalition dedicated to prison reform, the state currently spends more than $10 billion a year on jails. This is twice the amount of funding allotted to the University of California (UC) and the California State University (CSU) systems combined. California spends almost $50,000 a year on each inmate, which is almost seven times the amount spent on each K-12 student. Higher incarceration rates are part of the reason these costs have risen dramatically.

Also according to CURB, California’s prison population increased 500 percent between 1982 and 2000. The state faces the highest rate of recidivism in the nation: seven out of ten prisoners return within three years. Multiple factors contribute to this build-up, and the resulting costly bill is one the California’s biggest issues. With a huge budget deficit and dwindling education funds, the consequences of this problem trickle into various levels of society and have universal effects.

In the literal sense, I know why I am sitting in a plumbing classroom in a prison at 10 a.m. on a Friday. I have read some New York Times articles and watched some documentaries. When I heard about PEP I immediately signed on. But seeing the word “inmate” printed on a page is different from encountering a talking, breathing human being. The latter is a reality I feel underprepared for. What can I, a privileged, white college student possibly give them any advice about? We aren’t exactly “cut from the same cloth,” as they say. My tweed blazer would never coordinate with their bright orange jumpsuits.

Volunteers involved in the academic orientation component give mini-lectures every week based on content in their majors. Next to me, fellow Pitzer students are prepared to give lectures on politics, psychology, and forensics. Hearing them, my creative writing presentation feels trivial. I feel irrelevant.

Staring out at faces in an sea of bright orange bodies, I try to reconnect with the spirit that moved me to join. I was driven by the desire to put theory into action. I wanted to put my $50,000-a-year liberal arts education to practical use. To help dismantle the barriers of academia and connect with that rarely-breached place known as the real world.

Maybe telling these men how great I think it is to read and write won’t keep them from landing back in jail, or even help them get a job, but our presence as college students does show them that someone cares. That beyond the bars, in the outside communities that don’t necessarily welcome them back with open arms, there are people who believe in their potential. That individuals who enjoy a completely different position in society, whom these inmates might never meet otherwise, do not want to see them squeezed back into these desks. We want to help them change their situation.

At Pitzer College, a campus often passionately dedicated activism, PEP is providing an opportunity for students to reach out to a community often forgotten and rejected. Whether driven by a passion for economics, music, or art, students can play a crucial part in redirecting California’s money from prisons to education.

Those interested in volunteering should contact the Community Engagement Center (CEC) or Tricia Morgan at tricia_morgan@pitzer.edu. More information about PEP is available at http://www.csupomona.edu/~rrreese/nonfla/PrisonEducationProject.html.

Leave a Reply