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There's a higher education crisis in prisons. Studies show that prisoners who get access to education while they're behind bars are less likely to return to prison and more likely to land a job once they're released. But because of congressional action 20 years ago, there are far fewer college programs reaching inmates face-to-face. One program that does and is something of a national model is the Prison University Project at San Quentin in Northern California. Eric Westervelt with the NPR Ed team traveled there.
LEXI FENTON: How are you?
AAQILAH ISLAM: Nice to see you made it.
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: In a small trailer on the edge of San Quentin's main yard, volunteer teachers Lexi Fenton and Aaqilah Islam wrap up the semester for their child psychology course. They want to hear from the student inmates about their final papers and what they got out of the class.
FENTON: So what I am asking you to do is think about the course, the readings, the reflections on a personal experience, the discussions that we have in class, and how would you use this information?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: They give you a guide. See, I can use episodes from my life to place myself in each one of the stages that Erikson spoke of.
WESTERVELT: Another inmate raises his hand. I can see more now what helped lead a lot of us down a path toward prison, he says.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Without those needs being met, as I wrote in my paper, it can stunt their growth.
WESTERVELT: The child psychology class is part of the Prison University Project, or PUP, the only onsite degree-granting program in California's sprawling penal system, the nation's second largest. Thirty-seven-year-old Jerome Boone is serving a 15-year drug sentence. He admits, at first, he started taking classes merely to pass the time.
JEROME BOONE: The more I learned, the more I came. I don't know. It just started opening up doors. I was just able to see that there was, like, a bigger story out there than just what I was telling myself. It just changed my life, you know?
WESTERVELT: In June, Boone earned his associate's degree through PUP and its accrediting partner, Patten University. San Quentin's program uses no federal or state money. It's funded entirely by private donations. More than a hundred professors from UC Berkeley, Stanford and other schools volunteer their time. Inmates pay no tuition. PUP supplies everything from books to pencils. It might irk some that convicted felons are getting a free education with professors from top schools when ordinary law-abiding people are racking up massive debt and struggling to pay for school. Boone says he understands that, but adds society has to understand something about us.
BOONE: If we come in here and just stay the people that we are when we come in, you know, without any, like, growth or insight or any opportunity to better ourselves, we're going to get out that same person. You know, the better we do in here, the better we are when we exit.
WESTERVELT: And more prisoners across the U.S. are exiting. The U.S. Sentencing Commission last year approved a process to reduce sentences for some nonviolent drug offenders. And in California, court-ordered reductions in overcrowding means more lifers and three-strikers are going home.
KARA URION: That has provided a lot of hope around here. So guys are working incredibly hard, you know, to go home. And I think they should.
WESTERVELT: Kara Urion is program director for a project that's become an example of how a nonprofit with courage and no federal or state money can change lives. Inmates in the state system, she says, now want to get transferred to San Quentin.
URION: At a lot of prisons where these guys have been, they've spent the majority of their time locked down, and the available programs have consisted of maybe AA and NA.
WESTERVELT: There are only a handful of other well-regarded higher-ed prison programs like San Quentin's. They remain little oases of learning behind bars. And PUP is looking for a new collaborator now that its accredited partner, Patten University, was bought out by the for-profit startup University Now. The founder of the Prison University Project tells me, we want to find a new partner better aligned with our values and our mission.
Programs like this have proved hard to replicate because of a lack of money and/or political will since congressional action effectively shut down prison higher education in America by blocking Pell Grants for prisoners. Mark Mauer directs the advocacy group The Sentencing Project.
MARK MAUER: The '94 ban by Congress really decimated higher education in prisons. It's the unusual prison system that's able to offer higher education. Vast parts of the country have no higher education to speak of going on right now.
WESTERVELT: In his last years in office, President Obama is spotlighting prison reform. He recently launched an effort to restore Pell Grant funding to some prisoners through a small pilot project. Advocates say it's a small step. Yet the payback to society is big, says RAND Corporation senior researcher Lois Davis. Her study found that participation in any level of education behind bars reduced the risk of being incarcerated by 13 percent.
LOIS DAVIS: For every dollar invested in a prison education program, ultimately, it's going to save taxpayers between $45 in re-incarceration costs. That means that you really are achieving the substantial cost savings.
ADAM BRADLEY: It seems like, you know, this borderline between sleep and wakefulness.
WESTERVELT: UC Berkeley Ph.D. student Adam Bradley leads an intro to philosophy class.
BRADLEY: Maybe there is such a thing as an amount of consciousness. Maybe one creature can be more conscious, you know, than another creature.
PHOEUN YOU: One of the problems I have for this class is it didn't have a concrete definition of consciousness.
WESTERVELT: The philosophy class has been a favorite of 41-year-old Phoeun You. Incarcerated for more than 20 years, You has an intense gaze and a tattoo on his neck that reads the killing fields. It's a reminder of the Khmer Rouge butchery in Cambodia he and his family fled when he was a little boy.
YOU: It's the reason why I'm here in America today.
WESTERVELT: The reason You landed in prison is also a story of senseless killing. Alienated and failing out of school in Southern California, he joined a gang called the Asian Boys.
YOU: On March 23, 1995, I committed murder in a drive-by shooting on some rival gangs - that I thought it was a rival gang. I shot into a crowd, killed one guy and hit four others. So I was charged with a murder and four attempts.
WESTERVELT: You, who goes by the nickname Sane (ph), is serving 30-to-life. He's already spent his 20s and most of his 30s behind bars. He started, he says, to lose hope, to feel, daily, like the air had been sucked out of me. But he had a record of good behavior. He noticed that the three-strikers and lifers at the University Project had more energy, a spark. It was a long six-year haul with lots of remedial work. But this June, You earned his associate's degree.
YOU: Yes, I'm physically incarcerated. But one thing I took out of school is my mind don't have to be incarcerated also. And one thing people can't take is my knowledge. That's my power. That's my empowerment.
WESTERVELT: You's first shot at parole is still 10 years away. He'll be in his 50s. The convicted murderer is a realist. Still, he hopes to one day get out and counsel ex-gang members. He says he found that spark. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, San Quentin.
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