Magazine Perspective

We Can’t Afford Not To

All colleges and universities should have a prison education program

By Sonya Christian

Spring 2023

Damien changed my life. On August 28, 2019, I had the privilege as the then president of Bakersfield College to attend a graduation ceremony. The size of the class was only seventeen, Bakersfield’s first graduating class of students inside one of California’s prisons.

“When I first got to prison,” Damien told me, “it was rather hopeless. I didn’t have any aspirations or goals, and [Bakersfield College’s] program, it challenged me to think better. I’m the first person in my family of four to finish high school and to receive a college degree.”

It was four years earlier, in 2015, that two colleges in the Kern Community College District (Kern CCD)—Bakersfield College and Cerro Coso Community College—started offering face-to-face college courses in prisons within their service areas. The effort was motivated by the reality that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, housing approximately 25 percent of the globe’s prison population. The challenge is great, but higher education offers a solution. As Horace Mann wrote, “Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.”

As of January 2023, more than two million people were incarcerated in the United States. The picture becomes even bleaker when it includes the number of convicts who, when released, are rearrested and reconvicted. According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the recidivism rate in California has averaged around 50 percent over the past decade, and as of 2020, around 46 percent of former prisoners were reconvicted within three years of their release. Low educational attainment and inadequate job skills, according to Christopher Zoukis’ 2014 book College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Educationin American Prisons, result in fewer employment opportunities, poverty-level incomes, and increased engagement in social or criminal behaviors that contribute to higher rates of recidivism.

But there’s hope: other research shows that higher educational attainment varies inversely with recidivism; the more education incarcerated individuals have, the less likely they are to reoffend, as detailed by data from Emory University:

→The recividism rate is about 55 percent for ex-offenders who finish some high school.

→The rate for ex-offenders who receive vocational training is around 30 percent.

→The rate falls to 13.7 percent for those who earn an associate degree.

→For those who attain a bachelor’s degree, the rate drops to 5.6 percent.

→Those who earn a master’s degree have a 0 percent recidivism rate.

This research is especially significant when you factor in the costs of mass incarceration.

For example, California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office reported that the state spent an average of $106,131 per incarcertated individual in 2020–21 (an increase of 117 percent from approximately $57,000 per year in 2010–11). In contrast, California invested $14,174 per PK–12 student in 2018–19, according to the latest available data.

California is currently the state with the second-highest prison population in the United States (Texas has the highest), with more than 122,417 incarcerated individuals. This amounts to nearly $13 billion in taxpayer money each year.

“The money that goes toward building and maintaining prisons, operating costs, staff salaries, safety measures and more drains social programs that can help our nation,” Zoukis writes. “Educating the prison population creates better citizens . . . and frees up more money to help people in need.”

As one of the largest multi-college community college districts in California, Kern CCD has become a major champion for prison education, currently providing college education at thirteen correctional facilities. In spring 2015, twenty-one students enrolled in our first semester of prison education programs. Seven years later, in 2020–21, more than 12,000 incarcerated students enrolled.

Course success rates, based on the number of students who earn a C or above, for incarcerated students are routinely higher than for other students. At Cerro Coso this has been consistent over the five-year period of 2017–22. (We saw an anomaly in 2020–21 at Bakersfield when all the courses were taught via correspondence education.)

Embedded student services are crucial to the support our colleges offer. Prior to the beginning of any program, a college counselor prepares an individualized student educational plan (SEP) for each participant. The SEP maps out the sequence of courses students must complete prior to graduation. A college counselor invests four hours a week at each prison we serve to meet with students through scheduled or drop-in appointments. During these one-on-one meetings, counselors and students discuss questions related to academic progress, completion, transfer, and post-release educational and employment opportunities.

Our colleges also work with prison staff to organize an open study hall, during which students can receive academic support, as well as work with prison staff to facilitate communication with the colleges. Students use the opportunity to tutor each other and hold study sessions. High-achieving students who previously completed a course often tutor those currently enrolled in the course.

Faculty members are deeply committed to supporting students all the way to the completion of their degrees. Both Bakersfield and Cerro Coso provide comprehensive orientation programs as well as ongoing professional development sessions for faculty who teach in the prisons. Designated faculty also serve as faculty leads for each college to provide peer-to-peer support and mentorship. In addition to receiving facility-specific training by prison staff, faculty who are new to a facility receive a personal orientation from a seasoned faculty member. This handoff ensures transfer and retention of institutional knowledge from one group of participating faculty to the next.

Finally, our teams have a close working relationship with the wardens and also the staffs of the adult schools operated at the prisons we serve. College administrators and faculty leads regularly meet with the warden and school principal at each prison throughout the semester. As questions or concerns arise, all parties have a direct line of communication to one another for resolving issues before they grow into unnecessarily complicated problems. Relationships are the foundational elements that underpin the success of our program, and these meetings have galvanized a mutual commitment toward our common purpose of educating students. Our administrative teams have a noticeable presence in each prison on a weekly basis to interact with students, faculty, and prison education staff, as well as to attend special events, such as a graduation for students like Damien.

Education is the most cost-effective resource we have to reduce crime, decrease recidivism, and support the successful reintegration of incarcerated individuals into society to foster safer, healthier, and more productive communities. Indeed, access to high-quality educational programs is one of the best solutions to the overcrowding of US correctional facilities. So, when faced with the realities of mass incarceration, the question is not “Can we afford to operate prison education programs?” but rather “Can we afford not to?”

Emmanuel Mourtzanos, vice chancellor of educational services for Kern Community College District, contributed to this article.

Photograph: Sonya Christian (center) with the 2019 graduates at Kern Valley State Prison. (Bakersfield College)


  • Sonya Christian

    Sonya Christian

    Sonya Christian is the chancellor of Kern Community College District.