For First Time, CA Prison Inmates Earn UC System Bachelor's Degrees

CALIFORNIA — Like other 2024 University of California graduates, a group of 23 students studied, attended in-person classes, wrote reports, and crammed for exams before earning their bachelor’s degrees.

But these 23 learners are different. They are incarcerated at San Diego’s Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility for men. Their offenses vary but they are now forever linked as the first-ever graduating class of inmates who obtained bachelor’s degrees through the University of California system.

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On Thursday, the 23 student inmates earned their four-year degrees in sociology from UC Irvine after receiving in-prison instruction led by in-person UCI professors.

“Graduation is always a special day, not only for the graduates and their families but for our entire university community,” said UC Irvine Chancellor Howard Gillman. “It is no exaggeration that today’s graduation is extraordinarily special.”

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According to Terri Hardy, spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the graduating students ranged in age — up to mid-60s — and came from varied backgrounds. One student arrived at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility with a third-grade education; others had completed high school. Six of the graduates have been accepted into a master’s degree program.

The collaboration between CDCR and the University of California was made possible by a formal agreement through a program known as Leveraging Inspiring Futures Through Educational Degrees, otherwise known as LIFTED.

LIFTED enables incarcerated students to apply to transfer into UCI as juniors and earn a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the university while serving their sentences. The program’s first cohort began taking faculty-led courses in fall 2022.

CDCR partners with California’s public higher education system to offer associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees through California community colleges and the California State University sytem — and now the University of California.

In 2016, California State University, Los Angeles, became the first public university in the state to offer bachelor’s degrees to incarcerated people.

More than 13.5% of the entire incarcerated population are enrolled in college courses, according to CDCR. As of June 19, CDCR’s total incarcerated population was just under 92,000.

The UC agreement is a game-changer, according to supporters.

“This is a historic occasion to celebrate both the first 23 incarcerated students earning bachelor’s degrees from a top 10 public university and a successful partnership between two major state institutions, who are working together to bring a world-class public education into state prison,” said LIFTED Director and UCI Professor Keramet Reiter.

The effort is part of California’s continuing efforts to shift correctional policy through the implementation of the “California Model.” The model is designed to foster rehabilitative environments, including educational opportunities, for inmates. In 2022, Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state Legislature allocated $1.8 million over five years for the program’s support and expansion.

Supporters say the investment leads to safer communities.

“Studies show that incarcerated individuals who participate in correctional education are 48% less likely to return to prison within three years than those who did not have access to these opportunities,” according to CDCR.

“California is transforming its criminal justice system to focus on true rehabilitation, justice, and safer communities statewide — known as the California Model,” said CDCR Secretary Jeff Macomber. “This collaboration with the University of California allows these graduates to build a foundation focused on pursuing educational opportunities that will prepare them for a successful future, while making our communities safer.

“CDCR is proud to partner with the UC to greatly expand degree-earning opportunities for incarcerated students,” Macomber continued. “Collaborative efforts between CDCR and California’s public higher education system are truly transforming lives. These efforts are vital, as education serves as a powerful rehabilitative tool.”

Not everyone is on board. Some victims’ families believe California prisons are getting too cushy.

“Perpetrators, they serve some time, and now their time in prison is going to be even easier. So how is that justice?” John Sparry told CBS.

Sparry’s stepson, Kyle Myrick, was beaten to death by a coworker. His killer is serving 15 years to life.

Sparry questioned the effectiveness of rehabilitative programs for those convicted of violent crimes.

“I don’t think they’re going to be fixed by any amount of dog training or horse petting or any other therapies that they offer. I think they’re probably just beyond that,” he said.

Newsom says he is empathetic to the victims.

He was quoted in the CBS article: “Not all victims are on board, but many are.”

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