Cal State's Project Rebound wants to make life after prison successful through education

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil
The Los Angeles Times
November 11, 2016

A new effort to help formerly incarcerated individuals gain access to higher education is coming to Cal State Fullerton, becoming the only initiative of its kind in Orange County.

Project Rebound, a program based out of San Francisco State University that provides mentoring and financial assistance to students who pursue advanced degrees after spending time behind bars, is expanding its operations to seven additional CSU campuses, including Fullerton, Bakersfield, Fresno, Los Angeles, Pomona, San Bernardino and San Diego.

"Ninety-nine percent of folks who are incarcerated come back to the community," said Brady Heiner, director of Project Rebound at Fullerton. "It's incumbent on us to welcome them back and provide them with the tools they need to succeed."

An estimated 40,000 to 50,000 people are released from the county's jails each year, according to Meghan Medlin, board chairwoman for the Orange County Re-Entry Partnership, and even more return to the county from state prisons.

Project Rebound, established in 1967 by the late John Irwin, a tenured sociology professor at San Francisco State who had previously spent five years in prison for armed robbery, for decades sought to ease the path to higher education for formerly incarcerated individuals, who typically face significant barriers when seeking advanced degrees.

"Even though legally there are few obstacles for formerly incarcerated folks to pursuing higher education, there are still a slew of barriers," said Heiner, also an assistant professor of philosophy at CSUF. "Some of them are procedural, some are social and cultural, and some are economic.

"What Project Rebound seeks to do is to build a pathway from prison to college to facilitate and assist folks in making that transition."

Romarilyn Ralson, program coordinator for Project Rebound at CSUF who was previously incarcerated for 23 years at the California Institution for Women, understands first-hand how difficult the transition from prison to college can be — and why the support of programs like Project Rebound are critical to students' success.

"There's a lot of stress and anxiety that comes with adjusting to a college campus and sitting in a classroom with students who have a lot of social capital, private school education and supportive parents, and who don't have the trauma that comes with an incarceration history," said Ralston, who earned a bachelor's degree from Pitzer College in Claremont and a master's from Washington University in St. Louis.

"I was very insecure in the classroom, but it was because of [Pitzer College's] support that I was able to transition well."

For Ralston, higher education was not only critical to helping her secure meaningful employment after incarceration, but also in shaping a new view on life.

"I was able to see myself differently in the world," she said. "I was no longer a felon, a formerly incarcerated person. I was becoming a citizen with rights and responsibilities.

"People who have served time in prison are capable and able to do anything we put our minds to if the barriers are removed that prevent us from doing that. It's not our lack of intelligence or civility. It's the institutional barriers that are against this population, and when those barriers are removed, the sky is the limit. I'm a living example of that."

Higher education for the formerly incarcerated also has societal benefits.

According to a 2014 report by the RAND Corp., inmates who participate in education programs are 43% less likely to return to prison. Lowering the recidivism rate through education is also cost effective; the study found that every $1 investment in prison education saves about $5 on re-incarceration costs.

Project Rebound's own data reveal that only 3% of its students return to prison, compared to the statewide recidivism rate of 65%, one of the highest in the nation.

The success of education programs in curbing recidivism is one reason the Obama Administration approved the Second Chance Pell Grant program in June, which will provide funding for 12,000 inmates' two- or four-year degrees. The move came more than two decades after the 1994 omnibus crime bill banned inmates from receiving Pell Grants to finance their college educations.

"People who are more likely to 'recidivate' are people who don't have ties to their community, who typically don't have higher education, family or jobs or anything to hold them on the right track," said OCREP's Medlin. "So when you have someone who has access to education, that's going to help keep them from re-offending."

Fullerton's Project Rebound will offer assistance to formerly incarcerated students in a variety of ways.

Prospective students will receive help completing their applications (they go through the same application process as all other CSU hopefuls), and, if admitted, will receive customized mentoring and tutoring in their course of study, as well as support from Ralston and the Project Rebound staff.

"I can identify with them and support them in ways that only I can because I have that experience, and I understand what it takes to accomplish that degree after you've been to prison," said Ralston.

In addition, Project Rebound will supplement federal and state grants, so that full-time students at the university will only pay $2,000 per year, excluding housing, said Heiner.

Heiner hopes Project Rebound will enroll 10 students at CSUF by the spring semester, and then ramp up to 15 in future academic terms.

Ralston also hopes that the expansion of Project Rebound throughout California will spark change in the public opinion on the formerly incarcerated and higher education.

"Everyone should have access to quality education in America, and that includes the formerly incarcerated," she said. "It's the right thing to do. If we want to combat mass incarceration and recidivism, and if we want to help families break the cycle of poverty and incarceration, then we need to invest in higher education for all."