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First college graduates from new prisoner reintegration program

Omar Chavez spent 12 years after high school attending college on and off. When the 2012 spring semester began he made a choice that would bring his higher education to a screeching stop.

“I was caught with drugs crossing the border,” he said.

He spent nearly two years in federal prison in Oregon. While there, he became determined to change bad habits and go back to college.

This academic year he enrolled at California State University Fullerton, where he’d studied before his arrest.

“I thought I was going to have to do it on my own,” he said. “I felt that I just had to fly under the radar,” because he felt ashamed of his criminal record.

But that’s when he found Project Rebound, a program started at Fullerton and six other Cal State campuses last summer.

The program helps formerly incarcerated people apply to college, and once enrolled gives them financial stipends to pay for college textbooks, meals, and transportation. The program includes conversations with program staff – who have also spent time in prison – along with fellow students to talk through the challenges of finishing college.

The ramping up of the Project Rebound programs is one re-integration program that could serve as a model as California prison reforms reduce the population of prison inmates.

Officials founded seven programs last summer at the Cal State campuses in San Diego, Los Angeles, Fullerton, Pomona, San Bernardino, Bakersfield, and Fresno. Those programs were modeled on a program founded in 1967 at San Francisco State University.

The goal of Project Rebound is to help reintegrate former prisoners into civil society and to help remove the societal and psychological stigma that may come after prisoners have completed their incarceration.

“Just imagine that you were known by the worst thing that you ever did, that you wore it on your sleeve for public consumption,” said Brady Heiner, director of Cal State Fullerton’s Project Rebound.

Chavez, the first graduate of Fullerton’s program, embodies the initiative’s goals, Heiner said, because he’s hasn’t let his conviction become a scarlet letter that keeps him from moving forward with his goals.

“For folks who aren’t persuaded by social justice arguments in favor of this kind of work, the cost benefit analysis is crystal clear,” Heiner said. “We can spend on average, as we do in the State of California, $61,000 a year to keep someone in a cage or we can spend a fraction of that to help extend opportunities to them to get their degrees.”

Project Rebound students are much less likely to commit crimes that land them back in prison, he said.

Once graduates earn their degrees they’re likely to face less supportive environments as they meet people and apply for jobs. Program administrators say more employers are letting convicted felons reach the interview stage rather than throw away an application that lists a conviction.

“Some employers are willing to hire people who have these backgrounds because they might feel like these individuals will work harder because they’ve gotten that second chance,” said Annika Anderson, director of Project Rebound at Cal State San Bernardino.

There are 20 students currently enrolled in Project Rebound on her campus, Anderson said, and 40 people in or out of prison interested in applying to her campus to earn their college degrees. Other campuses are seeing similar growth.

People who study the job market say this may be a good time for graduates of this program because we’re currently in a tight labor market in which employer are having a hard time finding candidates with college degrees.

“Employers first and foremost want a talented workforce,” said David Rattray, executive vice president at the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce.

“As we’ve come to grips with how many individuals have a felony on their record often times for non-violent, sometimes pretty minor crimes that means that employers are missing a talent pool.”

Omar Chavez hopes to enter that talent pool. He’s set to graduate on Sunday, with hopes to be hired by a Project Rebound program and to earn his masters’ degree in higher education in order to help other students who’ve been incarcerated reintegrate into society.

“We’re here, and we’re here to stay, and we’re going to come back and we’re going to be part of the professional world just like you and everyone else,” he said.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez

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