Prison Education Aims to Help Inmates Re-enter Society

PEP Founder/Director, Dr. Renford Reese speaks to inmates at the California Rehabilitation Center about the Prison Education Project.
PEP Founder/Director, Dr. Renford Reese speaks to inmates at the California Rehabilitation Center about the Prison Education Project.

As liberals and conservatives increasingly agree on a need to limit “mass incarceration,” the Obama administration has been trying to make it easier for prisoners to get an education. KCRW is exploring how the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation handles inmate “re-entry.”

KCRW producer Jenny Hamel looked at one program behind bars that offers everything from basic English to college-level courses.

Calculus professor Jenny Switkes was going over the concept of the derivative, drawing on a whiteboard while 20 students at folding tables took notes. What made the classroom different was that the students were all dressed in the same blue prison uniforms. They’re among the 3,500 serious and violent offenders doing time at California Rehabilitation Center, a medium-security state prison in Norco, in Riverside County.

Switkes, from California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, makes a weekly visit past the guard towers and barbed wire to teach as a volunteer.

“It benefits everybody,” she said. “It benefits the prisoners, and it benefits society as well to have inmates who are now learning skills and are learning respect for themselves and respect for others.”

Some of the students face years in prison. Others expect to be out in months, but all face a steep slope to change their life direction. About 700,000 inmates are released from prisons across the country every year. In California, state data show over half of those released re-offend within three years.

Ernst Fenelon Jr. hopes to help change that. He visits the prison in Norco several times a week as program director for the Prison Education Project, or PEP, a privately funded nonprofit that’s behind the Introduction to Calculus class. Fenelon has a way of connecting with the prisoners.

“I say, ‘Oh yeah, I was incarcerated for 14 and a half years, three years paroled.’ “Suddenly all the eyes and ears perk up and they all look at me kind of different.”

Since 2011, PEP has sent hundreds of volunteers into prisons to teach classes such as creative writing, psychology and career development. One class is aimed at preparing those thinking of pursuing a four-year college degree. But nearly 70 percent of all prisoners in the country lack a high school diploma, so the mandate for state prisons is adult basic education.

In a math class for those preparing to take the GED, the test for a high school diploma equivalency, the material doesn’t come easy for everyone.

“By getting a GED, this is a crucial step,” Fenelon said, “because to even get the most basic, decent job, you have to get a high school diploma or a GED.  Nowadays it’s a college degree so that’s why we added the next layer.”

One of the students in a “next layer” class is Joe Ortiz, 31, who hopes eventually to benefit from an Obama administration decision this summer to reinstate Pell Grants to a limited number of prisoners seeking a college degree, for the first time in 20 years. That’s a pilot program that has critics such as Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., who calls it “an affront to taxpayers and parents.”

Ortiz says he went to prison at age 23 for injuring an undercover cop during a drug-sales bust in East Los Angeles, and expects to be out when he is 33.

Working toward a college degree helps him think about the future, instead of his “street life” past, he said. “I don’t ever want to come back.”

More:

Prison Education Project

Rand study on education, vocational training in prisons reducing recidivism