Education redefines ex-inmates
December 7, 2010 5:35 PM
For more than 40 years, Associated Students' Project Rebound has done what no other program in the state has dared to do: help inmates get from behind bars into college.
This year, in response to rising demand for the grassroots program's services, and as part of a statewide initiative to address California's education and incarceration issues, Project Rebound is looking to go beyond SF State and the Bay Area in an effort to promote education as a means of changing one's life for the better.
"Usually, when you find somebody or an organization that is interested in Rebound, they have a direct connection and maybe even an understanding of the fact that education is paramount in terms of allowing any individual, in particular people who have been dealing with the criminal justice system, an opportunity to redefine themselves and to market themselves as a viable candidate in the workforce," said Project Rebound Outreach Specialist Eric Durnell.
Founded in 1967 by the late SF State professor John Irwin, Project Rebound helps formerly incarcerated individuals attend college and is one of the only programs of its kind in the nation. The program has helped hundreds of parolees get their degree and boasts an 87 percent graduation rate, according to Program Director Jason Bell.
Currently, the program has more than 80 formerly incarcerated students at SF State, however, that number pales in comparison to the demand for the project's services, forcing its three-person staff to look beyond the Bay Area for networks to institute inmate-to-student programs on other campuses.
"A lot of times, people have everything they need (to get into a four-year school), but there's no one to make the connection to in these other colleges," Bell said. "That's one of the biggest letdowns for me. You have to parole to your county of commitment, so you have all these people who'd be willing to move all the way up here to go to school, but parole will not allow them to."
Applicants begin the process from behind bars by writing to Project Rebound and requesting enrollment in the program. The staff then sends back a questionnaire to determine the applicant's education level, requirements that need to be met, and date of parole, which must coincide with the semester schedule.
Future parolees are then guided through the process of applying to and enrolling at SF State. Those who need to fulfill lower division requirements are directed to City College of San Francisco through its EOPS/Second Chance program.
But because of how the parole system works, parolees must report to the county in which they were incarcerated.
Without a network of programs at other schools, it is nearly impossible for Project Rebound to help parolees in different counties get into schools outside of the Bay Area.
"When individuals are incarcerated, there is a hunger for knowledge. People want to learn," said Project Rebound Office Coordinator Airto Morales. "We need to expand to other UCs and CSUs so we can provide precisely what is needed to transfer from penitentiaries to the classroom."
All three of Project Rebound's staff members were once incarcerated and attended SF State through the program.
As the poster children for successful reentry, Bell, Morales and Durnell have been overwhelmed with letters and requests to speak about their experiences and the landmark program.
Morales, who fields hundreds of letters a week, said the program receives requests from all over California, Arizona and as far away as Florida, demonstrating the demand for similar programs outside the Bay Area.
According to ASI President Cynthia Ashton, student government is behind the successful pilot program and has contacted 23 other student governments, asserting the need for Project Rebound's services.
"As Associated Students, (student governments) are supposed to serve all students, not just the general population," Ashton said. "By not having a program like this, you are depriving certain students of services. I hope other CSUs look at this matter as important, and I'm sure they will."
Bell, who took over as program director in 2005, has experienced firsthand what the program is capable of.
"I was a Rebound student first and foremost. It was a part of my release plan to get my degree, to get off parole without violations, and develop all the things I had set up for myself before being released from prison," Bell said. "I was serious, and I think a lot of people feel like this is their way of rebuilding themselves and doing something aside from what they were used to doing that was negative. There's more at stake, I would say, (and) I think that might apply to many folks."
Eligible students must have a minimum 3.0 GPA, be enrolled in Project Rebound, and demonstrate financial need. The project's founder, for which the scholarship is named, died this January.
"In a sense, one passing creates a new birth," Bell said. "I don't know if we could have done it without that momentum."
Irwin was incarcerated at age 23 and served five years at Soledad State Prison. Upon his release, he enrolled at SF State and eventually graduated with a BA from UCLA and a PhD from UC Berkeley. He taught for 40 years as a professor of sociology and started Project Rebound in 1967.
Irwin's constant advocacy and action provided the inspiration and framework by which Bell currently runs the program. The scholarship is a realization of the program's initial goal of providing opportunity to those who otherwise would be unable to go to college.
"(Irwin) died when he was in his 70s and all the way through he was continually fighting for prisoners," Bell said. "He was still almost until the last weeks of his death going into San Quentin (prison) and working with a lot of lifers. They all remember him."
In 2007, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger put $31 million into the California Gang Reduction, Intervention and Prevention Initiative, a comprehensive plan to curb gang violence statewide. More than $490,000 of the fund was appropriated to the San Francisco After-School Teacher Pathways program, which pays for 18-24 year olds interested in teaching to go to college and get their credentials.
Students within the SF-ASTP program are targeted to potentially fill teaching shortages in the math and science fields. Additionally, while earning their credentials, individuals in the program work in after-school programs, earning money while also fulfilling a severe teaching need in California.
At-risk youth are placed in cohorts and attend classes with students of similar backgrounds. A mentor is placed in each cohort and works with students as they progress through the higher education system.
"There's a shortage of teachers, and so we want to recruit teachers from within the community and give them an opportunity to earn money while they're in school," said OGYVP Research Program Specialist Colleen Curtin. "Plus, the earlier you can get to at-risk youth and give them a purpose, you save tax dollars down the road because they're less likely to go farther into the criminal justice system."
The Governor's Office of Gang and Youth Violence Prevention subsequently recruited project Rebound to act as one of six liaisons in the Bay Area to help SF-ASTP students transition to four-year schools.
Operating with a group of more than 20 volunteers from SF State, Project Rebound now offers tutoring and scholastic aid to potential teachers in the SF-ASTP program.
"It is a large demographic and the way we do it being such a grassroots organization is that we rely heavily on volunteers," Durnell said. "The opportunity speaks to them as human beings, and what that allows for us is that we have on-hand tutors and scholastic aid for individuals who may need help."
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