By Elise Modrovich
Special to the Sun
In December of last year, 17 inmates from the California City Correctional Facility became the first graduates of Cerro Coso Community College’s (CCCC) Incarcerated Student Education Program (ISEP), joining eight men who graduated in a ceremony the previous May. ISEP is a prison based education program where enrolled inmate students are all taught the identical courses, and guided by the same Cerro Coso professors, offered at Cerro Coso campuses and online. All graduating student inmates earned a full Associate Degree.
It is an impressive achievement for Cerro Coso, whose leadership decided to launch the program in 2015, after the passage of Senate Bill 1391. SB1391 ended “the transfer of younger teens into adult criminal court, keeping them in the juvenile justice system where education and rehabilitation services are mandatory.” It also shifted the apportionment for colleges and allowed face-to-face programs like ISEP to begin inside of prisons. This investment by the State of California is a unique approach to a successful partnership for rehabilitation and safer communities.
The state’s Prison Education Program is designed to help inmates who choose to pursue a higher education transition back into society upon release. The hope and goal is to reduce recidivism, i.e. the likelihood that former prisoners will return to prison after their release. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, each year, more than 2.2 million people are incarcerated in American county jails, state and federal prisons, and a 2013 Rand Corporation study reports that the rate of recidivism for inmates with no education is at a staggering 86 percent. However, for those inmates who participate in a college program that number cuts in half to 43 percent, drops dramatically to 16 percent for those earning an associate’s degrees, 6 percent for those earning a Bachelor’s Degree, and 0 percent for those with a Master’s Degree.
In her address to the students at December’s graduation ceremony, Cerro Coso President Jill Board said, “You may have a hard time envisioning yourself making the step to go on to a university or attending a community college campus in the area you live. Take note that many universities and community colleges have or want to have programs designed specifically to support you as a community of learners. I share this so you know it is on our radar state-wide that our community colleges can be an option for you to continue your quest for change as you either transition to the university or into the workforce.”
From the initial seed of 19 students in one class at the program’s inception in 2015, the ISEP has grown into a tall tree that now serves over 1,000 students each year, over 2,100 total student inmates and counting, and offers seven transferable degree pathways, all while preparing individuals for re-entry into society. In addition to the 25 graduates in 2018, 63 students qualified for the Phi Theta Kappa (PTK) International Honor Society, completing a minimum of 12 units as well as holding a GPA of 3.5 or higher, showing achievement in honors, leadership, service, and fellowship programming.
Kern Valley Resident Helen Smoot teaches Music Appreciation to the ISEP students. “I have taught music since the age of 14 and I find this to be my most gratifying teaching experience. These students (inmates) are hungry for knowledge and are great to work with. The class I teach is Music Appreciation. Each one brings their own experiences to the class. Whether we are studying Thelonius Monk or Mozart they come to class with an open mind and are eager to learn. Some have never heard ‘art music’ except for maybe a ringtone or a bit on a TV commercial. And usually none have had any type of music lessons. Their questioning minds are enjoyable to fill with musical knowledge. And they especially enjoy it when I perform for them on the little keyboard in the classroom. I hope to teach there for years to come. Each class of about 30 students always presents new and interesting challenges.”
Smoot was especially impressed with a recent “Renaissance music and the period” assignment, where she asked the students to read multiple quotes by Shakespeare on the back of the study booklet, and to write their thoughts on five quotes that resonated with them. “I was blown away by the depth and thoughtfulness of the responses,” says Smoot, who got permission from several of the students to publish and share them. Here is one such quote and response:
“Knowledge is the wing wherewith we fly to heaven.” – Shakespeare
“This is so true because with knowledge we are no longer ignorant. Knowledge moves us from living in a cave to living in a house. Knowledge moves the world from darkness to light. Knowledge leads the way to a better and healthier life for our children and future generations.” -T.V.
The success of Cerro Coso’s Prison Education Program has been presented at a number of state and national conferences including the California Intuitional Research Conference, The National Conference for Higher Education in Prison (NCHEP), and the California Prison Education Summit. Last April, the College was the co-recipient of the California Community College Chancellor’s Office Innovation Award for “their creative programming of guided pathways, data collection, and student centered approach in the prisons.”
“In higher education we see the potential in everyone,” said KCCD Chancellor Thomas Burke to the graduates. “Our challenge is getting those individuals to see the potential within themselves.” Through their ISEP, Cerro Coso offers student inmates a second chance for a better future.