UCLA’s Prison Education Program offers college courses for incarcerated people

After being incarcerated as a minor, Abel Diaz didn’t see college as an option until he took classes through UCLA’s prison education program.

“It kind of allowed us to escape from the difficult situation we were in at the time. It kind of let us out of this momentary cage that we found ourselves in,” Diaz said.

Currently, only two University of California schools, UCLA and UC Irvine, offer prison education programs. UCLA’s Prison Education Program connects incarcerated women and youth to post-secondary education by bringing UCLA faculty and students to learn alongside them. The UCI prison education program, UCI LIFTED, is running a pilot licensing program this fall.

“Going to these classes offered by UCLA, they kind of made it a reality for me,” Diaz said. “I come from a broke family, you know. School has never been a reality for me. But the classes opened my mind to say, ‘Okay, that’s a possibility. I can do it.'”

Bryonn Bain, one of the program’s directors, said she started the program in 2015 after talking to incarcerated women who had multiple associate degrees and wanted to further their education.

“They wanted to go home with more education instead of less education, so they could provide something meaningful to their families,” Bain said. “And so the next week after that focus group, I got letters from 139 women in prison saying we needed UCLA to start a bachelor’s program here.”

The program, which takes UCLA students and faculty by bus to correctional facilities and juvenile halls, has partnered with several correctional facilities such as the California Institution for Women and Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall.

UCLA was the first UC to offer a certificate in justice studies in partnership with UCLA Extension for incarcerated students and is trying to follow in the footsteps of California State University in Los Angeles to launch a bachelor’s degree program, Bain said.

Diaz said he earned a legal studies certificate through the program, and it eventually became a stepping stone for him to pursue a bachelor’s degree after his release.

Claudia Peña, co-director of the program with Bain, said students who participated in the program and are no longer incarcerated continue to collaborate with the program.

“They continue to want to work side-by-side with us to collaborate and seem to continue to do really amazing work around the start of the school year,” Peña said.

According to a Rand Corporation study, people who participated in prison education programs were 43% less likely to be returned to prison.

“So we see the work of education as the work of liberation. We see this as part of a larger mass decarceration movement,” Bain said.

Armando Tellez, a former associate director, said the program not only offers college courses, but also tries to replicate the college experience for incarcerated students.

“Being a student is more than just going to class and coming home, isn’t it? Students have the opportunity to attend events and presentations. There’s so much going on on a college campus,” Tellez said.

Diaz added that one of the classes he took in the program was in theater and the arts in which groups performed scripts they had written.

“We were able to freely interact with everyone and be ourselves,” Diaz said. “(We could) just let our guard down a bit and interact with everyone in a different way than what we were used to inside.”

Alongside UCLA, UCI also hosts its own prison education program.

Keramet Reiter, director of UCI LIFTED, said UCI is in the process of admitting its first cohort of incarcerated students in the fall of 2022. If all goes as planned, UCI would be the first UC to offer a bachelor’s degree to incarcerated students, she said.

Reiter said all CUs should be part of the prison education initiative.

“If we believe incarcerated students are state residents who have equal access, that’s one of the reasons it’s important for UCs to be involved with community colleges and states of California,” Reiter said.

One of the most common misconceptions among the public when preparing for this program was doubts that incarcerated students would be able to handle the classes, Reiter said.

“In my experience, having been involved in higher education in prison for a long time, they are some of the most motivated students I have ever worked with. They tend to be adults, they are older than the average UC student and they really know what it means to have no college education,” Reiter said. “They are incredibly grateful for these opportunities.”

Both programs hope to secure more funding and resources to reach a point where student tuition is covered. With more funding, the program would be able to have more courses for prison studies, Peña said.

“But beyond that, we want every class that we can bring UCLA students into the correctional facility to really start breaking down the misconceptions and notions of this separation between those inside or outside. We want to create these opportunities for people to learn with each other and from each other inside the prison,” Bain said.

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