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Donovan Inmates Work Toward College Degree Through Obama-Era Program

Students in a Southwestern College class at the Richard J. Donovan Correction...

Photo by Megan Burks

Above: Students in a Southwestern College class at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility work on a group project, March 22, 2018.

The students who file into John Rieder’s English 99 class each week carry their books and pens in clear plastic bags instead of backpacks. They wear blue prison uniforms and faded black tattoos on scalps and forearms. Those are just about the only clues this classroom is in a prison.

College pennants line the walls. A whiteboard lays out the day’s agenda. And the students quickly take their seats — except one who’s eager to discuss the text. Rieder said that’s common.

“The level of critical thought and commentary is much higher than I would typically get from a room where I’m teaching 18- to 21-year-olds,” he said. “These guys draw from a pretty remarkable pool of experiences.”

Much of that experience was gained in the streets, not rows of desks in a classroom. The students are inmates at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa, serving time for convictions ranging from robbery to attempted murder.

RELATED: Former Donovan Inmate Takes His College Degree Beyond The Barbed Wire

Southwestern College began offering a rare face-to-face associate’s degree program there in 2016, thanks to an Obama-era pilot program that extended Pell Grants to 12,000 prisoners. Previously, inmates were more likely to take correspondence courses as individuals to earn credits behind bars.

Now, 20 inmates gather for multiple classes a week. They expect to graduate with business degrees in 2020 — things move a bit slower behind bars.

Photo by Megan Burks

Students in a Southwestern College class at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility work on a group project, March 22, 2018.

But their degrees will be no different than those earned outside of prison. Rieder said his class is just as rigorous, drawing on psychology, philosophy and poetry to explore themes of education and power.

“The idea is that most folks, if they’re going to yoke ideas of education and power together, they would think, ‘Oh, well, higher (education) leads to empowerment.’ And that’s a great narrative. I love that narrative,” Rieder said. “But I also want them to think about the ways structures of education dovetail with structures of power in U.S. society.

“So we’re not just looking at it in terms of personal transformation and empowerment, although that is an important part about why they are here,” he said. “I also want them to think about some of the social inequities that get reproduced within systems of education.”

That strikes a chord with student Kyle Baughman. The 34-year-old has sharp hazel eyes and a star inked onto his shaved head. He said he essentially grew up in Orange County’s criminal justice system.

“Most of the schools I went to growing up were probation schools,” he said. “So basically, I felt like if I didn’t go, I’m going to get locked up.”

Nicholas Mcvicker,

Baughman earned his high school diploma in juvenile hall. Later, a carjacking and robbery, along with sentencing enhancements for being in a gang, landed him in state prison with a sentence of 15 years to life.

He takes responsibility for his actions. But he’s also beginning to work out some of the larger forces that may have brought him here, thanks to Rieder’s class.

“I just happened to bring about discussion like, ‘Hey, do you guys see some kind of connection? The kids of judges and lawyers and the people that make all this money, they’re taught differently, as opposed to the way we’re taught,'” he said. “And something I started to wonder was, that 1 percent, is that the same percentage also in here? Because it’s a very small number of people who come from that kind of environment.”

In his own way, Baughman described philosopher Paulo Freire’s seminal theory from “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” Freire says oppressed people are educated in a banking system, where teachers deposit knowledge without bringing students’ strengths and experiences to bear. A better education system, he says, is one where students think critically and work to solve problems — the kind children of the elite are more likely to receive, especially when Freire was writing in the 1960s.

Photo by Megan Burks

Students in the first cohort of a Southwestern College associate's degree program at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility pose for a group photo, March 22, 2018.

“I’m like, wait a minute, I’m getting a little suspicious here, because the people you’re talking about going into the banking system are the people that are usually in here,” Baughman said.

RELATED: Alliant University Course Aims To Professionalize Street Outreach Workers

He said he hopes the class helps him prove to the parole board he can re-enter society. Participating in the program can shave six months off of an inmate’s sentence. Baughman said he would like to become a drug and alcohol counselor if he’s released.

The prison benefits, too, said Donovan Community Resources Manager Lance Eshelman.

“The inmate is now looking at things in a different light. They are looking to see how to better themself, and that does create a more positive atmosphere for, not only their fellow inmates, but also the correctional staff,” said Eshelman, whose job was created about five years ago to boost programs that align with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s renewed focus on rehabilitation.

Jason Hicks helps coordinate the Southwestern program and runs an educational program in another part of the prison. He said the class has also helped defuse racial tension.

“The program actually takes place on a general population yard, where there’s racial politics. And when you go out into the yard, you’ll see segregation of races,” Hicks said. “That sort of disappears when you get into the classroom. You’ll notice that the guys are willing to help each other out. I think it really shows rehabilitation at its best.”

And it’s expected the benefits might extend beyond the barbed wire. Corrections officials and policymakers are investing in these types of efforts to try to bring down the recidivism rate, or the rate at which former inmates return to prison. Many struggle to adjust or find jobs and fall into old habits.

But first, the focus is on getting these students across the finish line. While Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has signalled she likes the Second Chance Pell Grant pilot, the Trump administration could end it before they graduate. Those involved with the program at Donovan said they hope its future graduates would inspire the government to expand it instead.

“I think they know that there’s a lot of momentum and energy behind them,” said professor Rieder. “People want to see them do well and they want to rise to the occasion.”

At the start of this semester, the students collectively had a 3.91 grade point average.

Prisoners have long taken correspondence courses to earn college credits behind bars. But inmates at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa are participating in a rare face-to-face program.

Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part series. On Friday, we’ll introduce you to a former student in the program who’s been released and is putting the theory that these kinds of programs can reduce recidivism to the test.

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