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December 14-20, 2005

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Lock-Up Learning

Higher education at prisons is making a comeback—and a difference

By Eugene Alexander Dey

Education is power—especially in prison. At one time, before Congress cancelled Pell Grant funding for prisoner-students in 1994, there were roughly 350 prisons participating in post-secondary correctional education (PSCE) all over the country. Without this federal lifeline, only about two dozen prison programs managed to survive in the post-Pell era by the late '90s—and only one in California.

When the Golden State decided to commit all of its criminal justice resources toward warehousing and punishment as the primary solution to drugs, crime and addiction throughout the '90s, Patten University in Oakland privately funded the state's only PSCE program at San Quentin. And with the San Quentin program, the only onsite college program in the state, getting stronger, PSCE appears to be making a comeback.

Nestled in the mountains of Northern California in Lassen County, the home of two state correctional facilities and a brand-new federal prison, corrections and college officials are working together to bring higher education to convicts. Lassen Community College (LCC) recently began offering correspondence courses to prisoners in the California Correctional Center (CCC), High Desert State Prison and the United States Penitentiary in Herlong.

This new approach to providing correctional education is funded through the LCC's extended opportunity programs and services department, which assists low-income and educationally disadvantaged students in achieving their goals. Small-town colleges' need for fulltime students is what brought this educational methodology into being. Lassen County, essentially one of the largest penal colonies in the world, has been transformed into a laboratory for restorative justice.

Andrew Chaffer, originally from the North Bay, just started college classes for the first time in his life this past fall. Clean-cut and friendly, the 29-year-old CCC inmate is grateful for this rare opportunity.

"Being able to go to college in prison gives me a feeling of self-worth, something to relay to my family other than all the negativity that usually revolves around this environment," says Chaffer, who is serving an eight-year sentence for domestic violence committed in Susanville.

Growing up in the North Bay, education never appealed to Chaffer. When he turned 16, he dropped out of school to support a child he had fathered with his girlfriend. While he considers the North Bay to be his home, Chaffer moved to Susanville in the late '90s because he couldn't afford to stay in the area any more.

"I worked at Frank's Market in downtown Cotati, but that job didn't pay well enough for me to continue to live there," he explains.

Chaffer's move up north spelled disaster for a young man who had so far avoided significant jail time but nonetheless lived what he now calls "a crazy life" laden with drug use. "My luck simply ran out," Chaffer says, a sentiment most convicts share. He claims to have received a "bum rap" in a county where he was seen as an outsider.

"For years, I committed all sorts of stupid stuff and always beat the charges," says Chaffer, not making any excuses for a past that included many run-ins with the law. "Then I moved to Lassen and got convicted for something I didn't do."

While he continues to maintain his innocence, Chaffer feels that his incarceration is somewhat offset by the prospect of a college education.

"Sometimes, I wonder if this is what it's going to be take for me to develop the type of marketable skills to afford to go back home," he says.

While Chaffer hopes higher learning will enable him to make a positive reentry back into society, his recent enrollment is indicative of the program's relative success. Of the 60 student-inmates at CCC and High Desert who began courses last spring, only a handful have flunked out or quit. This fall's semester has seen LCC's prisoner enrollment double at the two state prisons; another 12 have begun at the federal institution.

In a state with the highest recidivism rates in the country, the advent of inmates graduating from college is no small accomplishment. Since a number of studies indicate lower recidivism rates for inmates who participate in college programs and even greater decreases for those who receive two or more years of college, PSCE could be the linchpin in a prison-reform program beginning to take shape.

Just completing his third college semester, CCC inmate Steven Jeremy Woods of Kern County is the poster boy for higher education as a powerful crime-fighting tool. With 25 units and a 4.0 GPA, Woods takes a full course load while working toward an AA degree in liberal arts. Tall and lean, the 32-year-old Woods is quite forthcoming about his past, present and future.

"It disgusts me how I used to live," he says, "the pain I caused myself and my family. This program has brought me closer to them."

During a life of addiction and criminality, Woods caused his family tremendous grief. Then in 2001, his life literally came to an end when he was convicted of introducing controlled substances into a county jail. Since he had two burglary priors, the jailhouse drug case qualified as a final blow under the three strikes sentencing law. Woods received a sentence of 26 years to life.

"I felt like I had ruined my life and I simply had nothing to lose any more," says Woods, whose first couple of years in prison were marred by continued hardcore drug abuse and serious institutional malfeasance. He seemed destined for a term at the infamous security housing unit at Pelican Bay or an early grave.

However, upon his arrival at CCC, Thomas Wallen, also from Kern County, convinced Woods to lead a clean, sober and exercise-oriented life. When the college program began, their self-imposed rehabilitative regime suddenly included serious study as well.

Serving a life sentence for receiving stolen property, Wallen, 36, is a mountain of a man determined to make a difference. With a 4.0 GPA, he is one of the program's shining stars, a prisoner who goes above and beyond to serve as a mentor to younger inmates and volunteer extra time to ensure the college program's success.

"I'm basically an unofficial liaison between the students and Alberico," Wallen says, referring to Linda Alberico, the equal opportunity director at LCC. "There are a lot of things to track down in order to keep this program working. Myself and a handful of others help Alberico any way we can."

While self-motivated inmates like Wallen are well-suited to restorative justice, the progress of those like Woods is nothing short of miraculous.

"This has made me realize that I could do a lot more than I ever thought possible," Woods says. "I'm always trying to tie something I'm learning in my classes to personal and past experiences."

Now eager to pursue his education beyond the AA degree offered by LCC, Woods has found recovery from substance abuse in his addiction to education. "I'm going to be looking for other opportunities to learn once I'm done," he says. "I have enjoyed the college experience that much. Education has changed my whole outlook on life."

"I see a lot of people benefiting from the college experience," Woods says. "In the past, all I ever received in prison was a drug habit. Now that I see how much college can change you, I realize that there's no reason for prison to destroy people's lives."

Serving a life sentence for a nonviolent drug conviction under the three strikes law, writer Eugene Dey is an inmate at the High State Desert Prison in Susanville.

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