Volume 45, Number 1 - November/December 2009
Ironwood Prison program serves as a ‘win-win' model
As commencement ceremonies go, it was fairly typical, complete with traditional gowns, valedictorian speakers, an Honor Guard of veterans, and families looking on with pride as the graduates received their diplomas from Palo Verde College.
With one significant difference… these graduates were all wearing blue shirts and denim jeans under their gown, the standard uniform of inmates at Ironwood State Prison.
Full of promise
Although some of these men may never leave this place, remotely located in the desert some 15 miles outside of Blythe, for a couple of hours on this June day they were like any other graduates – happy and full of promise.
"The education I've received here has changed the way I think, the way I interact with the world, and the way I form opinions. All of these changes have made me a better person and citizen," said Marc San Nicholas, in his valedictorian address.
But San Nicholas's words were more than personal, they carried a political message as well.
"If we are serious about rehabilitation and recidivism, we will reconnect ourselves to programs such as this one," he said, before thanking Palo Verde faculty and staff for their support.
At a time when drastic state budget cuts continue to threaten schools, colleges, and prisons, the Palo Verde College program at Ironwood is serving as a win-win model for all parties. Since it began the prison program, Palo Verde College has been able to considerably boost its enrollment, thereby qualifying for increased state funding that has been used to expand programs for all of its students. The prison, too, has also gained a valuable program without having to expend resources.
But, perhaps most importantly, is the impact on the inmates and society. Numerous studies indicate the recidivism rate among inmates who participate in prison education programs is much lower than those who do not. In one study, simply attending school behind bars reduces re-incarceration by 55 percent. Another study finds that the recidivism rate drops from 76 to 15 percent among inmates who have received an associate of arts degree.
"The cost benefit factor to the state is outstanding," said Bill Ponder, a computer science instructor who has been instrumental in making the prison's college program work. "All of the CDCR (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation) facilities are overstocked and they are shipping inmates out of state. Anything we can do to keep these guys from being re-incarcerated is a benefit to taxpayers," he said.
Jim White, an older, longtime inmate who helped initiate the program, also compares the high cost of housing an inmate to the cost of education.
"It's $45,000 a year to keep an inmate in prison, while it costs $2,500 for their (community college) education. This is money that is well-spent since many of these guys are going to go on and become taxpayers," he said.
In fact, prison spending in California jumped 75 percent this year, from $5.8 billion to $10.1 billion, thanks in part to an 11,000 increase in inmates.
White acknowledges that the program is not for everyone. "A guy has to want to change, and even then, he has to overcome a lot of peer pressure to enroll," he said.
Yet, to date, the program has graduated more than 700 inmates, with many going on to earn bachelor's degrees once they leave prison.
Largest course provider
Taking over a program started by Coastline College, Palo Verde began offering its college program at Ironwood in 2001. Since then, several other colleges have followed suit, but Palo Verde has become the largest course provider to prisons throughout the state, offering programs through its Distance Education office to 23 prison sites, including the adjacent Chuckawalla Valley State Prison. In fact, Palo Verde now serves over 1,000 students per semester and has been hailed nationally and internationally as a model program. It was also highlighted in Lockdown a special television series produced by National Geographic.
Getting the program established wasn't easy, according to Pat Koester, a retired counselor and one of the program's founders who continues to attend Ironwood's graduation ceremonies. It required the community college, the prison, the Chancellor's Office and the faculty to work together.
"It was unchartered territory at the time," Koester said.
In addition to getting "buy-in" from Palo Verde faculty who had to restructure the way they delivered education, organizers also had to convince adult education instructors in the prison that they weren't taking away their work. The program initially faced protests by a number of prison guards as well, who disagreed with the concept of providing higher education to inmates.
"It's turned out to be good for the inmates, good for the prison and good for the college," Koester said. "I'm so pleased it's been such a success."
Today, nearly the entire faculty at Palo Verde College works with the inmate population, although few instructors actually ever see their students unless they attend the prison's commencement festivities. Papers and materials are exchanged through the mail and by courier, and instructors often record their classes on DVDs for viewing by the inmates inside. Instructors also have to be flexible, accepting work that may be late, or handwritten.
Because inmates are prevented from using the internet, research is done by requests made to Palo Verde librarian Barbara Gaubeca, who tracks down the information, photocopies it and sends it back.
"Although it is sometimes an adventure to provide the material they need, when I attend their graduation, and see the potential, it makes it worthwhile" Gaubeca said.
Despite the challenging logistics, however, the prison program often produces more honor students than the more traditional program at the Blythe campus site.
In fact, English professor Robert Robertson is not being facetious when he compares the environment of the prison program to the atmosphere of some of America's elite private universities.
"The students are in the middle of nowhere, so there are few distractions. They live in a ‘dormitory.' And they have formed a great learning community," he said. "They really are our only ‘traditional' students."
The inmates themselves don't disagree.
One inmate who has taken advantage of the higher education offerings is Kenneth Anderson, who just completed his third associate's degree – this one in liberal studies.
Anderson explained that at first, Ironwood administrators didn't think he had earned the right to be in the program, until a prison trustee vouched for him.
"Now I hang out with people who want to redeem themselves and who know the true power of education," Anderson said.
Since enrolling in the Palo Verde College courses several years ago, Anderson has volunteered his time in the prison's drug and rehabilitation program and helped start a parenting group for inmates on how to be better fathers.
Other inmates hope to take their certificates and degrees and use them to enter a bachelor's program or to start their own businesses when they get out, since they know how difficult it will be to find a job when they have a prison record.
Although the state continues to face a financial crisis, instructors at Palo Verde College insist such programs are of vital importance.
As Bill Ponder said, "Denying education to these folk will have more long-term negative effects on our state and society than any other issues. If we do not put money into education, we end up selling our future."