Former prisoners get help – CalMatters


The first time Danny Muñoz went to prison, he was only 14 years old. He moved in and out of the justice system for the following decades, starting with minor offenses like brawls before moving on to more serious charges as an adult. In 2016, he survived five bullets. It was a wake-up call. The following year Muñoz was released from prison for what he decided was the last time. He hasn’t returned since.

One main reason? Her determination to graduate, fueled by the support of a program at her community college called RISE – Restorative Integrated Self Education – designed to help formerly incarcerated students navigate higher education.

The main difference between school with and without RISE support, Muñoz says, was peace of mind. In addition to helping students with the logistics of graduation, the program also provided a sense of community. Whether it’s technology, textbook allowances, enrollment assistance, financial aid, graduation stoles or emotional support, “RISE is going to find out for us, you know. ? ” he said.

Last month Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill which, for the first time, provides ongoing state support for programs such as RISE at 50 community colleges in California. The state will spend $ 10 million annually to provide services to formerly incarcerated students, monitor the impact of the programs, and consider whether they should be replicated at all community colleges across the state.

The effort, called the Rising Scholars Network, comes as the number of incarcerated students enrolled in the community college system has dramatically increased from a few hundred and seven years to over 10,000 today, according to the Bay Network coordinator. Area, Kellie Nadler. This is in part due to a 2014 law that allowed community colleges to receive the same level of state funding for students behind bars as students on campus. Experts estimate that the number of formerly incarcerated students who are now studying at community colleges is also in the thousands.

But unlike the University of California and California State University, so far there has been no system-wide effort to help these community college students make the transition to school. ‘Higher Education. A small pilot version of the Rising Scholars Network has been around for a few years; the new funding will help it grow.

“Community colleges are the backbone of higher education,” said Kevin McCarty, Assembly Member, Democrat of Sacramento and author of the new law.

They serve more people with criminal records than UC or CSU. Campuses are often closer to home, and they offer career certificates and other programs that four-year colleges may not offer. And, added McCarty, they are the most accessible for students involved in justice; competitive admission and longer application processing times at a UC or Cal State campus can create more hurdles in what is already a complicated process.

Success report

Studies have shown that programs similar to Rising Scholars promote academic and career success for formerly incarcerated students. Students involved in Project Rebound, a publicly funded program serving students with criminal records at Cal State, achieved an average GPA of 3.0 between 2016 and 2020, according to a Campaign for College Opportunity report, none returned to prison and 87% found full-time employment after graduation.

Stanford Law School released a study in 2020, finding that nearly half of formerly incarcerated students studying at community colleges with supportive programs achieved a GPA of 4.0 during the study period. Over 80% had a GPA greater than 3.0.

“We can get in our way sometimes, and I think that’s the most important thing. It’s because of the stigma, it’s because of the way society sees us, and the way it makes us doubt ourselves.

Danny Muñoz, former incarcerated student and mentor to underground academics

Rising Scholars Network programs also help students move on to four-year colleges and universities. After giving the opening speech when he graduated last year from Chabot College in Hayward, Muñoz transferred to UC Berkeley, where he is a student employed for Underground Scholars. He helps potential transfer students with their applications, a process he just went through himself.

He said the most common concern he encounters is that students are worried about sharing their personal experiences too much in application trials. He encourages them to share as much as they can.

“It’s the kind of thing that shows [universities] the resilience within us, the adversity we have overcome and our desire to do more and do better, not only for ourselves, but for others, ”he said.

Joe Louis Hernandez, director of Rising Scholars at Mount San Antonio College in Walnut, knows firsthand how difficult navigating college can be after incarceration. He spent time in prison as a young adult before taking control of his life. He started attending the school he now works at several years ago, but dropped out at the age of 22, he said, uninspired and unsure of the future. It took six more years before he began his college career in earnest, and now he’s a graduate student at Cal State Long Beach.

It’s powerful, Hernandez said, to give students something he didn’t have: connections to formerly incarcerated staff throughout the school. “This is what I missed. I went to school with the hope and a prayer of maybe being hired, but now we can say to them, “No, this is what you can see. “

Many students, Hernandez said, come to college not knowing they can aim for what they most want to do. Seeing formerly incarcerated people working in professional settings can be inspiring.

Jay Boyer, a former student incarcerated at San Diego Mesa College, is an aspiring fashion designer and business owner, dreams she put on hold when she first left college in 2000. Boyer has recently jailed for two months on what was supposed to be a three-day penalty for missing a court date, a discrepancy which she says was caused by paperwork errors and poor communication with her lawyer. This is her only experience in prison, but she has found that it has affected almost every aspect of her life. To begin with, she had lost her apartment during her incarceration and had to start living in her car.

Returning to school seemed unlikely, but a mentor helped her find Rising Scholars in Mesa. They helped her register in the spring of 2021 and referred her to organizations that could help her find housing. She realized that she had a community root for her success.

“It helps relieve a lot of the pressure because I don’t feel like I’m being misunderstood,” she said.

Boyer hopes having a degree will help level the playing field for her in a job market that faces applicants with previous convictions. Even with a diploma, formerly incarcerated people may still face an uphill battle to find high paying jobs.

In 2018, California implemented a law that prevents public and private employers from asking questions about past convictions on job applications, but it does not prohibit background checks. Although Boyer’s charge was reduced to a misdemeanor, it still appeared in several substantive reports and, in one case, led to the withdrawal of a job offer. She says that a degree is a chance to affirm that she can pursue a future that she wants and provide for her children.

Next steps

With the launch of the Rising Scholars Network, the California Community College Chancellor’s Office will determine how to allocate funding.

Muñoz said the new network can make a difference for formerly incarcerated students who might otherwise be alienated when they encounter staff who do not understand their unique situation. He remembers when he first decided to go to college; its first stop was California State University East Bay. He went knocking on doors asking how to register, and said he was shown around and left without knowing anything more than when he arrived. This experience led him to Chabot, where he found a community of students and mentors thanks to RISE.

Now Muñoz is studying sociology at UC Berkeley. One day he hopes to help draft the next state policies that will open up even more educational opportunities for people like him.

One of the biggest challenges facing formerly incarcerated students, he said, is not only fear of how they are viewed by others, but also how they see themselves. same.

“We can get in the way sometimes, and I think that’s the most important thing,” Muñoz said. “It’s because of the stigma, you know, it’s because of the way society looks at us and how it makes us doubt ourselves.”

Forschen is a member of the CalMatters College Journalism Network, a collaboration between CalMatters and student journalists from across California. This story and other higher education coverages are supported by the College Futures Foundation.

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