Local, State Education Leaders Head to Prison for Graduation Ceremony

State prison
The entrance to the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa is shown in this undated photo. (Angela Carone/KPBS)

More than 20 students taking classes through Southwestern College will graduate Wednesday with associate’s degrees in sociology and liberal arts, but they won’t be on campus to receive their diplomas.

That’s because the graduates are inmates at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility, San Diego County’s only state prison. State and local education leaders will attend a ceremony at the facility to hand out degrees for those incarcerated individuals who earned their degrees through the Restorative Justice Program.

“Being system-impacted myself, I understand first-hand the importance of the Restorative Justice Program and its power to truly shape the lives of incarcerated individuals seeking to better themselves,” said Raquel Funches, interim director of restorative justice. “We are proud to provide higher education opportunities to incarcerated students who are focused on their education, well-being and commitment to a better future.”

As part of the Restorative Justice Program, which began in 2016, Southwestern College faculty provide face-to-face instruction to incarcerated students. Since its inception, Southwestern College has served more than 1,500 students at the Donovan Correctional Facility, helping them earn degrees and certificates in business administration, liberal arts, communications, American Sign Language and sociology, according to a statement from SWC.

California Community College Deputy Chancellor Daisy Gonzales and Southwestern College Superintendent/President Mark Sanchez are among those scheduled to attend the rare ceremony.

All of the 24 students graduating on Wednesday plan to pursue bachelor’s degrees at a program offered by UC Irvine.

“My journey with Southwestern was truly restorative,” said program graduate Derek Adams. “With each class, I regained a piece of my confidence, worth, and humanity.

“In pursuit of higher education, I have found purpose, meaning, and opportunities to positively impact my community,” he said.

According to a college statement, incarcerated individuals in the program can improve their chances of getting a job, obtain skills that will help them inside and outside the workforce and also potentially earn credits to reduce time served.

“Almost all of our Southwestern College graduates are utilizing their associate’s degree to transfer to four-year universities,” Funches told City News Service. “While incarcerated at RJ Donovan, these students now have the amazing opportunity to transfer to UC Irvine’s Leveraging Inspiring Futures Through Educational Degrees program, the first in-prison BA-degree completion program in the University of California system.”

The Second Chance Pell Experiment was first established in 2015 by the Obama-Biden Administration to provide Pell Grants to incarcerated individuals to allow them to participate in postsecondary education programs.

“When the program began, Southwestern College was one of only 67 colleges and universities nationwide selected for a Second Chance Pell pilot program by the U.S. Department of Education,” a college statement reads. “What began locally with 50 students during its first semester has grown to more than 400 students taking roughly 30 courses every semester.”

A 2018 study from the RAND Corporation, funded by the Department of Justice, found that inmates who participated in correctional education were 48% less likely to return to prison within three years than those who did not participate. RAND also estimated that for every dollar invested in correctional education programs, four to five dollars are saved on three-year re- incarceration costs.

“Students who participate in the program are committed to building a safer environment inside prison and are contributing to a shift in the culture,” Funches told City News Service. “They are actively transforming the environment by engaging and promoting new ways of thinking and behaving.”

–City News Service

Originally posted 2023-10-04 17:16:33.