We Are Cal State LA: The Prison BA From a Mission and Values Perspective

We Are Cal State LA: The Prison BA From a Mission and Values Perspective

Bidhan Chandra Roy (California State University, Los Angeles, USA), Taffany Lim (Center for Engagement, Service and the Public Good, California State University, Los Angeles, USA) and Rebecca Silbert (Foundation for California Community Colleges, USA)
Copyright: © 2020 |Pages: 27
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-3056-6.ch004


Cal State LA runs a successful face-to-face Bachelor's Degree completion program at a maximum-security prison. This chapter describes the BA program, including an assessment of the political, academic, and structural challenges. The chapter also outlines two intertwined components of Cal State LA's commitment to transformational education in the prison. The first is WordsUncaged which is open to all students on the yard and extends the transformational opportunities of higher education to a larger number of students than can be accommodated in the formal BA program. The second is Cal State LA's commitment to reentry support, including enrollment on the home campus for all students released prior to degree completion. The chapter argues that serving the prison with the three intertwined components—the BA degree pathway, WordsUncaged, and reentry support—is core to Cal State LA's mission as a public university serving the greater good of the Los Angeles region and the residents of California.
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A fully matriculated student at California State University at Los Angeles, earning his bachelor’s degree just like thousands of other students enrolled in California’s competitive public state universities, comments:

The process of growth as a writer and a human being has enabled me to put language that I have learned, as well as the literature that I have read, into an evolving outlook of the world. [My] intellectual growth has not only changed me as a person but has also changed what I once considered possible. (Student 1)

Unlike the thousands of other California State University students, this student is incarcerated at Lancaster State Prison about an hour away from Cal State LA’s main campus. Location, however, is the only difference in his status as a Cal State LA student. This student and his fellow students at Lancaster are fully enrolled and matriculated at Cal State LA; they have the same professors, the same classes, the same credits, and the same academic and conduct standards. They will earn exactly the same degree.

This student is part of Cal State LA’s Prison BA Graduation Initiative, started by faculty with the full support of President William A. Covino, who says that the Initiative is “central to the mission of Cal State LA as we strive to serve the public good by providing a second chance through quality education to an overlooked demographic of our Los Angeles community.” It is the only face-to-face bachelor’s degree program in California’s prisons. It is new – it began in 2015 – but has already grown from its first cohort and now receives letters from incarcerated students throughout the state, who are hoping that they can transfer to Lancaster and enroll.

Cal State LA’s approach to its work at Lancaster is shaped by four critical commitments, each necessary to ensure a high-quality education while recognizing the different learning environment and experience for incarcerated students:

  • A commitment to cooperating and coordinating with the other colleges and universities teaching inside California’s prisons. Cal State LA’s BA program does not operate in a silo; it serves not only the current students at Lancaster prison but is also intentionally structured so that it is a valuable piece in the interlocking puzzle of colleges and universities serving all students and potential students in the entire prison system.

  • A commitment to all students on the yard. Cal State LA believes that it has an ethical duty to provide a wraparound learning environment that serves all students on the yard, as residents on the yard must live and work together whether or not they are in the BA program. The vision is actualized through a humanities-based program called Words Uncaged that is open to all. In combination with the BA program, Words Uncaged creates a culture of education and extends the transformational opportunities of higher education to a larger number of students than can be accommodated in the formal BA program.

  • A commitment to community engagement, service learning, and the public good. These are Cal State LA values, and the university creates opportunities for all students to engage with campus and community, including students inside Lancaster prison.

  • A commitment to reentry support. Cal State LA believes that its commitment to the students does not end at the prison wall. The Lancaster BA students are automatically invited to complete their degree on the main campus should they be released before finishing, and the university provides reentry support including transitional housing and paid work-study opportunities. Words Uncaged students, while unable to be offered automatic enrollment because they are not matriculated, are also linked to students, faculty and support beyond the yard.

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