Many can relate to this man’s early experiences with formal education. He fell behind as he entered high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Unless a subject piqued his interest, he never applied himself. While he remembers acing math and science, he failed English and history classes.
But like the commitment to pursuing post-secondary education he’d make years later inside the California state prison system, a younger Michael Baker dedicated himself to pursuing a high school diploma by the end of tenth grade. As Baker explained, he enrolled in a continuation school, which met from 8 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. He stayed afterward and met with teachers until around 5 p.m.
Per his recollection, peers started to see him as an “arrogant jerk” because he didn’t socialize much that year.
“I just didn’t care,” Baker said, “and was determined to graduate on time.”
What made the tough situation tougher, Baker reflected, was that he rarely if ever enjoyed a stable home growing up, and he moved a lot, which made making and keeping friends difficult.
His senior year he let loose, and he claims to have no regrets. He got to have fun for a change, the year before he went to prison. Baker went to prison for the first time in March 1997, when he was 19. He has been incarcerated for 28 years. He’s currently imprisoned in the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison (SATF‑CSP) in Corcoran.
“I will be released back into society and my goal is to do so with a business degree,” Baker commented. And in his view, “the opportunity to take college courses [inside prison] helps build confidence and self-esteem, something which is lacking in most whether admitted to or not.”
As beneficial as higher education in prison has been for Baker, he acknowledges it was better several years back. Go further back, though, accessible higher education in California prisons hardly existed. Go back further still, and the roots of the ongoing drive to incarcerate and fill prisons can in part be located in the prison boom that exploded around the time Baker was born.
Learning opportunities, and the host of challenges associated with pursuing scholarship as a prisoner today, emerged from an entangled history of incarceration and higher education, especially in California. Partly products of legislation and policies intended to reform the prison system, they produced modest improvements and perpetuated problems.
Once Upon a Time in California Higher Education Before Funding Priorities Shifted
The historical context also helps explain now-commonplace ideas about education and imprisonment that inform policy as well as how people engage with college as an institution, inside and outside of penal facilities.
To the point, Baker explained he initially felt conflicted about enrolling in college courses because he didn’t believe he deserved a free education.
Another vision of higher education accessibility once permeated the Golden State, however. For a short time, after the Donahoe Act, also known as California’s Master Plan for Higher Education, passed in 1960, the state treated post-secondary learning as a tuition-free public good. Before tuition rates started rising in subsequent decades, it cost those who pursued it in California next to nothing, especially compared to the tens of thousands of dollars a student who attends a University of California or California State University school today typically pays in tuition and fees.
In California as elsewhere in the US, the cost of college tuition and associated student-loan debt skyrocketed in the intervening decades, more than doubling at both public and at more expensive private institutions since 1980.
For purposes of comparison, turning to the Midwest, the state of Missouri allotted more funding for higher education than half the other states in the US circa fiscal year 1960-1961, according to the Grapevine research project at Illinois State University. By 1970-1971, more than half the other states in the nation appropriated more money for higher education.
That trend continued. By 1990-1991, Missouri had the dubious distinction of being one of 26 states with a decrease in higher education funding over two years, and it ranked 46th in appropriations, the ISU Grapevine documented. Within a decade, the “Show-Me State” did rank sixth in positive 10-year change in allocations but came in just 28th in two-year changes in appropriations and 21st in state appropriations of tax funds for operating expenses pertaining to higher education, per 2000-2001 fiscal year data.
In 2010-2011, this “heartland” state home to Kansas City and St. Louis registered just over a 13 percent drop in state-only fiscal support over a one-year span and a 10.8 percent drop over five years. By the 2020-2021 fiscal year, there remained fewer than 20 other states with less total state support for higher education. By that time, Missouri ranked in the top 20 states with respect to resident population, according to US Census Bureau estimates.
Public disinvestment in, and the related rising cost of, college education paralleled another trend, especially out on the West Coast. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore documented in her 2007 book, “Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California,” the prison population in the most populous state in the country increased almost 500 percent between 1982 and 2000, even as the crime rate declined consistently if unevenly after peaking in 1980.
A 2012 report from the then-active watchdog organization California Common Sense noted that around 1980 two-thirds of the funding for higher education came from the state and by 2011, that number had dropped to a quarter of the funds. According to the report, state spending on higher education over that time decreased by 13 percent, adjusting for inflation, while spending on incarceration increased by 436 percent during the same period.
For comparison purposes once again, the prison incarceration rate in Missouri, more or less in lockstep with what happened out West, started to spike around 1980, more than doubling by the early nineties when it plateaued for a few years before steadily increasing again until it leveled off somewhat in the early 2000s at around three times the rate two decades prior, as documented by the Prison Policy Initiative.
As incarceration rates across the US continued to rise in the nineties, the Clinton administration-approved Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 and eliminated Pell Grants for prisoners, limiting access to higher education on the inside.
“I entered prison for the second time in 1994,” recounted Arthur Jackson, who’s currently incarcerated in San Quentin, “[during] the tough on crime political era.”
Changes After the Early Aughts
Fifteen years after the Omnibus bill passed, federal judges ordered California to reduce its prison population, which in 2009 had almost reached 200 percent of design capacity, as recounted by the Public Policy Institute of California in a 2015 report.
“It wasn’t until 2010-2011 that the political climate began to warm up to the idea of higher education in prison again,” according to Jackson, who shared that he earned his GED in 1996 but didn’t resume formal education until he started taking courses in Folsom State Prison in 2011.
In addition to the court order, two prisoner hunger strikes organized in the supermax Pelican Bay State Prison in 2011 through 2012 engaged some 6,000 participants across California and beyond and only ended when CDCR vowed to begin addressing issues and conditions inside, according to an unpublished doctoral dissertation authored by Rallie Murray, whose work has involved researching and engaging with prisoner co-learning as well as education for liberation among incarcerated scholars.
When meaningful changes failed to materialize, imprisoned organizers coordinated hunger strikes and work stoppages that started in July 2013 and involved about 30,000 individuals in various California prisons, per the scholarship of Murray, who also participated in the Mt. Tamplais College program inside San Quentin State Prison prior to the pandemic.
“Most definitely, the people in Pelican Bay that went on hunger strike to protest the prison conditions played a large part in the return of education,” Jackson suggested, noting that’s when the “oppressed became fed up around the globe and spoke out in unison.” The “Arab Spring” uprisings in the Middle East and in North Africa, along with the Occupy Wall Street encampments in the US that kicked off around that time, in part attest to that.
The 2009 federal mandate, and perhaps a change in public attitude toward incarceration — prompted by what the aforementioned coordinated actions brought to light, and possibly by concerns among prison administrations and officials about potential resistance among incarcerated people provoked by conditions inside — led to legislation like AB 109, a penal realignment bill signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in April 2011.
Prison Legislation Reforms as it Reaffirms what Activists call a “Punishment Paradigm”
The legislation called for moving “low-level felony offenders who do not have prior convictions for serious, violent, or sex offenses” into local jails, “which are strengthened through community-based punishment,” among other techniques and modifications, like “enhanced security capacity,” with the stated intent of facilitating “reintegration back into society.”
Advocates for reducing harm in society, which can encompass the harm (e.g. deleterious health effects and early death) inside prisons, have inveighed against criminalization of sexual violence that dehumanizes and demonizes convicted persons while justifying imprisonment and presupposing it as tantamount to justice. But that realignment legislation further codified the extra-carceral treatment of sex offenders.
It also took for granted and continued the policy of imprisoning longer on the basis of convictions for “violent” offenses as compared to charges deemed nonviolent. Critics of the criminal punishment system caution against reproducing that dichotomy, as it can further justify an expansive system of incarceration characterized by routine violence, like the “gladiator fights” instigated by CDCR-personnel, as detailed in a 2021 article in the UCLA Law Review. Critics of prisons further suggest that determining severity of punishment or duration of sentences on the basis of convictions for “violent” acts elides the absence of support and social injustice – forms of “structural violence” – provoking harmful responses that elicit criminalization and incarceration in facilities not always known for promoting peace.
These reforms appear to have exacerbated gender disparities related to incarceration in California.
Line graphs from the Prison Policy Initiative illustrate the relatively precipitous drop in the total number of women incarcerated in California state prisons after around 2009 and up until 2015 vis-à-vis the comparatively less dramatic drop in the number of men incarcerated in state prisons since about 2009 through 2015 relative to the consistently larger population of men imprisoned.
Overall, throughout the past several decades, the incarceration rate of women has increased more rapidly than the incarceration rate of men, the Vera Institute of Justice averred; however, authors of an apropos study published in the journal Criminal Justice and Behavior in June 2020 reported that between 2005 and 2019, the women’s state prison population decreased 47 percent, going from a bit under 11,000 to a little less than 6,000, while the men’s state prison population declined only 23 percent during that period, going from a little less than 160,000 to a little more than 123,000.
Not only are far more men than women incarcerated nationally and in California, a greater number and a greater percentage of men have been incarcerated for violent offenses in the Golden State — with 56 percent of men in state prisons for those convictions compared to 37 percent of women, as of late — the researchers explained, drawing on information from peers and from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The authors of that study hypothesized “the emphasis California’s reforms placed on nonviolent offenses was likely to decrease the incarceration rate for women to a greater extent proportionally than for men.” In short, based on descriptive studies and related findings, they concluded “that following realignment and Prop 47” — legislation enacted in 2014 that reclassified sentencing for actions involving property and drugs deemed nonviolent as misdemeanors — “California’s incarceration rate for women declined proportionally more than the incarceration rate for men.”
And yet, as with subsequent reforms, legislators baked the disparity-correlated, arguably prison-justifying distinction into the Brown-approved realignment bill more than a decade ago.
California’s current governor, Gavin Newsom, affirmed the distinction in 2020, in the wake of the public health crisis inside California’s capacity-filled prisons exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic,
Like the realignment bill’s express endorsement of “punishment,” albeit of a more “community-based” kind, repeated support for the aforementioned dichotomy has reinforced what anti-incarceration activists criticize as a harmful “punishment paradigm.” The criticism challenges the related assumption that violent harm requires punitive retribution and calls into question the paradigmatic conflation of justice with penal approaches known for disproportionately incarcerating American Indian, Black and Latinx individuals and people in poverty.
After the “Public Safety Realignment” bill passed in 2011, two years after the University of California Board of Regents voted to raise UC tuition by 32 percent, the state prison population started to decline. Although conditions in California jails can be worse and treatment of detainees inside jail harsher than what people face in prison, the decline in imprisonment tracked alongside a five-year increase in the number of people jailed, and by 2020 imprisonment still remained about four times what it was in 1980.
Nevertheless, California penal institutions did change, to some degree, and higher education became an avenue for possible early release, at least for some.
Jackson said in a letter he considers the causes for those admittedly minor changes to be multifactorial.
“I believe that it was a combination of many little things,” he explained. “Just to name a few: The class-action lawsuit declaring that the incarcerated population was not receiving adequate medical care, the Court’s ruling that the prison system was over-crowded causing the care to fall below an acceptable standard of constitutional care, included numerous findings regarding the lack of rehabilitation programs and schooling. As well as, the social justice movement ‘Black Lives Matter’, ‘Uncommon Law’, and others like these that began to really emerge and highlight the atrocities that were being committed by law enforcement.”
In 2016, California voters passed Proposition 57. Also known as the Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act, it enabled incarcerated individuals to earn credits that could, potentially, facilitate early release, based on decisions made by CDCR and the Board of Parole Hearings. To the point, Prop 57 made it possible for prisoners to earn Milestone Completion Credits for completing certain educational programs and Educational Merit Credits for earning high school diplomas or higher education degrees.
“We get [three] weeks for every college course we pass, 180 days for an AA degree, 180 days for a BA degree, and 180 for GED completion,” shared Raymond Luke, who before becoming involved in the Male Community Reentry Program in LA County, where he remains as of this writing, attended classes inside the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, California. “A guy can potentially get [three to five years off] their time if they [were] sentenced to [five] years or more.”
Similar to previous state prison reforms, however, the legislation that enabled incarcerated individuals to earn time off for pursuing higher education also reaffirmed differential privileges, possibilities for prisoner self-edification and possible expedited release. It did so on the basis of whether a person received a court sentence for a violent or nonviolent offense, opening those credit-earning opportunities up only to individuals incarcerated for the latter.
Pushing Doors Open to Pursuing Higher Education Inside California Prisons
Later, higher education on the inside also became a bit more accessible to some, at least initially.
State legislation that passed in 2019 amended the Education Code and expanded California’s College Promise Program to cover two year’s worth of costs – typically $46 per credit hour – for full-time community college students. While it fails to make community college free for everyone in California, leaving part-time students who might work full-time on top of taking classes with expenses, the Promise Program does provide scholarships that eliminate community college cost burdens for some. So Baker, who decided he owed it to others to edify himself through higher education, is hardly alone in not having to purchase the academic opportunity directly out of pocket.
Prior to the 2016 start of Cal State LA’s Prison B.A. Graduation Initiative, the pursuit of bachelor’s degrees remained elusive to most all incarcerated scholars in California. The four-year degree program covered by the Second Chance Pell Program implemented during the Obama administration graduated its first class in 2021, when 25 men walked across the commencement stage inside the Lancaster prison facility.
A slew of bills and initiatives preceded that ceremony.
Relevant legislation includes Senate Bill 1391, signed into law by then-Governor Jerry Brown in 2014. It amended the California Higher Education Code and opened the door for community colleges to offer programs in state prisons. In 2018, Brown signed a budget including $5 million for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students.
Not to be outdone, in October 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 292, a bill that’s supposed to help ensure ease of access to educational and other programming in state facilities. The same day Newsom approved that bill, he also signed AB 417, legislation that created the Rising Scholars Network so 50 California community colleges could provide additional funds for higher education services geared toward “justice-involved” students, namely those in state prisons. A few days later, Newsom signed Senate Bill 416, which tasks CDCR with prioritizing quality face-to-face instruction for students.
Upon initial reintroduction of college programs, Jackson said prison officials got behind higher education.
“In Folsom,” he wrote, “really competent and supportive proctors were hired to assist us with navigating enrollment, tests, obtaining college plans etc. However, as time progressed those supportive staff and proctors became fewer and far between.”
Now, it’s just “incompetence and obstruction,” according to Jackson, who also concluded that “prison officials have begun to weaken the infrastructure for higher education in prison, and have begun to actively obstruct our access to higher education programs, while at the same time putting out misleading press releases, statements and website [posts] claiming they are supporting higher education.”