An Evaluation of the Implementation of Face to Face Higher Education in Prison: Impacts of Policy, Reform, and Collaboration

Cerro Coso College
Cerro Coso College

Note: The following article is not an official statement of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges. The article is intended to engender discussion and consideration by local colleges.

The subject of justice reform has many fronts in our society. As many as 2.2 million individuals are incarcerated across America, 1.2 million of which are released every year.[1] The last 30 years of crime control policies and retributively incapacitating sentence structures have resulted in an 83% recidivism rate in nine years nationwide.[2] In the community college world of Scorecard metrics, that equals a national success rate of 17%.

Unfortunately, California leads the nation in total prison population and is on track to spend over $13 billion this year on about 140,000 people. For comparison, California will spend about $16 billion on higher education for 2.8 million students statewide.[3] The math here is damning, and, luckily, twenty California community colleges are poised to make a major impact on national policy. Faculty are critical to this transformation.

Late in 2014, the California Legislature passed SB 1391, inspired by a well-known RAND study on the results of face-to-face higher education in prison reducing recidivism up to 51%, one of the few empirically backed rehabilitation mechanisms with such a gradient of reduction. However, the bill lacked any clear guidance to implement this potentially high impact reform measure.

Partnering with California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation wardens at two facilities and seven yards[4],  a collaborative approach began to implement the ambiguous legislation between two distinctly different state institutions. Cerro Coso Community College began a concurrent evaluation of program implementation, and the preliminary reporting on the last three years is now available. Since Fall 2015, numerous qualitative and quantitative data have been compiled within Cerro Coso’s Office of Institutional Research, working closely with lead faculty and administrators. Comparative analysis of student success rates between incarcerated and traditional students were first to be reviewed—demonstrating a 14% overall higher success from incarcerated students—and balanced with qualitative reporting from stakeholders with a focus on faculty. Not only is the program providing individuals with an education and skills for post incarceration re-entry success and employment, but it is also making students feel empowered by improving their social status and cultural capital when they can claim to be a college student or graduate. The data sets are a testament to students’ hard work and to strategic programming that limits institutional barriers and delivers classes, support, and quality learning with precision to respond to an ever-changing environment of education, society, and employment.[5]

Cerro Coso launched its face-to-face program with twenty students in one class during the Fall 2015 term. A short three years later, in Fall 2018, the program had grown to 66 course sections with over 2,900 enrollments per semester, with more than 880 unduplicated students for summer and Fall 2018 and approximately 300 new students for Spring 2019. Recently, Cerro Coso graduated two classes of transfer-level degree students, totaling over 25 graduates who completed in less than three years, with more than 50 additional graduates for Spring 2019. The ten full-time and 26 adjunct faculty are pivotal to developing and sustaining program growth and student success.

The following graph shows the increase in head count by primary term. Totals for academic year 18/19 are approximately 1100 unduplicated students in two facilities.



Cerro Coso’s comprehensive program now provides seven associate degrees for transfer through integrated Guided Pathways using IGETC patterns. The Cerro Coso Incarcerated Student Education Program (ISEP) was co-awarded the 2018 California Chancellor’s Office Innovation Award with grant funding to provide a statewide model for scale.

After two years of considerable growth, leading faculty voices in the local academic senate developed a resolution to address this unique and growing population. The resolution called for a collaborative and cross-functional approach with administration, classified, faculty from CTE, and letters and sciences, and students taking part in a standing committee under the College Council.[6]This shared governance approach is critical to establishing a formalized prison education program. All aspects of the 10+1 areas of academic senate purview under Title 5 regulations are represented in any new program development, but for prison, a program must be created from scratch at each location, which necessitates faculty involvement through the academic senate. The resolution sought to develop a clearing house of all-thingsincarcerated so students would be best served within the prison environment with parity to traditional school offerings.

One small example was the use of open education resources (OER). Cerro Coso was one of the 26 pilot schools for OER, and, using an equity driven approach, faculty were able to fill a large need in our prison program in just one semester, as shown in the graphic in the next column.


This implementation in the prison effectively doubled the sections schoolwide using OER. This adoption has given strength through equity to the traditional courses on campus and online within one semester. A rollout for new sections is now integrated into Guided Pathways planning with primary input from faculty.

The ISEP Committee is currently developing and implementing best practices and recommending board policy to maximize student success in an unlikely and underserved population. At the core of this effort is a demonstrable example of an effective shared governance approach that can respond to student needs quickly and solve problems with innovation instead of erecting new institutional barriers. The commitment of the local academic senate was critical to the proper growth and programmatic development that best serves students and allows shared governance to truly blossom. This process is not always easy, but the data presented herein and on the ISEP website at becomes a foundation for evidence based practices.

Some may question why prison education is so important even though population and location are limited. The answer can be as simple as saying that it is the right thing to do. These incarcerated students are being released weekly and transferring throughout the state; education is a pragmatic and impactful reintegration model. However, a more comprehensive answer is that this unique environment necessitates that only the most critical and empirically backed practices should be implemented and demonstrates how navigating institutional barriers from the start can contribute to translatable student success in the traditional setting.

In a world full of cellblocks, cages, walls, razor wire, stab vests, and electric fences–literal barriers to education–California community colleges may have found a way to remove systemic educational barriers and focus on the ultimate bottom line: learning. In addition, success in this environment transcends prototypical academic “student success” metrics and deeply impacts the personal success of students by transforming humans. Ultimately, those teaching in prison understand that this amazing and unique opportunity may have a deeper transformational social impact than others. Prison education is not the end-all-be-all but merely a new vessel for effective educational practices.

1. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Bureau of Prisons

2. Bureau of Justice Statistics 9 year recidivism study 2005-2014, released May 2018.

3. Legislative Analyst’s Office of California

4. A “yard” is a specific enclosure in a prison. Each one acts interdependently, which essentially means the program must be replicated for each yard.

5. The details of the program data are available at

6. A copy of the resolution is available on the ISEP website at