Prison Education Project
Blogger: Everest Law
“Knowledge is power.” – Francis Bacon
But when a person doesn’t even have the freedom of movement, his or her access to knowledge is no doubt severely restricted. The world seems much smaller in a prison, with the bars and barbwires pressing down on all sides. The four walls around the facility will eventually turn into the four walls in the inmates’ minds, and making them forget that it is possible to have a life “outside”. When they do get out, the lack of direction in life, combined with the lack of the means to create one, might eventually force them back into criminal activity.
It is not a healthy situation, which is why initiatives such as the Prison Education Project are so important. The Prison Education Project (PEP) was founded in 2011 by Professor Renford Reese of Cal Poly Pomona. Its philosophy is to utilize resources that already exist in close proximity to every state prison – i.e. college students and faculty members, and use them to motivate and equip inmates for pursuing higher education. This not only empowers the inmates as individuals, but also produces very tangible effects in the state budget: even just reducing recidivism by 1% will save approximately $44 million. The PEP hopes to achieve this 1% reduction by 2015. An example of the PEP programs is the “Academic Orientation”, where students give presentations to expose inmates to college life, classes and the possibility of careers beyond. Students may also help inmates in preparing for the General Education Development test (GED, a high school equivalent diploma for adults) test, by tutoring them in language arts and math.
Professor Reese visited Oxy earlier this semester, seeking students volunteers and a lasting partnership with the Office of Community Engagement. This is how I came to know about the PEP, and how I found myself in the California Rehabilitation Center at Norco (CRC-NORCO) a week ago. There wasn’t enough time to integrate Oxy into the regular PEP programs, but Professor Reese arranged a one-time trip anyway.
My immediate feeling was that this was not a run-of-the-mill service project. Before making the trip, we received a rather elaborate set of dress code, which explicitly forbade us from wearing blue jeans and other light blue clothing. The reason became apparent upon arrival: the inmates were wearing that exact same color, and we don’t want the guards to mistake us for them, while we are walking freely around the facility. To enter into the prison properly, we had to leave behind all metal objects in our vans: no cellphones, no cameras and no wallets. Then, we had to present a photo ID to get a visitor permit. Have you ever used a passport, when going on a service trip an hour drive away? I did.
Trivia about the prison aside, it was most inspiring to meet with people who live there. CRC-NORCO is a medium level (level 2) security facility, and it only houses inmates with less than 10 years of sentence (left). The inmates have something to look forward in life, because they know that they will eventually get out. They are all wondering what they can do after getting paroled … and we were there to give an answer. We described to them what we are studying, and the reasons behind our choices of majors or minors. Then we opened up the floor for any questions. At first, I was afraid that no one would be interested in my field of study, which is physics. But the first question was actually directed at me!
“Umm Mr Law, right? I am actually quite interested in geophysics. So I am wondering if that is covered in physics?”
This, is a far cry from the stereotypical inmate (the one that I know of, at least), who of all things would not be intellectually curious. Not to mention that this man, and the others who spoke up later, were all eloquent and very well-mannered. During this event, it truly struck me that these men meant business: they almost desperately want to get out, so that they can earn a living, sustain themselves, and pursue their own interests just like any normal person. Some expressed concern for the high academic requirements of enrolling in college, and some others wonder if it is easy to learn how to use a computer…but the common threads behind all these questions were curiosity and the eagerness to better oneself.
I don’t know if the 30 men that I have met with are representative of the incarcerated population. However, if such people do exist, then I am very much in favor of giving them a chance to reform themselves, instead of condemning them as criminals who are beyond help. I have faith that they will persevere, and I am glad that I have played a role in facilitating their reintegration into society. The Office of Community Engagement and Professor Reese are arranging for Oxy students to take a more prominent role in the PEP, starting next semester (Fall 2013). I look forward to continue this work. Who says that physics majors are geeks who are only concerned with science and technology?
It is a first step to be inspired by the successes of other individuals. It is another step forward to succeed in pursuing your own ambitions. But it is an entirely different thing to make dreams possible others.