Formerly incarcerated students return to school
on April 30, 2018
It was a bit cloudy, but warm, on a Saturday last June as students lined up to receive their diplomas. For four years they had been awaiting this day: graduating in African American Studies from UC Los Angeles. Among them, wearing a black gown and hat over traditional Ivorian clothes, was East Bay resident Dieudonné Koffi Justin Brou.
Brou was the commencement speaker for his class. “That was when I revealed myself,” he recalled, “revealed myself as formerly incarcerated.”
Ten years before, in 2007, Brou had been sent to prison. “Considering where I started and where I ended up, achieving my graduate degree from UCLA, I was proud of myself,” he recalled. But instead of celebrating his graduation with his family, he found himself apologizing and grieving for the things he had done more than a decade ago. He felt ashamed about the things that put him into prison—not for his own sake, but for the sake of his family. “In my culture, shame on the family name is problematic for everybody. Because the name is all we got. It is the most important thing,” he said.
People who spend time in prison face challenges reentering society. Employment discrimination based on their criminal records, inadequate education and a lack of job training opportunities are the top barriers to finding stable employment, according to a report made by the Oakland-based Ella Baker Center in 2015.
That is why a number of former inmates choose to go back to college, following the pathway of higher education. But that is easier said than done. The difficulty starts with money—most former inmates don’t have any income, but are in debt due to restitution fees. Others experience self-doubt, based on bad previous experiences with educational institutions. Many returning scholars don’t feel comfortable—they are often a couple of years older than the other students, and may come from a different social background.
But formerly incarcerated students can find support and community with programs like Underground Scholars at UC Berkeley or Restoring our Communities at Laney College in Oakland. Peers who have had the same experiences can show them a way to thrive in college, and to become an advocate and leader. The members of these groups believe that education will break the cycle of recidivism, help people find employment, and lead to healthier communities.
“It is a way to reengage in the broader world. People miss a lot being incarcerated,” said Charles Eddy, adviser for justice reform with the Oakland-based Urban Strategies Institute. Going back to school is a way of helping them catch up.
Dieudonné Brou was born in Toumodi, Ivory Coast. At 6 years old, he came to the Bay Area. He lived in Oakland for most of the time, but spent some time in Richmond living with his aunt and uncle. “I think I have touched every school in the Oakland Unified School District,” he said. After finishing his freshman year at McClymonds High School in West Oakland, he moved with his father to Pittsburg and started to go to Mount Diablo High School.
Brou said he had just turned 18 when he got in trouble. “At the time, a lot of us were just doing stuff because we didn’t have no place for our frustration and anger,” he said. With his friends, he committed robberies. They got caught on their way to the freeway after their last robbery. The police pulled them over, Brou recalled, because the license plate was expired, and they found guns and license plates in the car. “For me, that was more calling for attention, because I did need help,” he said. He found it difficult to trust adults, he said, “because for some reason every adult in your life has let you down.”
Brou was in the West County Detention Facility for about a year, he said, “trying to fight my case, trying to figure out a way to get the time down.” He ended up taking a deal that would send him to prison for seven years. Incarceration placement is determined by a score, formulated by a review of factors including age, crime, whether violence was used, a person’s prior incarcerations, and gang involvement. Brou said he was initially sent to a high-security site because he was a “two-striker”—meaning he had two convictions—and was a young person who had committed a violent crime.
Over time, Brou’s placement score went down and he eventually got into the lower-security California Correctional Center in Susanville. But on his first day in Susanville, Brou got into a fight, which sent him first into the prison hospital and then into solitary confinement. That was the first click: He knew he needed to do something with his life. But he was still unsure exactly what that was.
After he was released back to his own cell, he started to take vocational classes. He passed his General Education Development (GED) test on the first try. His brother and sister, who were at college at that time, started to send him books, mainly African-American literature. “We had nothing to do but reading, working out and drinking gallons of coffee,” Brou said of prison life. Reading was his way to fight the time, to be productive.
Things clicked for Brou a second time when a warden asked why he had so much African-American literature in his cell. In that moment, he realized: “I want to read, because I want to go to college.”
“It is crazy, because I always hated school,” he continued, recalling his decision to go to college. “But I love learning. I love being in a space where I am constantly learning. And higher education creates that space.”
Not only did he want to study, but he thought college might help him start his life over. Another inmate had told Brou that by going to school he might get off parole a bit earlier and that he might even get paid for attending. That prospect caught his attention, because he knew it would be difficult to find employment with a criminal record, and he owed restitution to the people he had robbed.
Brou was released in May, 2012, and his dad picked him up at the prison gate. They hadn’t spoken in seven years. “My dad asked me what I am going to do, if I would go to work,” Brou said. “I told him I might not find work. I might as well go to school.”
Brou approached the staff at Diablo Valley College (DVC), a community college in Pleasant Hill. “I told them I have heard they were giving [out] money for going to school. But, they said, this is not how it works.” That’s when he realized it wouldn’t be so easy to get money for college. He needed to enroll and apply for financial aid, just like any other student.
Brou was sent to the Extended Opportunity Program and Services (EOPS) run by the college and funded by the state of California, which helps students who are socially and economically disadvantaged. It provides services like student counseling, peer support, book vouchers and academic assistance in transferring to a four-year campus. Through EOPS, Brou applied to get one-on-one counseling, tutoring and a fee waiver.
Today, Brou realizes that this paperwork was one of the main difficulties of going to college: not knowing whom to ask about enrollment and financial aid. “And by the time you get through all that, you are dealing with a classroom environment you haven’t been there in a while,” he said. It had been more than ten years than Brou was on a campus—he was not only older than the other students, but the college was also much bigger than his high school. Brou doubted he could do it. And he was afraid of dealing with instructors who might not be as sympathetic to him as to other students.
Plus, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to study. At first, his main reason for going to college was to get off parole as soon as possible. “I was just taking classes and assessment tests,” he said. Then one day in 2013, his counselor asked him what he wanted to do with his life. “I enjoyed black history, so I told him I wanted to study black people. That was my term—black people,” he recalled. His counselor suggested he consider sociology—as a formerly incarcerated person, it could be interesting to study the justice system.
So he decided to study sociology. Today, what Brou likes most about sociology is having options. “Sociology is so broad and includes so many different things. It is perfect, so I can do whatever I want,” he said.
Meanwhile, he got involved on campus, working for EOPS as a peer mentor to help new students. He started networking with other African-American male academics, attending conferences with the African American Male Education Network and the Black Male Leadership Development Institute. “I was just giving myself a little bit of agency,” he said.
Two years later, he was ready to transfer to a four-year campus. Brou applied to several universities: UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz, UC Berkeley, UCLA, Columbia. Even though he was afraid of getting rejected, he applied for scholarships, 46 in all. Eventually, he got $10,000 from the Kennedy-King scholarship for students from minority groups that are underrepresented at four-year colleges. Two smaller scholarships combined for another $10,000. And he qualified for the Blue and Gold Plan, a University of California financial aid program for low-income students. Today, he has “only” $10,000 in school debt.
But going to UCLA “was a culture shock,” Brou recalled. He was not ready for Westwood, and Westwood was not ready for him. “Imagine you are a black student and formerly incarcerated,” he said. He didn’t feel comfortable in the Westwood community: “It is a beautiful place, but it is a bubble,” he said—a bubble that according to Brou is only accessible if you can afford certain things, like a car to drive to campus every day, or simply a pass for public transport. Brou started to spend his time in Inglewood, Compton or Long Beach—areas where he felt more comfortable.
On campus, he worried about stereotypes, the way professors and students might perceive him. He had anxieties about his skills and several times he wanted to give up. For example, he had to take a statistics class. “I have bad anxiety with math and stuff. I thought that is impossible for me,” he said. When his grades started to fall, he doubted whether he even belonged at UCLA.
It helped him to talk regularly to faculty and staff, to disclose his story bit by bit. And once again, he got involved on campus, this time with the African Student Union and the African Black Coalition. These were places for him to build a community and to identify with others. To escape the UCLA bubble, Brou also spent 2016 studying abroad at the University of Ghana, Legon, and at the Félix Houphouët-Boigny University in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.
After his graduation in 2017, Brou returned to the Bay Area. He found a Google group for young black professionals in the Bay Area, representing everyone from Silicon Valley developers to social workers. They share information about anything from employment and career opportunities to housing openings, even good therapists. Through this group, Brou found his first job after college: an internship with the Alameda County Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership. Even though Brou doesn’t have kids, he felt he could relate to the program. “But more importantly, I really wanted to try to participate in the world,” he said.
Today, Brou wears a lot of different hats. He interned with the Ella Baker Center and is part of the East Bay Consortium of Support Programs for Former Incarcerated Students as well as the Justice Reinvestment Coalition, a group that lobbies for a restorative justice system. He is an outreach specialist at the College of Alameda. There, he helps formerly incarcerated people and other students whose lives have been affected by the justice system enroll in the college. He is a role model for them, building relationships and sharing his own experiences. “I want to let them know I am an advocate for them in many ways,” he said.
Even though 38 percent of inmates have a high school diploma, have passed the GED, or have pursued secondary education, there is no guarantee they will make their way from prison to college once they have been released.
According to a 2015 report called “Degrees of Freedom” by researchers at the UC Berkeley Law School and the Stanford Law School, more than six out of every ten individuals leaving prison are re-incarcerated for a parole violation or new conviction within three years of release. According to the report, they are also more likely to pick up new charges once they have been in the system. That is the cycle of recidivism. Breaking this cycle, according to the report, depends on successful reentry, and the keys to that are housing, stability, recovery from alcohol and drugs—and getting an education. People who participated in college programs while incarcerated had 51 percent lower odds of reoffending than those who did not, the report found.
The report also describes several challenges for those reentering college: finding stable living and working conditions, and overcoming financial barriers, a lack of college readiness, and persistent discrimination on campus. The result: only 28 percent of formerly incarcerated people who have high school diplomas or an equivalent GED were enrolled in college in 2014. “This indicates a large group of potential college students who are currently underserved,” the report concludes.
According to a report published by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in 2015, most formerly incarcerated people—67 percent—want to return to school after release. Yet fewer than one third can continue their education. “The cost for tuition, transportation to or distance from school, and inability to get an educational loan because of criminal conviction were among the barriers identified most often,” the report concludes.
Charles Eddy was a social worker most of his life. Now, retired and white-haired, he still volunteers with the Urban Strategies Institute in Oakland and advises them on criminal justice reform and reentry work. Like many others, he believes that education can break the cycle of recidivism. “Breaking this cycle has to do with successful reentry. Recovery from alcohol and drugs is a key, but also education,” he said.
In the Bay Area, there are nine different campus-based support programs for formerly incarcerated students, none of them older than six years. Eddy is convinced of the value of work done by these support programs: “There is a need—there are formerly incarcerated individuals everywhere. All colleges should think about this,” he said.
Pursuing a Career and Technical Education (CTE) or Associate of Arts (AA) degree significantly increases employment prospects, according to Eddy. And higher degrees in general correspond with higher salaries. As the report “Degrees of Freedom” emphasized, by 2025, 41 percent of jobs will require at least a bachelor’s degree, while only 35 percent of working-age adults in California will have attained this level of education.
On the other hand, studies suggest that incarceration reduces annual earnings by much as 40 percent. In large part, people experience below-average earnings because of their comparatively poor work history and low levels of education. However, simply having a history of incarceration itself hinders economic success.
Background checks pose another barrier for certain jobs and licenses. “There are big fights all over the country, because in many professions, standards disallow formerly incarcerated people—like in some healthcare professions, or barbers,” said Eddy.
“Employers are able to pull up histories, and they will do that,” said Zachary Norris, executive director of the Ella Baker Center, which works with formerly incarcerated people.
Since January, the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) contains new statewide restrictions on an employer’s ability to make decisions only based on someone’s criminal history. Thanks to Assembly Bill 1008, which was signed by the governor in 2017, the criminal history of an applicant will only be accessible if the employer has made a conditional offer of employment. The applicant cannot be rejected for a position only, or in part, because of his conviction history.
Previously, hundreds of California cities and counties had passed similar “ban the box” ordinances barring employers from asking applicants to check a box indicating if they have a criminal history. Under these ordinances, employers could not ask about criminal history until later in the hiring process. Alameda County passed its version in 2006, and a state version passed in 2014.
But a fairer chance at work does not solve all potential problems for a formerly incarcerated student. The main job of the Bay Area’s nine campus-based support programs “is about unwrapping students, engaging them, encouraging them to give college a chance,” said Eddy. But, he continued, “That is easier said than done.” Some students have needs that are not easy to fulfill: emotional or substance abuse issues, food insecurity. And there are many other financial barriers—for example, a person who has been convicted of a felony cannot qualify for public housing or bank loans.
“The justice system is currently oriented where one mistake can ruin [someone] for a lifetime,” said Norris.
It is a Friday night when the telephone rings, a three-way call into San Quentin State Prison. On the other end sits Emile de Weaver, convicted of a life sentence for murder. “I made all the wrong decisions in my teens,” he wrote in an online self-introduction, “and they culminated in me murdering a man.”
But de Weaver is also a class of 2017 graduate of the Prison University Project. He completed his Associate of Arts degree with the college program at San Quentin. The college program offers a variety of courses in the humanities, social sciences, math and science through on-site instruction, but also college preparatory courses to make a college transfer after release easier. In addition, people can pursue an Associate of Arts (AA) degree in General Education.
The “Degrees of Freedom” report found that that the three-year recidivism rate for both new offenses and parole violations among graduates from the San Quentin Prison University Project was only 17 percent, compared to a more than 60 percent recidivism rate in California.
The day de Weaver graduated, he felt very good, he recalled. He graduated with his brother: “We both got back on track and continued the dream our grandmother set out,” he said. His grandmother attended his graduation, as well as his mother, who came from Nigeria.
There are a couple of reasons why he wanted to get an AA degree, de Weaver said—one is his passion for learning. And he believes he will need it once he reenters the “real world”— his life sentence was recently reduced from 67 years to 20 years—so he will be released next year. But more importantly, he feels ashamed. His father was the first one in the family to go to college. And now, he and his brothers are all in prison or on parole, living even beneath the poverty line. “We are moving backwards instead of forwards,” de Weaver said about his own legacy. He wants to show his daughter that it is not too late to turn his life around.
When his daughter was born, de Weaver was 19 years old. “I started to think about what my daughter is going to see when she is getting older. I was afraid that she could see a terrible person, that she could hate me for shame,” he said. These thoughts scared him and eventually lead to his decision to return to his education.
DeWeaver writes frequently for the San Quentin News and has a monthly column called “Good Behavior” for Easy Street Magazine. In 2016, he launched Prison Renaissance. The project acts as a platform for incarcerated authors to grow as leaders and to communicate with their communities through art.
For a long time, de Weaver has been dreaming of earning a Ph.D and teaching at a university. The AA would be the first step towards a bachelor’s degree, then a master’s degree and eventually a PhD. “But I realized over time, a PhD is not realistic,” he said. “I don’t even know if a masters is possible.”
De Weaver is now 38. When he is released next year, he will be $20,000 in debt for restitution and child support. Even though he would love to go to college, he wants even more for his children to go to college. Without a scholarship, he said, “there is no chance. I would be even further in debt.”
He is well aware of how formerly incarcerated people are seen in society and how difficult it will be to find housing and a job. De Weaver said he wants to do social justice work and
use his communication skills to shift the public narrative about incarcerated people. “I want to create a world that is more about opportunities than about punishing and blaming,” he said. “We need people solutions instead of state solutions.”
San Quentin offers more services than other California state prisons, thanks to progressive leadership and its location the Bay Area, where it is surrounded by programs, community providers and non-profits that work with incarcerated people. And until recently, it was one of few prisons in the state that offered classroom courses at all.
In the early 1970s, all but one California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) facility had at least one college course offered in its prison. By 1979, in-person college courses were available in every prison in California. But between the 1970s and today, the prison population grew by more than 700 percent, and the amount of money the state spent on corrections tripled. Access to college inside prisons did not keep pace; the percentage of people enrolled in college in prison did not rise along with the prison population. By 2013, only 4.4 percent of the state’s prison inmates were enrolled in college programs, representing only about a quarter of those with high school diplomas or the equivalent.
The availability of in-person courses—meaning the teacher is actually in the classroom— dropped enormously in the 1990s due to budget cuts for prison education. They were replaced with paper-based distance education courses.
Additionally, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 barred incarcerated students from receiving Pell Grants, which had been an important resource to make college programs in prisons affordable. Most educational programs in prison shut down for lack of funds. In the wake of this situation, the college program at San Quentin was founded in the fall of 1996 with two classes, initiated by a professor from UC Davis.
It took twenty more years for things to change, when California’s legislators passed Senate Bill 1391 in 2014, which provided funds for community college courses to be taught in person in state prisons. Today, every CDCR facility houses an education department and direct their education resources mainly to adult basic education, high school education and GED preparation, and CTE.
According to the CDCR, out of 118,000 current inmates, nearly 41,000 are receiving programs. Of these, 13,700 are receiving adult basic education and high school equivalency training in a classroom-style setting. Another 6,600 are enrolled to receive career technical education. Between the summers of 2016 and 2017, the Office of Correctional Education delivered 4,102 high school equivalency and high school diplomas to incarcerated students.
At about the same time that California was restoring funding to in-person college classes, at Laney College in Oakland, ethnic studies faculty member Roger Chung was starting a program called “Restoring our Communities.” In 2016, he saw the opportunity to host formerly incarcerated students on campus and applied for special grants. “Places like Oakland are heavily impacted by returning citizens and hosting people coming home without having robust pathways,” said Chung. “We always thought community colleges are appropriate for reentry, with their open access to different types of jobs.”
At Laney, he tried to design a program with multiple pathways so that each student could decide what they are interested in studying and how in depth they want to go—whether that’s just a few classes to develop some skills or earning a full degree.
The program helps formerly incarcerated people enroll and acclimate at Laney College. It provides support by purchasing books, food vouchers or tickets for public transport. Enrolled students can use the program’s own space to study or take a break from campus life. The program also cooperates with the Alameda County Public Defender’s Office to clean conviction records and increase work opportunities. Currently, 144 students are enrolled with Restoring our Communities.
In addition to academic and administrative support, Chung also wanted to provide a network and a place for the students to heal. “One of the large missing pieces was developing space for [addressing] trauma and for the students to take care of their experiences with trauma,” Chung said. That is why he created a dedicated space for students to meet and study. “They have their moments when they just sit in the space and don’t do anything—that is when the healing takes place, when they share their stories,” he said.
His program joined a handful of others that have developed in recent years. Underground Scholars at UC Berkeley (BUS) is a grassroots initiative founded by a couple of formerly incarcerated students who felt they don’t belong at Berkeley and wanted to create a space where they can exchange their experiences and help each other. Today, the group’s main purpose on campus is providing a dedicated space for formerly incarcerated students to find a community. The program offers tutoring and mentoring for enrolled students. In addition, BUS has an ambassador program at community colleges, which recruit students ready for a four-year college program and help them ease the transfer.
The Street Scholars program at Oakland’s Merritt College, initiated by the nonprofit Gamble Institute, offers peer monitoring and training. The program was designed with the help of formerly incarcerated people and aims to increase their participation at the school.
Meanwhile, the East Bay Consortium of Support Programs for Former Incarcerated Students tries to figure out where work can be shared among these programs and how they can be aligned. “We want to build an ecosystem to make sure students make the right choices for them, and not colleges making decisions for students,” Chung said.
But Chung feels most of the programs have a similar problem—they are met by silence from the community and others on the college campus. “There is the assumption: If we just put formerly incarcerated people on campus, they will be successful. And if not, the community will help them to be successful,” he said. But, he pointed out, most formerly incarcerated people have struggled with institutions—so how can they get engaged in institutionalized programs?
The way education is delivered matters, Chung believes. So, he has tried to sensitize faculty members on his campus to know what incarceration is, how the justice system works and what needs these students may have. For example, they may need to go to court or to meet with their probation officers.
Chung has a strong relationship with the Laney administrators, who let him take some time off from his teaching responsibilities to establish the program and lead it through its early stages. But it is not in its final stage yet. One day, he would like for the formerly incarcerated students to take over leading it.
At the end of the day, these programs are about leadership, agreed Charles Eddy, of the Urban Strategies Institute. “Hopefully, the students don’t walk away and forget their lived experiences,” he said. While he knows that not everyone will pursue a career in social work, as Dieudonné Brou is doing, he said, “They carry with them the understanding and the experiences which makes them to be life-long advocates, in one way or another.”
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