Justice-Involved Students’ Education: Barriers to Expanding Programs, but Opportunities for Future Progress

Justice-Involved Students’ Education: Barriers to Expanding Programs, but Opportunities for Future Progress


Many California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) adult facilities paused in-person interactions and programming to help minimize the risk and spread of COVID-19, but offered correspondence-based community college courses instead. This transition from in-person courses to correspondence-courses, which are largely packet-based courses designed to be completed mostly independently by the student, caused a host of challenges with regard to access and supports for students who are currently incarcerated (justice-involved), which was explained in my first blog in this series. This transition also presented challenges to in-person program providers who support justice-involved students as this was the first time they had offered correspondence-courses. Providers shared strategies for effectively designing and implementing correspondence-courses, explained in my second blog. This final post discusses the challenges and opportunities that exist for expanding bachelor’s degree programs for justice-involved individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic. The pivots in-person bachelor’s degree programs made during COVID-19 could impact how college courses, both at the community college and university level, are delivered to justice-involved individuals after the pandemic.

The Prison Graduation Initiative (Initiative), which began in 2016, ushered in a way for justice-involved individuals to attain a bachelor’s degree, rather than only accumulate credits. The Initiative is a bachelor’s degree in communications program operated by California State University Los Angeles (CSULA) offered inside one California men’s maximum security prison.[1] This is the first bachelor’s degree program offered to justice-involved individuals in California. Both Taffany Lim, Senior Director for the Center of Engagement, Service, and the Public Good at CSULA, and Brantley Choate, the Director of Rehabilitative Programming for the CDCR, described that they view the benefits of a university-level education for justice-involved individuals as being able to:[2]

  • heighten students’ level of critical thinking;
  • improve their ability to understand their circumstances;
  • support them with their rehabilitation;
  • keep them in touch with their own humanity;
  • transform the lives of friends and family;
  • change the culture within correctional facilities among students and officers; and
  • support their parole.

Choate had proposed launching bachelor’s degree programs at seven additional correctional facilities, beginning in fall 2020, with the goal of expanding college access across all security levels and both men’s and women’s correctional facilities. Given COVID-19 and subsequent budget cuts, funding for this proposal was removed from the Governor’s budget, halting the launch of these programs. However, the Initiative was able to pivot their in-person courses and pilot a course through Canvas, an online learning management system, for their justice-involved students during fall 2020. Choate and the CDCR are working with a number of California State Universities (CSUs) to expand bachelor’s programs to a number of additional CDCR facilities and offer courses via an online learning management system during winter of 2020.[3]

The Initiative is the first bachelor’s degree program to deliver online courses to justice-involved students. Using technology to provide college courses is critically important because it can provide aspects of in-person courses (e.g., more immediate response to questions, recorded lectures) when in-person programming is not an option and can expand access to higher education for justice-involved individuals who may be ineligible to participate in in-person programming. These online courses can change the way college courses are delivered to justice-involved individuals in the future.

Online Courses Provide In-Person Qualities and Deliver Content Seamlessly

Online courses are positioned to potentially enable difficult-to-convert courses to still be offered during COVID-19 and to offer a mechanism for real-time communication amongst justice-involved students and with the instructor. Correctional facilities are equipped to provide virtual education throughout the facility, but how to do so in a way that adheres to security protocols, such as ensuring justice-involved individuals do not have access to anything online outside of the course, has been an on-going discussion. Community college interviewees are hopeful that the obstacles they and the correctional facilities have faced in carrying out correspondence-courses will push the conversation for granting access to virtual community college courses forward. In the case of the Initiative, it has.

In order to complete a bachelor’s degree, justice-involved students in the Initiative need to complete a capstone course, which requires both heavy engagement with the instructor and opportunities to conduct research. The pilot Canvas course that CSULA developed allows justice-involved students to access small lectures, interactive tools, and real-time engagement with the instructor to meet course requirements and adhere to COVID-19 safety protocol, such as maintaining social distancing.

Online Courses Could Expand Access to Education During and Post COVID-19

According to community college interviewees, there are sometimes different restrictions for participating in in-person courses based on an individual’s location and security level within a correctional facility. For example, individuals housed in a particular area of the correctional facility may not have access to courses offered in a different area of the facility and their security level may make them ineligible to participate in in-person programming. Additionally, it can sometimes be difficult to find a room at the correctional facility to hold an in-person class and the size of the room can limit how many students are able to enroll in that particular class. Correspondence-courses are only a temporary solution to these obstacles. Since these courses were not delivered in person during COVID-19, they were able to circumvent these challenges, but post COVID-19, these restrictions will come into effect. Providing courses through an online learning management system could offer both elements of in-person course delivery and a long term solution to these obstacles to access.

In summary, the COVID-19 pandemic has required college personnel and CDCR educational staff to reevaluate how they are serving justice-involved students. It has changed the way courses are developed and materials are delivered to students. It has required on-going collaboration and communication among colleagues and with correctional partners to assess how these processes are impacting justice-involved students, consider ways to improve the students’ experience, and support the students in effectively completing their coursework and making academic progress. It has also surfaced opportunities for innovation in terms of how courses are delivered and for expanding course access post COVID-19. This health and education crisis could serve as a catalyst to continue innovating around justice-involved students’ education. To support colleagues and partners in engaging in conversations around continuous improvement, I provide a few questions to consider:

  • How is my college or university serving or not serving justice-involved individuals? How can my college or university better serve justice-involved individuals? How can I engage with colleagues to learn more about serving justice-involved individuals and how can I share that learning back at my college or university?
  • Who are our justice-involved students? What security level are our students coming from? Is there an area of the facility, or security level, we are currently not reaching?
  • Which barriers to accessing higher education are the justice-involved people we are serving facing? Are there actions my college or university could take to remove those barriers? Are there actions the correctional facility could take to remove those barriers?
  • Are we assessing the effectiveness of our correspondence or online courses? How are we defining effectiveness? Are there particular aspects of the course with which justice-involved students are having difficulty? How are we identifying pain points for justice-involved students? How can we better understand how justice-involved students are experiencing these courses (e.g., feedback forms, surveys)?
  • What are the positive impacts this transition to correspondence or online courses has had on the justice-involved students we serve? What are the strategies or elements of the course or course delivery that have resulted in or effected these positive impacts? How can we continue to include these strategies when we transition back to providing in-person courses?

[1]CSULA offered a degree in communications to balance out students’ course credits and to focus on skills that will be transferable to both personal and professional aspects of students’ lives.

[2] This series is based on interviews with Taffany Lim and Brantley Choate, as well as with nine California Community College student program providers who serve justice-involved students.

[3] CSU Sacramento was planning to pilot a bachelor’s degree program in winter 2020 at Folsom State Prison, a men’s medium security facility, and Mule Creek State Prison, a men’s medium-maximum security facility, by simultaneously engaging a cohort of 10 students at each facility in video conferencing along with utilizing Canvas as their learning management system. CSU Fresno was planning to launch a bachelor’s degree program at Valley State Prison, a men’s medium-maximum security facility, and the Central California Women’s Facility, which houses incarcerated women of all security levels, in winter 2020. This information was collected in August 2020. We do not have information on whether these proposed courses launched as we did not collect information after the proposed launch dates.