Roberto Luca was 16 when he was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. Two decades into his sentence while in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison, he had an epiphany about the pain he caused his victims and he vowed to improve himself. He began by working on his GED in solitary confinement.

"I was 35 years old and didn’t even know fractions," he said. "I had zero education."

Getting an education behind bars isn't new. Correspondence programs have a long history, especially for GEDs. But in 2014, California passed SB 1391, which funded face-to-face classes inside prison walls. That's when Bakersfield College began a pilot program at Kern Valley State Prison in Delano.

Luca would later transfer there and begin his college career. He took a political science course and public speaking with communications professor Bryan Hirayama, an experience he called a "game-changer."

"It was the first time I felt pride in something," Luca recalled, tearing up.

That is what set him on a path to getting an associate degree and more than that, beginning to build a life for himself outside prison walls. Within a month of getting out, Luca was enrolled in Rio Hondo College. 

"I spent 28 years in prison. Then I find myself on a campus, sitting on the grass, reading my college books and listening to the birds chirp," he said. "It all started with that face-to-face interaction."

Emmanuel Mourtzanos, dean of instruction at Bakersfield College, said the college had long been wanting to provide exactly this kind of experience to people like Luca. As satisfying as he considers all the work in his career, he said nothing has been more rewarding as the Inmate Scholars Program.

"When we had the opportunity to provide live instruction, we just jumped at the opportunity," Mourtzanos said. "We had been wanting to do this for a long time."

Hirayama said that Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative whose career was depicted in the film "Just Mercy," personally helped to advocate for a program to open at Kern Valley State Prison.

"Providing education to people who are incarcerated is not only smart and effective, it is the right thing to do. It's what a just society must do to help people recover who are in need," Stevenson wrote in an email. "If you want public safety and healthy communities, you should want every person who leaves prison to never return, which means we have to provide education and support where it is critically needed."

The first course offered was in public speaking in a dining hall. Hirayama said he found that his new students were nervous, like any students, but the stakes were higher in a maximum-security prison.

"Being vulnerable can be very dangerous," he said.

The pilot was a success. The first course filled up. Nine of the first 14 graduates from the first program were recognized with honors. Corrections staff reported better behavior in the facility. Now Bakersfield College's Inmate Scholars Program is one of the largest in the state, offering programs in all of the state prisons in the county.

The track is a little slower than a traditional student who graduates in four semesters and has an almost bottomless array of electives or pathways. Students complete an associate's degree in six semesters with a triple major in psychology, sociology and communications.

The first class of graduates, which saw so many earn honors, wasn't a fluke. Since the program began in 2014, students in the Inmate Scholars Program have higher GPAs and a higher completion rate than students on traditional campuses, according to Mourtzanos.

Luca said that for many of his classmates, the program was a rare opportunity to be a part of something good inside prison walls. 

"For many of us in prison, we’re natural born leaders — we just lost our way," Luca said. "But once you give us a chance, the sky’s the limit."

The program has expanded every semester.

This semester the college is offering 134 courses across the county's five state prisons. But this program, like every other educational program, has been impacted by COVID-19. It has had to shift back to an old-fashioned form of distance learning: correspondence packets. It's a tough time for professors and students who crave the face-to-face classroom setting, and the normalcy it provided in a stressful prison setting.

"We all miss our students," Hirayama said. "Every time we have a meeting, they bemoan how much they miss students."

Some traditional college correspondence programs would have only a few drop-off times per semester, but BC professors have been trying to do multiple drop-offs to keep regular communication between professors and students.

There has been a silver lining, Mourtzanos said. The college has expanded its offerings. Before the pandemic, the college filled every physical space available, so now it's reaching more students than in the past. There are 4,000 enrollments in classes for spring (which includes some students taking more than one class).

But the arrival of 2021 means the program is wrapping up its seventh year — long enough that Hirayama has witnessed the fruits of the program. He's had students get their associate's degrees and go on to CSULA and Sacramento State. He said one student is applying to UCLA. They've started families. They have good union jobs. 

"People are starting their lives, and at the end of the day that’s the greatest joy: seeing them sustain themselves," Hirayama said.

The data bears this out, too. According to Corrections to College California, there is a 43 percent reduction in recidivism associated with any education in the prison system. It's even higher — 51 percent — when it includes a college-level program.

Luca was facing life in prison, but now he's been out three years. He's married, he bought a house and is settled down in Los Angeles.

He works as senior program manager at Mass Liberation, where he helps people who were incarcerated get their footing. Recently, he was chosen to be on an advisory board for Measure J, which will help advise Los Angeles County on how to spend up to $500 million annually on alternatives to incarceration.

He credits his education in prison for helping set him on the path he's on today. That first public speaking class helped to heal him and take that crucial first step outside prison. 

"You’re able to speak about things you’ve never spoken about," Luca said. "It helped prepare me and believe in myself as I was getting ready to find myself in front of a parole board."