The 1960 California Master Plan for Education established California community colleges as an open-access system through which colleges would accept any student capable of benefiting from instruction. Yet, systemic barriers have prevented community colleges from reaching some of our most marginalized citizens: incarcerated individuals.

The face of California’s prison system is not white; it is not wealthy; it is not privileged. Institutional racism, cyclical poverty, and sociocultural barriers have led to a prison system in which African American men are incarcerated at drastically higher rates than any other population: 2,367 per 100,000 people compared to 922 Latino men and 488 white men.

With African American and Latino men representing 71 percent of all incarcerated men in California state prisons, it is clear a commitment to our incarcerated neighbors is a commitment to addressing inequities in our own educational system.

Recent legislation has opened long-closed doors into prisons where 130,000 prospective students live and often recommit to a productive life upon release. Yet, only approximately 5 percent of those incarcerated are enrolled in college courses. As Bakersfield College Professor Yuki Takeuchi shared in her Community Voices piece ("Touching hearts and minds from the prison yard," May 19), BC recently recognized both the opportunity and the responsibility to do what we have always done best: meet students where they are.

Equipped with the knowledge that 41 percent of California jobs with require a bachelor’s degree by 2025, BC only recently launched an initial pilot of one course on one yard to 21 students at Kern Valley State Prison in spring 2015.

Since then, BC has established the largest face-to-face inmate education program in the country. Notable accomplishments of the BC Inmate Scholars Program include:

• Broadened presence from one prison and one yard to 10 prisons and 23 yards;

• Increased course offerings from one section to 50 sections;

• Grew program from 21 enrollments to 2,128 enrollments;

• Began offering the only Culinary Certificate Program in California.

Further, BC is reducing achievement gaps: Incarcerated students of color outperform those in the general population. Remarkably, incarcerated African American students at BC boast a 93.3 percent success rate in their courses.

With 96 percent of those sentenced to prison eventually returning home, it is critical that incarcerated students have access to education, which has been shown to reduce a student’s likelihood of reoffending by 46 percent, according to the 2017 Outcome and Evaluation Report from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

At a recent event, I heard community activist Danny Morrison refer to inmate education as the elixir, and I think he is onto something. In a community where educational attainment rates are bleak while poverty and unemployment rates reach a debilitating 35 percent in some areas, the work of Professor Takeuchi and a cadre of other brilliant and committed BC faculty has more than touched the hearts and minds of her students; it is dismantling the cycles that have long plagued our most marginalized communities.

Lesley Bonds is the director of Student Success & Equity at Bakersfield College. The opinions expressed are her own.

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