Getting a bachelor's degree in prison is rare. That's about to change
Updated June 23, 2022 at 7:01 AM ET
NORCO, Calif. — Behind the wire fences and guard towers, there's a classroom at the California Rehabilitation Center, a medium-security prison. A colorful mural — of books, such as King Arthur and Tom Sawyer — distinguishes the classroom building from the off-white buildings throughout the rest of the sprawling prison complex.
Inside, about a dozen men in blue prison uniforms sit in old school desks — the kind with the chairs attached. "Welcome, welcome!" bellows a voice from the large TV monitor near the far wall. It's the beginning of a political studies class about incarceration — taught over Zoom by professor Nigel Boyle.
"Other than people in prison or on parole, who are the other people affected by the carceral state?"
In the very first row, with his hand up, is Daniel Duron, with his shaved head, black-rimmed glasses and arm tattoos. "People who have finished parole," he answers. "Many of them still can't do things like vote."
Kenny Butler, a tall man in his late 40s, nods in agreement. He's kind of the de facto leader of the class. He's been in prison for more than a decade and he's known for his knowledge of the prison system, his former status in the Crips gang, and the thick, heavily used dictionary he carries with him most days.
The incarcerated men in this room are painters and physics nerds, deep thinkers and fast readers. They come from five different gangs; they are white, Native American, Black and Latino. On this winter day in 2021, they are also college juniors and seniors who gather several times a week to take classes from Pitzer College, a small, elite liberal arts school of about 1,000 students located in Claremont, an hour away from the prison in Norco.
Eventually, all these classes — in psychology, literature, mathematics and history — will add up to a bachelor's degree in organizational studies. Among the nearly1.5 million people in state and federal prisons in the United States, these men have been given a rare opportunity to earn a college degree while in prison.
There are very few bachelor's degree programs offered in prisons because, for the last quarter-century, there has been a ban on people in prison using federal money to pay for college classes. It's a vestige of the "tough on crime" era that was set in stone in the 1994 crime bill.
But that's about to change. Congress recently lifted that ban: Starting in the 2023-2024 school year, people in prison will have access to Pell grants. The money, up to nearly $7,000 a year per student, doesn't need to be repaid. The change will mean a chance at higher education for more than half a million people who will be academically eligible, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.
As anticipation grows for this expansion, a number of higher education providers are starting to design programs with correctional facilities. Nonprofits and foundations are teeing up money to help. And college and university administrators are looking to places like Pitzer to learn about both the potential and the limitations of college in prison, beginning what may be one of the largest social experiments in prison education.
The impact of college classes in prison
Butler's and Duron's journey to earn a degree at Pitzer illustrates the potential for hundreds of thousands of people who are incarcerated. Their stories also highlight some of the unique challenges and limitations that education alone won't fix.
When Butler was growing up, he didn't spend much time in school. He was in and out of the criminal justice system from the time he was 11 years old when he stole a bike. "Once I was on the police's radar, any little thing would get me in trouble," he says. Graffiti. Stealing underwear. His grandmother, his primary caregiver, was more concerned with keeping him safe, he says, than keeping him in school.
But he was always smart. A quick learner, a problem-solver and a leader. Growing up in public housing in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, Butler had to be.
"It's like living in an aquarium with sharks," he says. "You're going to learn to defend yourself and do what you have to do to survive. And that's where I was. I was stuck in survival mode."
That mindset helped Butler rise through the ranks of the Crips, a gang he says earlier generations of his family helped start. By the time he reached his 20s, he was selling drugs; his criminal record made it hard to find an alternative job. "A lot of what pushed me into that underworld was income," he says. Then in 2006, at age 32, a felony charge landed him a 20-year prison sentence. Butler maintains he didn't commit the crime but took a plea deal to avoid the possibility of a longer sentence.
It was in the prison library that Butler discovered books. First law books, to see if he could reduce his sentence, and then history and literature. The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois was especially captivating. "I just went on a journey after that," Butler says. "I started reading a book a week, at least."
But the books in the prison library were often hard to digest — there were so many words he didn't know. It wasn't until a cellmate gave him a Webster's dictionary, nearly 2 inches thick, that his world really opened up. That dictionary became Butler's constant companion. He says it helped him understand himself and the world. He highlighted the new words he learned and folded down the corners on pages he wanted to revisit.
He used the book so much that the cover fell off, so he had to make a new one. "This is my research kit. This is my 'Google' right here," he says, holding the book in his lap and turning its pages. "It's all dog-eared ... that may be coffee on there!"
Butler's intellectual journey might have ended with the beloved dictionary and frequent visits to the prison library, but in 2018 he was transferred to the prison in Norco, where he started taking college classes — first from a local community college and then from Pitzer. Butler was hooked.
"How did the mythology frame the institution of slavery?" asks Derik Smith, an associate professor of literature, one Wednesday last spring during a film class. They'd been studying the movie version of Gone with the Wind. "It's the glamorization of the plantation," replies Butler, who has begun to understand how U.S. history has shaped his own life and his story of being a Black man in prison.
The classes have pushed him to think critically and reminded him that his experience, thoughts and ideas have value. "I belong at the table. I deserve to be heard," Butler says. "Having professors be attentive to what I have to say ... it's just an amazing feeling for sure."
He recalls a moment from the first day of a class in organization theory that really hit home for him. Typically, when he and other students entered a classroom, they had to present their prison IDs. But on this day, instead of taking that ID, the professor shook Butler's hand. "That just opened up the floodgates for me," he recalls. "It gave me a sense of being a human being and not just an inmate."
The jump from teaching classes in prison to offering a bachelor's degree
Pitzer College has offered courses at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco for several years, but Butler and Duron are among the first incarcerated students to pursue a bachelor's degree through the program, which was launched in December of 2020. Private donations cover the costs, about $10,000 per student, per year. Students are selected through a rigorous application process that includes letters of recommendation, grades and interviews.
Pitzer follows the Inside-Out program, where students enrolled at the college travel by bus to the prison to learn alongside students who are in prison. (Many classes were taught virtually during the height of the pandemic.)
Outside of the classroom, Butler understood that his academic success was inspiring other people in prison. "A lot of guys see me walking around in the halls, and they know me from my past life," he says. "And now they see me with these books all the time. And you know, they have a lot of questions!"
Duron was one of those guys who looked up to Butler — he asked for advice and followed Butler's lead on studying and writing papers. "The Pitzer classes gave me a lot more perspective on how to see the world and feel about it," he says. And they helped him think about the future — what he wanted and how to try and be a "decent" human being. "I feel more engaged with society instead of being demonized."
In one of the first English classes he took, Duron wrote an analytical paper about Plato's Allegory of the Cave. It was the first time he'd seen his own story so clearly. "I was able to put together the analogy of the cave within my own life, being enlightened by my education," he recalls. "I was the one that had made it out of the cave and into the sunlight."
What's the backstory on why people in prison can't get federal grants for college?
The 1994 crime bill signed into law by President Bill Clinton banned people in state and federal prisons from accessing federal Pell grants to pay for college — part of a broad "get tough on crime" political climate at that time. Before the ban, more than 1,500 prisons offered higher education programs.
Without federal funding, the programs vanished. By 1997, it's estimated that only eight remained, according to an American Enterprise Institute report. Those, and newer ones that sprang up in the early 2000s, relied on private funders for financial and volunteer support.
But over the past decade, advocates across the political spectrum have pushed to lift the Pell Grant ban, fueled in part by research that shows education is one of the most cost-effective ways to keep people from returning to prison once they're released. One study funded by the U.S. Department of Justice found that the risk of recidivism dropped by nearly 13% when people participated in prison education.
In 2015, the Obama administration started a pilot program called Second Chance Pell, which made federal Pell grants available to a handful of prison programs across the country. Nearly 200 colleges applied for 70 spots, demonstrating widespread interest. The pilot was expanded under the Trump administration and remains in effect.
Over the past five years, Second Chance Pell has given about 28,000 students in prison access to college courses, and about 9,000 have received a credential — including certificates, associate's and bachelor's degrees, according to the Vera Institute.
At the state level, funding for prison college education varies. Many state laws still bar people in prison from accessing state financial aid. In 2014, California changed its lawso that community colleges now receive the same amount of funding per student, regardless of whether they attend classes on campus or in prison. "That's an instance where growth happened almost immediately," explains Ruth Delaney, associate initiative director from the Vera Institute. Most community colleges in the state now have prison education programs, enrolling about 10,000 people.
Delaney expects the same kind of explosion of programs across the country next year. The Pell Grant, she says, will go much further in covering tuition for community colleges, while many four-year institutions that offer bachelor's degrees — which are often far more expensive — will have to supplement their costs with institutional funds or private donations.
The pandemic upends plans for two students to finish their degree in prison
On an early spring morning in 2021, Butler shed his blue prison uniform and boarded a bus. As it drove away, he leaned against the window, watching the prison complex disappear, the guard towers receding.
"I was looking at those towers because most of my life, that's what I've been staring at," Butler recalled. "That was like the proverbial knee on my neck, being closed in these gates." He remembers thinking, "This is the last time I'll see one of those towers." On the seat next to him, he'd packed his companions from those years inside — a handful of books and his beloved dictionary — the beginning of his own home library one day.
The plan for the men enrolled at Pitzer was to get a degree while in prison. But before Duron and Butler could finish, both were granted early release because of the COVID-19 pandemic and credit they'd earned for all of the college classes they'd taken.
Leaving prison, or being transferred from one facility to another, is a common disruption and often a major challenge to getting a degree. It can be far more expensive to attend school once a student is released. Plus, few schools have programs to ease that transition. Not to mention the pressing need to earn a living, find housing and navigate all of the distractions of life on the outside.
But Boyle and the other professors and administrators involved in the Pitzer program were determined to help Butler and Duron finish. The college — through an anonymous donor — arranged to pay for their tuition and housing on campus, which on average after accounting for grants, scholarships and aid runs students about $30,000 a year. It's the first time the college had done this, Boyle said, so everything is a learning curve. "We're really making it up as we go."
Duron left prison a few weeks after Butler's release. Waiting for him at the prison gates? Not family or friends — but Boyle, his academic adviser. Duron had only a handful of credits left to finish the bachelor's degree, and Boyle is committed to getting him to the finish line.
They climbed into Boyle's beat-up red minivan, and Duron changed into an oversized Pitzer sweatshirt Boyle had brought him. He fidgeted with his shorts — nervous, overwhelmed, baffled that just minutes ago, he'd been in prison, and now he was sitting next to his professor.
"I thought any minute they'd be like, 'You've got to go back into the building,'" he tells Boyle. "I can't shake this feeling they were going to be like, 'Never mind, you're not going home today.' "
Duron had been in prison three times before, so getting released wasn't a new thing. But this time felt different, he said. He was a college student, almost done with his bachelor's degree. Plus, he was getting picked up by his professor, driving toward Pitzer's campus in Claremont, Calif., for a tour. It would be the first time he'd ever set foot on a college campus.
"You coming down and picking me up was kind of inspiring for a lot of the guys [in the prison]," Duron tells his professor. "They were like, 'That shows the commitment the school has to you.' "
Boyle smiles. He's been a professor for nearly three decades at Pitzer and, though he's never picked up a student from prison before, he's certainly done a lot for his students — in and out of the classroom. "Pitzer is a small college," he explains to Duron. "We do these things for our students and you're one of our students now!"
When they arrive at Pitzer, Duron is struck by how big the campus feels — with its palm trees, pools and playing fields wrapped around the academic buildings. He recognizes the clock tower from a screen saver he's seen during Zoom classes.
"I picture students sitting around playing guitars, is that right?" Duron asks. Boyle nods, delighted by Duron's curiosity. They look at a campus map, with Boyle pointing out the offices of some of Duron's professors.
A heavy dose of self-doubt creeps in. Duron feels unworthy of the opportunity. He has so many questions for Boyle: Why me? Why not hundreds and thousands of others? Am I smart enough to go here?
"I don't really think I write well," he tells Boyle, sitting at a table on campus. "I'm self-conscious about it." But Boyle has graded his papers. He knows this student has the academic chops.
He'll go on to tell other professors they'll be blown away by some of Duron's writing, saying, "Daniel comes in as this shaven-headed guy that maybe doesn't make eye contact. And then you read his papers. It's like, 'Oh, this guy's good!' "
For now, he just assures Duron: "You do write well."
As they walk around the lush green campus, Duron tells his professor about his childhood. He grew up just 30 minutes away, in Fontana. It's close in distance, he says, but a world away.
"Crime was always present, like from birth," says Duron, now 40. "My home was a gang hangout." His grandfather was an abusive alcoholic and spent time in prison. So did his father, who was largely absent during his childhood. His mom struggled with addiction, so his grandmother, the main stable force in his life, raised him.
"We all saw the violence and the alcohol," Duron's mom, Virginia Ramirez, said. She's now been sober for the past two decades. "Being around that, that's all you know. And that's where Daniel's violence probably comes from because he saw it. It's coming from pain. We both come from pain."
At 12, Duron joined the Sureños gang, which made him feel safe and protected. He got a high school diploma — the first in his family — in a juvenile detention facility and spent much of his adulthood doing time in prison. He, too, struggled with alcohol and anger. His most recent offense was a domestic violence charge.
The Inside-Out model, which Pitzer follows for its classes in the prison, holds the idea that professors don't talk with their "inside students" about the crimes for which they've been convicted. But Duron has been open about his mistakes, writing about his crimes and the traumas of his past in essays and personal statements.
"It's shameful to talk about," he says. "Like, I did that. I'm embarrassed by it. I didn't want to do it."
But he says writing about it, thinking deeply about it, and talking about it with people he trusts have helped him come to terms with his choices, to process his trauma and identity, and confront the shame and grief of his actions. When he looks back now, at the person he was when he went into prison just five years ago, he describes himself as having the maturity of a 5-year-old.
"My emotional condition at the time just wasn't there," he says. "I have issues I still have to work through."
His arms and neck, covered in gang tattoos, are a constant reminder of his past — a reminder he's determined to shed. And he's planning to keep his old life — friends and family — at a distance while he lives in Claremont and finishes school.
Finishing college on the outside gets off to a bumpy start
Over the next few months, Butler and Duron slowly adjust to student life outside of prison. The college helps arrange paid internships to help the men with their finances.
They move into an on-campus apartment together. They start new routines. Boyle, now the adviser for both students, takes Duron shopping. For the first time in his life, he buys red shoes and red bedsheets; red is a rival gang color so Daniel was forbidden to own it in his old life. Other professors help Duron learn to cook; one gives him a rice cooker for the apartment.
Butler turns to fitness — he takes yoga and Pilates and rides his bike through campus nearly every morning around 4 a.m., a vestige of his 15 years inside, when early mornings were the only time it was quiet enough to study. "
Living in Claremont, away from his past life in Los Angeles, provides Butler with a safe haven. "A lot of guys, when they get out of prison they have to go right back to where the crimes happened. You're always on the alert then, with rival gangs, you have an enemy to look out for," explains Butler. "I've been blessed to be living near campus, where I don't have to be on alert."
As the first day of in-person class looms, Butler gets four planner notebooks — he can't decide which is best — to help him schedule his days. The night before, Duron irons his favorite white T-shirt. He can hardly sleep, he's so nervous and excited.
For Duron, his first in-person experience is a class about the history of Mexico with professor Miguel Tinker Salas. "I always start my classes with music," he says, as students shuffle into the small room. Outside of prison, Duron and Butler get to choose their course schedules; they're not limited to the classes offered in prison. For Duron, a class to learn about his Mexican identity was a top priority.
"¿Habla español?" the professor asks Duron. "Un poquito?" Duron responds, nervously. "I know some Spanish, I just can't speak fluently."
"That's fine, that's fine," Tinker Salas reassures him. "The class is not in Spanish."
For Butler, his first class on campus is political science, taught by professor Tyee Griffith, who he has had before on the inside. When he arrives 20 minutes before class, the professor is already there. "I always come early too," Griffith says.
Doing the academic work and going to class is most familiar for both men on the outside. After all, they've been taking college classes for years. It's the everyday challenges of life that prove to be the hardest part of the transition.
Butler's wife — a teenage sweetheart who he reconnected with and married while still inside — lives an hour away in Los Angeles. So he spends a lot of his time driving back and forth, splitting his time between there and campus.
"We have shifts," his wife, Leona DeJean, says, laughing. They're used to having a long-distance relationship, but that hasn't made the experience any less hard. She misses him. But she's also invested in his education. There's a whiteboard hanging on the wall in his bedroom in Claremont, decorated with little notes and hearts she's added. "He knows how to put the effort in," she says. "He finishes what he starts."
But balancing family life in LA — including helping his wife's teenage daughter learn to drive — is hard to do when you're also trying to be a full-time student.
"It's a lot of distraction," Butler admits. "I have a heavy load right now. I feel like Atlas, with the whole world on my shoulders." Over the summer, he'd taken summer classes online and fell behind. "I had to get an extension on my microeconomics so I couldn't actually concentrate," he explains.
Inside prison, he didn't have many other responsibilities, so he could just focus on class. Outside, there was the internet and social media (where Butler posts almost constantly — #ButlerStrong). And in the background, there was the global pandemic: Seven family members died, including Butler's son's mother, his aunt and uncle, and his grandmother.
"It's been a roller coaster," he says. "I've been constantly having to slow myself down and make sure I'm present, because school is the priority."
After a few weeks of classes, Duron has been having a tough time also.
There is so much that is new, and he's been so nervous about the experience that he nearly gave himself a panic attack. Walking on campus — in his early 40s, with his shaved head and arms covered in tattoos — he sticks out. He tells us it's not uncommon for other students to ignore or avoid him.
"Overall, it's hard," says Duron. "I go into the dining hall and usually eat lunch or dinner by myself."
Butler feels that isolation too. "We walk around a lot and sometimes we don't get acknowledged by certain people," he says. Sometimes, students cross the street to avoid them or wait for the next elevator. In the first couple of months, it happened in class too." When we broke off into groups, only one person came to my table," Butler told us midsemester. It came as a surprise — he thought a liberal arts campus would be different. "It's supposed to be a melting pot and everybody's trying to be progressive and coming together," he says. "But we're like stepchildren in the family. No one wants to be around us."
Even things like Google are overwhelming. Imagine not having access to the internet for years and then boom, the world is at your fingertips. "A lot of the sites that I click on have nothing to do with what I'm looking for," explains Duron. "I got a headache from just hitting roadblocks."
On top of all the stress of doing the readings and writing papers, they're navigating visits from parole officers, a common element of post-prison life.
After class one night, Duron is planning on going to a meeting about post-graduate opportunities on campus, but his parole officer calls. He's in the neighborhood. Could he stop by?
Duron greets him at the front of the apartment building. "So campus life is good so far?" he asks Duron, and they walk up to the apartment he shares with Butler. "Yeah, just meeting people," he responds.
They make small talk, about college and the weather. The parole officer is just checking in, he explains, making sure Duron is hanging around the right people — avoiding interactions with the police.
He hands him a cup to pee in. He's also here to do a drug test.
"You're good, right?" he asks. "Yeah," says Duron.
Every year, about half a million people are released from state and federal prison in the United States and within three years, more than half will end up back inside.
Because of Duron's former gang affiliations, he has to be careful. He can't have any negative interactions with the police and he has to steer clear of old connections who are still in the gang. That's what amplified his sentence the last time.
He's convinced that this time, because of the college classes and the relationships he's forged with professors and the other students, he'll be able to beat the statistics.
Changing and growing and graduating
By the end of the 2021 fall semester, just before finals, Duron's appearance has begun to transform: His tattoos are disappearing. "Yeah, it's way lighter," he says, smiling. He's been undergoing treatments to remove them and his forearms, normally covered in dark black ink, are now a soft gray. " I just wish it was off already."
The faded tattoos are a visual metaphor of regrowth and change. Throughout the semester, Duron has been giving himself pep talks, forcing himself to get out of his comfort zone, to do things that make him uncomfortable. He's tried rock climbing and gone hiking, he's worked on public speaking and he's found real joy at an activity his prison self could have never dreamed of: ballroom dancing.
He's learned the bachata, tango and waltz. "It's been intimidating," he says, "because like ... I only dance when I'm alone. And actually, I'm just moving around. I wouldn't really call it dancing ... just goofing around and stuff."
Duron finished his fall semester, the last of his college career, with nearly all A's. He's a more confident student, and a more confident and comfortable human being. A few days before graduation he took his mom on a tour of campus.
"He kept saying 'hi' to people — even ones he didn't know, he'd say, 'Hey how you doing?' " she recalled. "That didn't used to be Daniel. He never would have approached anybody before. He would have just kept his head down and said nothing."
Butler also finished his college career in the fall of 2021, with outstanding grades. His professors likened him to the story of Job — no matter what came at him, he was able to succeed.
In May, Duron and Butler, now 40 and 47, respectively, walked across the graduation stage as the crowd cheered and applauded.
After the ceremony, they gathered with family and friends at professor Boyle's house in Claremont. Butler and Duron each gave a toast — celebrating their accomplishment. When it was Duron's turn he looked right at his mother. "This is as much mine as it is yours," he told her. "This is for us."
Life after Pitzer: Fellowships, grad school and some uncertainty, for now
For Duron and Butler — and other formerly incarcerated students — earning a bachelor's degree itself is a huge accomplishment. But there are still big questions: Where will they work? How will they make money? Is a college degree enough to overcome a criminal record?
Right away, both men ran into a major issue: They had very little work history for their resumes. "Being a leader in a gang — being a leader inside prison — that doesn't really translate to a CV or to a job interview," explains Boyle, who helped advise the two men on post-grad plans.
To work around this predicament, Boyle urged them to focus on fellowships designed for recent college grads; applications put more value on a personal story and academic experience than work history.
They both applied to several. Butler applied for a research Fulbright in Uganda, to study the prison system there. When he applied, he'd never been on an airplane, never left the country, and didn't have a passport. He also tried for a Napier Fellowship, which awards $20,000 toward a project supporting social change. Butler proposed a peace and reconciliation program to help former gang members coming out of prison find a pathway to higher education.
Butler won both fellowships.
When he heard the news, "I actually cried and I had to pull over because I was overwhelmed with joy," he recalls. In addition to the fellowships, Butler was accepted to graduate school at California Polytechnic State University in Pomona for a master's program in public administration.
"When it rains, it pours," he says. "You work hard to get to a certain point and when you get acknowledged in that way, now, you have to work harder to make people know that they picked the right person."
Duron hasn't had the same luck. He didn't receive any of the fellowships he applied to and has struggled to find full-time employment. He's hesitant to take a job in manual labor now that he's a college graduate. "I know I could probably get a job at a warehouse," he says, "but I want to do something meaningful."
He knows that just having a college degree, even from a school like Pitzer, might not be enough to overcome his prison record and the traumas of his past. He insists he's still a work in progress, seeking counseling and going to AA meetings.
"How I was raised and what happened to me, there's no getting around it," he says. "Everything that happened in my life is shaping who I've become. And honestly, I love being me. I really do. And now I gotta embrace it."
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