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Earning bachelor’s degrees behind bars on the rise in California

Credit: Julie Leopo-Bermudez / EdSource

For years, incarcerated people in California’s state prisons have been able to earn associate degrees.

But a movement to award bachelor’s degrees has been rapidly expanding.

Since 2016, when California State University, Los Angeles, became the first public university in the state to offer bachelor’s degrees to incarcerated people, eight of the state’s 34 adult prisons have started or are soon to begin partnerships that award four-year degrees.

Two programs started last year for women at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla and California Institute for Women in Chino. A new program will debut between Cal Poly Humboldt and Pelican Bay State Prison this spring. Starting next month, CSU Dominguez Hills will debut the state’s first in-prison master’s degree program.

The programs have proven so popular that incarcerated people are eager to enroll. To do so, they have to apply to the university sponsoring the program and must submit essays or references as requested just like any other college student. Students applying to bachelor’s degree programs must have earned an associate degree that is fully transferable.

“We’re like an elite group,” said Kelsey Morasci, an incarcerated student at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, who is enrolled at Fresno State. “The ones that know me are just like, ‘I can do it too.’ … I’m always telling them to get good grades. It’s not an easy slide to getting your BA. You have to achieve it. You have to do the work to get it.”

The push has made California a national leader in its college access programs to incarcerated people, said Allan Wachendorfer, program manager for the Vera Institute of Justice’s Unlocking Potential initiative.

“California is doing really well, and there are things that the rest of the country can learn from the way (the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation) and their college partners have set up their system,” said Wachendorfer, referring to the availability of free community college classes, the proactive recruitment of four-year universities to offer programs in prisons, and the supports colleges provide to people who are leaving prison and enroll on campuses.

California incarcerates about 95,600 persons in its prison system. About 230 are enrolled in a bachelor’s degree program for the fall 2023 semester.

Although some programs in other states limit college in-prison programs to incarcerated people who are highly likely to be released, California does not. Incarcerated people sentenced to life without the possibility of parole are able to earn bachelor’s degrees. In some special cases, incarcerated students sentenced to life without parole have seen their sentences commuted, but only after they’ve applied for a commutation from the governor’s office.

College-in-prison programs have generally received widespread political support because research shows bachelor’s and associate degree programs in prison reduce recidivism rates and help formerly incarcerated people find jobs and improve their families’ lives once they are released.

Credit: Julie Leopo-Bermudez / EdSource

One study from the Vera Institute found that incarcerated people who participate in college programs in prison are 48% less likely to be reincarcerated than those who do not. Formerly incarcerated students also saw employment rates increase on average by 10% after participating in a college-in-prison program.

In July, federal financial aid once again became available for incarcerated students to pay for their college education from prison.

“For people who achieve higher and higher levels of credentials while they are incarcerated, the odds of them returning to prison are lower,” said Wachendorfer. “There is a public safety benefit. They are going home and doing positive things in their community and not returning to prison.” The Vera Institute is a national nonprofit criminal justice policy advocacy organization. Its Unlocking Potential initiative works to expand access to high-quality college programs from prison to reduce racial inequities.

“We know that people of color are disproportionately impacted by the criminal legal system,” he said. “And so offering these opportunities to folks who have been traditionally disenfranchised by the education system and the criminal legal system has that racial equity impact.”

There is also a financial benefit to taxpayers, too, Wachendorfer said.

“We’ve made this investment in folks and there is research out there that shows every dollar invested in higher education in prison has a $4 to $5 return on that investment,” he said.

These programs have also proven to be life-changing.

California State University, Los Angeles, became the first campus, in 2021, to award bachelor’s degrees from within the walls of the Los Angeles County Prison in Lancaster.

Dara Yin was among the first incarcerated men to graduate from the Cal State LA program with a communications degree. He was a ninth-grade dropout.

“I didn’t see a lot of education growing up,” he said. “I gave up on myself in those years, and my education didn’t seem like it was for me at that time.”

After dropping out of high school, Yin joined a gang. In 2001, at age 18, he was arrested for a gang-related drive-by shooting that led to the death of one of his victims. In 2003, Yin was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for murder, and 14 years to life for two counts of attempted murder.

“That’s something I have to live with for the rest of my life,” Yin said.

Nearly all of the state’s 34 prisons offer associate degree programs through community colleges, but in 2016 Cal State LA became the first to offer a communications degree to incarcerated people at the Lancaster prison. Since then, Sacramento State has offered a program at Folsom State Prison, in Folsom, and Mule Creek State Prison, in Ione; Cal State LA opened a second program at the California Institution for Women in Chino; Fresno State offers bachelor’s programs at Valley State Prison and Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla; San Diego State is at Centinela State Prison, in Imperial; and Cal Poly Humboldt will start a new program in 2024 at Pelican Bay State Prison, in Crescent City.

Credit: Julie Leopo-Bermudez / EdSource

The University of California at Irvine also started its first bachelor’s program last year at R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility with 25 incarcerated people studying sociology.

And this fall, CSU Dominguez Hills will debut the state’s first in-prison master’s degree program across the state prison system.

“Reinstatement of Pell (grants) is a wonderful first step,” said Keramet Reiter, director of UC Irvine’s bachelor’s program for incarcerated students and a professor of criminology and law. “But we still have a lot of work to do to continue to make sure it’s the universities and the educators controlling the education.”

Reiter said it’ll be important moving forward for state and federal governments to fund college-in-prison programs through higher education because it is the colleges — and the people who work within them — that can best support incarcerated students.

On average, the state of California spends about $100,000 per year to incarcerate a person. And the cost of UC tuition is $14,436 for in-state residents, Reiter said. If college-in-prison programs significantly lower the chances of a person reoffending upon release and returning to prison, then in some ways it saves taxpayers money, she said.

Despite his sentence of life without the possibility of parole, Yin was able to pursue his degree.

His work in the prison’s service-dog-training program, multiple recommendations from the prison staff, and his educational degrees earned him a commutation from Governor Gavin Newsom’s office in January 2022.

In his commutation letter, Newsom wrote, “This act of clemency for Mr. Yin does not minimize or forgive his conduct or the harm it caused. It does recognize the work he has done since to transform himself.”

“Ninety-five percent of prisoners are going home one day,” Yin said. “But before they go home, they have to be in an environment such as prison, and what kind of culture exists in prison decides what kind of inmate comes out. If there is equality within the prison system itself, that can allow a person to understand that they have a fighting chance if they just put in the work. If they see a life-without-parole inmate have the opportunity to pursue a bachelor’s degree, then that would give them the motivation to change their life.”

In 2021, Yin’s family was able to watch him graduate from Cal State LA as part of that first class.

“This is just incredible, and it blows your mind,” said Christina Yin, Dara Yin’s older sister. “Before our mother passed, like maybe a week before she passed, she told us she wanted to come to see him, but she couldn’t because she was on bed rest.”

During the graduation, Yin spoke of his mother, who died in 2019 from lung cancer. Christina Yin said she felt and knew that their mother was watching the graduation from heaven.

“My mother could not read or write when she escaped from Cambodia during the genocide, making it to America and raising four kids and countless grandchildren without an education,” he said. “She still knew the importance of one, even when I did not. My educational journey is because of her. Today, an education means to me freedom, redemption and opportunity. The freedom to create better lives for ourselves. A redeeming quality in the sense that we can step out of an identity that was once destructive and into the person our mothers always meant for us to be.”


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