Arrowood is one of the beneficiaries of California’s policy to provide face-to-face higher education classes in almost all of its prisons. Prisoners were restricted to correspondence courses until a law passed in 2014 allowing in-person classes. That year, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reports, the number of successfully completed college classes jumped to 13,301 from the previous year’s 5,725.By 2017, about 4,500 prisoners were enrolled in community college with tuition paid for by taxpayers through a state financial aid program, up from zero prisoners in 2014. While other states have some prisons that offer in-person education, California is the only state offering classes in nearly every prison, taught by educators from nearby colleges, for credits that can transfer and count toward degrees.
And the program's benefits go beyond the prisoners who are released. Some of them will never be released, but they and their families still reap rewards.
Allen Burnett, 45, was arrested at 18 and convicted of aiding and abetting in a murder, and was eventually sentenced to life without parole. He bounced around seven prisons before landing at Lancaster, where he became part of the book group with Arrowood.
He earned an associate degree through correspondence courses and eventually joined Cal State LA’s first cohort. He said the lessons he’s learned in class have helped defuse situations with fellow prisoners. “There’s so much segregation here, the slightest thing can turn into an issue,” he said.
His efforts were an inspiration to his 40-year-old sister, who went back to college herself. But he’s most proud of the impact his education is having on his stepdaughter Zion Holmes.
Holmes was born after Burnett was arrested, but he built a relationship with Holmes through visits and phone calls. They played Monopoly during visits, although “it was hard to have those little moments” together because every phone call is recorded, said Holmes, now 19. But when it came time to decide where she wanted to study, she asked for her stepfather’s advice.
His eyes water when he recounts their conversation. He told her how caring the staff at Cal State LA was and promised her if she went there, there would always be someone on campus who was looking out for her.
Today she’s a sophomore at Cal State LA, while Burnett is eight classes short of graduating. “There’s an emotional connection,” he said. “We talk about end-of-semester stress.”
“He’s a lot more studious than I am,” Holmes said. Her stepfather, an early riser who’s up at 4 a.m. most days, got A’s in both of his classes last semester. “I haven’t done that … yet,” she said.
Education is never wasted. The only thing needed to be added (as the article suggests) is remedial education for prisoners who need to start closer to the beginning.