Correction: This story was corrected on Wednesday, Oct. 19 at 5:35 p.m. The original story said that Romarilyn Ralston lived in “St. Louis, Miss.” when it should have said “St. Louis, Mo.”
Cal State Fullerton will be taking part in a three-year pilot program starting in the spring 2016 semester alongside a number of other CSU campuses to implement Project Rebound, a means of expanding college access to help formerly incarcerated individuals earn a degree and lower prison recidivism rates.
Project Rebound is a program from San Francisco State University (SFSU) that has a goal of “Turning Former Prisoners into Scholars,” according to the program’s SFSU Associated Students page.
It was started by John Irwin in 1967, as the program became a model for other similar programs in Northern California.
Brady Heiner, Ph.D., assistant professor of philosophy and the director of Project Rebound at CSUF, said that Rebound is the sole survivor of nine different incarcerated student-oriented programs in the CSU system that existed in the 1970s.
“I think that sort of demonstrates that this is not a new commitment; it’s a long-standing one that the CSU can do a better job at making good on, and that’s what we’re hoping to do,” Heiner said.
Heiner also said he gained an interest in prisons having grown up in the Central Valley, where he says there are more prisons and jails per capita than there are colleges and universities, leading to critics calling the area “Central Prison Alley.”
“It always seemed very off to me that the caging of persons was primarily framed as an employment opportunity rather than as a social issue,” Heiner said. ”My studies in philosophy and social sciences provided me with the conceptual resources to make sense of that experience and the structural components that contribute to mass incarceration in the U.S.”
In 2011, Heiner began working at CSUF and started to investigate which resources existed to help currently and formerly incarcerated individuals. It was during this time that he met Jason Bell, the current Project Rebound director at SFSU and the regional director of the CSU Project Rebound Effort.
In the four years since, Heiner and Bell have been working to begin adapting the program to other campuses in the CSU system.
One of the reasons Project Rebound is so important is because of the prevalence of mass incarceration in California, which has the third largest prison system in the world behind China and the United States as a whole, Heiner said.
“The end goal, for me, is really trying to decarcerate the state of California,” Heiner said.
As of Oct. 12, the time of the latest weekly report issued when this article was written, there were officially 180,467 total people in custody by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations (CDCR). These people include those in institutions or camps, in contract beds, on parole, under Community Rehabilitative Program Placements supervision, being held out of state in Arizona or Mississippi and distinguished as either “out to court” or “escaped.”
In the CDCR 2015 Outcome Evaluation Report, the sixth in an annual series of reports, the three-year recidivism (return-to-prison) rate for the 2010 to 2011 fiscal year was examined for 95,690 offenders released from adult institutions.
Those released offenders had a recidivism rate of about 44.6 percent according to the report, nearly a 10 percent decrease from the 2009 to 2010 rate. Due to the three-year period of investigation for each fiscal year’s recidivism rate, no more recent data exists from the CDCR.
However, Heiner said the rate should have remained constant for about the last decade or so, and more recent data on about suspects would not prove to be much of a surprise.
“The reality is that formerly incarcerated folks are already here and taking classes, so what we’re seeking to do is provide resources and mentorship for those whose tenacity has already led them to succeed,” Heiner said.
In a 2016 article for the SFSU news, Bell said more than 90 percent of Project Rebound students generally graduate at a faster rate than the school’s overall student population.
“I always say if you’re not persuaded by the arguments of social justice and equal access to education that many of us are persuaded by, the cost-benefit analysis is very straight forward,” Heiner said. “California on average spends, I think, about $60,000 a year to keep someone incarcerated in the state prison system. It costs a fraction of that to help someone get a college degree.”
Due to this success, Project Rebound has received a $500,000 grant for “Renewing Communities” from The Opportunity Institute, which is set to help it expand with a three-year pilot in seven CSU campuses: Bakersfield, Fresno, Fullerton, Pomona, Sacramento, San Bernardino and San Diego.
The program will also be starting up at Cal State Los Angeles, Heiner said, although the expansion isn’t directly a component of the “Renewing Communities” grant.
“It’s also the litany of really robust and indispensable support that we’ve received across the campuses from staff members and faculty administrators who are helping make these programs sprout up and have a real chance at flourishing,” Heiner said.
Romarilyn Ralston started work on Oct. 9 as the program coordinator for CSUF’s branch of Project Rebound.
As the coordinator, Ralston will be responsible for recruiting potential students, forming partnerships with community organizations and acting as an ambassador.
“I have a couple of ideas on how to do some outreach work in the community and on campus. I want to do a lot more community outreach on campus and getting students involved,” Ralston said. “I’m planning on making my rounds through a lot of different departments.”
To get the job, Ralston was required to turn in an application and be interviewed via video from her home at the time in St. Louis, Mo., with a committee that included Heiner, Bell and Susan Burton, a member of A New Way of Life, one of the community partners with Rebound.
“They were all pretty tough on me, but it was a good interview, and I’m very happy that they selected me for the position,” Ralston said.
Heiner said that one of the goals of the program is to provide the best forms of support for currently and formerly incarcerated individuals who are seeking to pursue higher education.
“One of the tasks that we set for ourselves was to try to distill what about Project Rebound in San Francisco made it a success,” Heiner said. “There were a number of elements, but one of them was that … the leadership of the program has always been someone who has themselves successfully navigated the hurdles of transitioning from prison to college and then onto graduate school and so has a unique, important and valued perspective.”
Ralston herself is formerly incarcerated after serving time in 1988. However, once she was released, she earned a bachelor’s degree from Pitzer College, a Claremont school like Pomona and Harvey Mudd, before also earning a Master’s in Liberal Arts from Washington University.
“College is a very scary place for all first time students, so Rebound students are no different than any other traditional student,” Ralton said. “An office like Project Rebound and staff that has prior incarceration histories who has walked the walk and accomplished what Rebound sets up to help their students achieve will be very helpful and supportive.”
Another one of the goals of Project Rebound is to have an advisory board so that Rebound staff members can get advice about what kind of help exists both on and off campus. Heiner said Project Rebound is at least partially about building relationships with people to create “a hub to plug formerly incarcerated students into already existing resources.”
One such advisor for Project Rebound is Jason Sexton, Ph.D., lecturer in CSUF’s University Honors Program and editor of Boom magazine.
“Education is essential for any healthy society; cultivating minds and developing meaningful practices that contribute to the wider social good,” Sexton said via email. “I’ve found that those incarcerated are some of the most sophisticated members of our society, and Project Rebound continues important efforts already underway within prison.”
Senior electrical engineering major Andrew Berg agrees that allowing more access to education is important for previously incarcerated individuals.
“They wouldn’t really have many opportunities just coming out of prison,” Berg said. “I feel like everyone should have access to education as long as they’re willing to work for it.”
Ralston said that there are currently three students set to attend CSUF in the spring 2016 semester, though she hopes to have between 20 and 30 by the time the semester starts.
However, the Project Rebound office is currently about the size of a prison cell, Ralston said, and will need to expand both in space and staff numbers to truly be able to start making a difference. She hopes that one day, CSUF’s program could be big enough to have students coming from all over the country.
Having already received invites to speak with the Governor’s office in California and the White House, Heiner said the program has a lot of potential to make a difference and has a lot of room to grow.
“We have many volunteer opportunities, from folks with graphics, web design and branding/promotional skills to folks interested in tutoring who have general computer literacy skills, math and writing skills, to students interested in simply orienting Rebound students to campus,” Heiner said via email.
If you are interested in potentially volunteering or interning for Project Rebound, Heiner recommends dropping by the Project Rebound office in Langsdorf Hall room 647 or sending an email to [email protected]
“Prison higher education and Rebound are ways in which I can exercise my own expertise in higher education to benefit, help and support currently and formerly incarcerated folks who have the aptitude and the interest to get a college degree and beyond,” Heiner said.