Ex-Offender Is Reversing the School-to-Prison Pipeline
With competitive admissions and high tuition costs, getting into college is a stressful event for many high school graduates. For hopefuls who have served time in prison, gaining acceptance into a four-year school is even more challenging.
That's why Project Rebound, an organization based at San Francisco State University, is focused on ensuring the formerly incarcerated have the opportunity to go to college.
“We deal with a population that is shunned,” program director Jason Bell told TakePart. “People initially, they don’t want to deal with us as formerly incarcerated [students]. People are [released from prison] regardless, so it’s a better, wiser option to have things in place to help support them so they won’t continue to recidivate and be involved in the criminal lifestyle.”
While the participants vary, Bell said about 70 percent of the students admitted to Project Rebound over the last two years have been people released early from a life sentence in prison. Most come with a concrete graduation and career plan laid out.
Bell was convicted of attempted murder after he got into a fight at a barbecue when he was 20.
“I never intended to go to prison that day,” Bell said. “That 15-minute bad decision changed everything.” He was sentenced to 17 years in prison and released after serving half his time.
“For some reason, people just couldn’t process the fact that people who have been to prison want to go to college too,” said Bell, who had his high school diploma when he entered prison. With help from Project Round, Bell earned a degree in sociology at San Francisco State University in 2005.
Now, Bell is working with education administrators to expand the program to eight California universities in the fall, including colleges in Sacramento, Fullerton, Pomona, San Bernardino, Bakersfield, Fresno, and San Diego. Cal State L.A. will join the program in the 2017–18 school year, according to Bell. Each on-campus office will include services such as educational counseling, financial aid assistance, and vocational services.
Bell realized it was time to grow Project Rebound when he and his colleagues found themselves struggling to meet an overwhelming demand for assistance. Out of about 200 applicants each year, the San Francisco campus can only accept half because of a lack of funding.
Having the program at only one school has made it especially difficult for people who have limited mobility because of parole restrictions that require them to remain in certain cities or counties for a number of years or that prohibit them from coming into the Bay Area.
“Having to turn people away—that was always stressful,” Bell said. “Sometimes that would keep me up at night, seeing a person that’s perfectly eligible and we could admit here easily, but based on the politics of reentering, they’re not even allowed.”
With the expansion, Project Rebound will be able to accommodate 10 to 20 additional students in the first year. Bell hopes the number will grow with each year.
As a graduate of the program and its leader for the past 11 years, Bell has witnessed firsthand the long-term benefits of Project Rebound, including decreased rates of recidivism among participants.
California has one of the highest recidivism rates in the country, with roughly 61 percent of released inmates returning to prison within three years of their release, according to the most recent figures from the Department of Corrections. The average recidivism rate for participants of Project Rebound is 3 percent.
It’s also cost-effective. Tuition for one year of college through the program is about $6,500 a year. The average cost per healthy individual in a state prison is more than $47,000 annually.
After spending six years working to expand Project Rebound across California, Bell is pleased to see his goals come to fruition. However, the fight to make college more accessible to formerly incarcerated students isn’t over.
“There’s definitely still a lot of work that needs to be done,” Bell told TakePart. “I get a lot of negative feedback from people that have opinions that somehow we don’t deserve the opportunity or we’re taking the seats from more worthy people.... They get a lot of their education through watching Cops on TV. They don’t know that those people they’re talking about are living right next to them.”