By David Liebler.
Step inside this college classroom and at first glance, you will see a scene played out at many community colleges throughout California. Casually dressed coeds sit at their desks, listening to their instructor, answering questions and participating in discussions. Inspirational sayings can be found on the walls and whiteboard.
But on the outside, the barbed wire and correctional deputies in uniform at the Day Reporting Center tell you this is no ordinary college course – and it’s no typical setting. It’s Imperial County’s unique and highly effective Inside/Out College Program that brings inmates and local community college students together in a classroom setting to explore sociological issues through discussions, assignments and team projects.
“Study after study has shown that education is really the most successful and permanent way to change behavior,” explained Imperial County Sheriff-Coroner Ray Loera. “This is an opportunity to break the cycle, give them the tools and confidence they need to know to go out and know they can be productive citizens.”
Statistics show the value of such a program. According to a 2014 RAND study, inmates who participate in correctional education programs have a 43 percent lower chance of recidivating and 13 percent higher chance of finding work after being released. And in Imperial County, there is a critical need to improve educational achievement; nearly 13 percent of adults over 25 lack a high school diploma compared to a statewide average of 8 percent.
But with limited resources, collaboration was needed. And that’s exactly what happened in Imperial County; in 2014 the County Sheriff’s Office, Probation Department Community Corrections Partnership and Imperial Valley College partnered to develop the Inside/Out College Program – the first in California that provides college courses for inmates incarcerated in a county jail.
Students are eligible for California Board of Governors grants that waive typical enrollment fees. The Sheriff’s Office Inmate Trust Fund handles the rest, paying for student fees, textbooks, supplies and maroon polo shirts that allow inmates to visually fit in with their “outside” classmates.
The program is the brainchild of Gaylla Finnell, who was interning with the Sheriff’s Department as part of her doctoral research and now oversees the program. As a former probation officer, she was very interested in correctional education. In her research, she came across an Inside/Outside program developed at Temple University. She thought such a program could have great benefits at the local level. Once the program received approval from the county and community college, both educators and correctional staff underwent the same training, allowing for a cohesive approach and understanding on how to move forward and work together.
Any apprehension that the inside and outside students have at the onset quickly evaporates as both parties realize there is not a lot of difference between the two groups. Soon, the “us vs. them” mentality is gone, and the only difference is the color of the shirts.
The classes are part of the community college’s alcohol and drug studies program. Many of the “outside” students want to pursue degrees in psychology or alcohol and drug counseling. And this class provides a unique learning experience for them. For “inside” students, the courses are an opportunity to work toward a potential career in counseling or to kick off the pursuit toward a degree.
While outside students were at first apprehensive to register for the course when it was first created in 2014, there’s now a waiting list.
Once “inside” students are released from jail, the program continues to assist offenders in the continuation of their education, vocational training and job placement. “We mentor them and provide them the support to succeed,” said Finnell.
Results of the program speak for themselves. In the first four courses that were offered between the Fall of 2014 and Spring 2016:
- More than 75 percent of all inside/outside students received either an A or B;
- 90 percent of all inside/outside students passed their courses;
- 92 percent of inside students received passed grades;
- 87 percent of inside students completed courses they signed up for.
Sheriff Loera said he has been in law enforcement for more than 40 years and believes this is one of the most successful programs he has seen. “I would encourage any county to get involved in a program like this. It works and it’s going to have a big payoff in the end.”
Program Coordinator Gaylla Finnell agrees. “This is one of the most effective ways to bring the community together with the incarcerated population to work together for solutions to reduce crime and recidivism. The most effective way to reduce recidivism is through education,” she said.
Imperial County’s Inside/Out College Program was honored as part of the 2016 CSAC Challenge Awards, which recognize the most innovative best practices developed by California Counties.