From Crises to Careers: Los Rios PREP Launches Incarcerated Students into New Lives

Los Rios PREP

Community colleges are ordained to serve everyone in the region — and that means everyone. For incarcerated students needing a second chance, the Los Rios Community College District’s innovative Prison and Reentry Education Program (PREP) offers a one-of-a-kind opportunity to return to society, secure a living-wage job, and start anew.

“The PREP program has given me a sense of purpose and direction,” says one participant. “Education has given me the confidence and motivation to embrace rehabilitation and change my life.”

In 2016, Folsom Lake College piloted PREP in the local state prisons, with involvement quickly spreading to the other three colleges in the district. Since its inception, a handful of classes has swelled into 40 course offerings every term, with more than 8,000 enrollments to date. Program graduates go on to secure steady employment after release, with successful rehabilitations saving taxpayers more than $4.5 million in the spring 2022 semester alone.

“We’re ensuring that the values and commitment to equity are manifested in all settings,” says Dr. Mariko Peshon McGarry, Associate Vice President of PREP and Special Projects at the District Office. “California has done this on a shoestring, and community colleges have taken the program up through creative resources.”

The program’s partners include Folsom Men’s Prison and Mule Creek State Prison, where incarcerated students can take courses in small business entrepreneurship and management, social work human services, computer information science, and more. Credits transfer to the California State University system, and students can even go on to earn a bachelor’s degree while in the state prisons through California State University, Sacramento. 

PREP’s associate degrees and certificates are also onramps to high-paying, high-demand careers. “For students who are incarcerated, that’s really valuable because we want to make sure they are investing in their education for the long run,” says Peshon. “We want to ensure the labor market data informs them where they can obtain a job, develop a career pathway, and ultimately make a gainful wage and employment opportunity.”

Each of the district’s four colleges helps connect students to employment opportunities. For example, last semester, PREP scholars at Mule Creek State Prison obtained work experience through Folsom Lake College at a wastewater management facility, resulting in full-time and benefits-based jobs upon release. 

Peshon says, “Each campus has a focus on supporting returning citizens in the campus community and building bridges to community partners.”

The program strives to help students complete courses in their major and earn degrees before release or transfer to a different facility. This fall, the program had over 750 unduplicated students across the prisons they serve, with extremely high retention rates.

“The rate at which students persist from one class to another within their degree pathway is actually higher than what it is for our students on campus,” says Peshon. 

The program also helps graduates stay out of prison after they are released. Peshon says that while the average recidivism rate in the state is between 60 and 70 percent in an average three-year period, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reports that incarcerated students who complete college courses have less than a 2 percent recidivism rate — a monumental difference.

“We attribute that low rate to the larger social and academic networks they develop, much like any other college student in the course of their education,” says Peshon. She explains that in PREP, students learn business and social skills, activate critical thinking, and work as part of a team, all the competencies they need to embark on new lives.

“Having recently visited Folsom Lake College to meet with the faculty and staff at the Prison and Reentry Program, I have seen first-hand the positive impact this program has made on our community,” states U.S. Representative Dr. Ami Bera in a Sacramento Bee article when PREP received nearly $1 million from Congress. “This federal funding will help reduce recidivism, violence, and overall conflict in our community while equipping students with increased job training and skills upon their reentry into society.”

While an Innovation Grant helped pilot the program, Strong Workforce has made it possible for PREP to build out high-demand certificate and degree pathways, especially in the social work human services and small business entrepreneurship and management programs. Strong Workforce also provides funding for instructional supplies and materials, as well as the considerable travel time for faculty to take curriculum into the facilities.

“Traveling to Mule Creek State Prison is about an hour drive each way,” says Peshon. “Most prisons in this country are … literally and geographically on the margins of our communities.”

For Folsom Lake College instructor Josh Fernandez, who taught English composition courses at Mule Creek State Prison, the experience has been extremely rewarding.

“I’m trying to build bridges for formerly incarcerated students to all of the resources that we have in academia and beyond in the community,” says Fernandez in a CalSTRS interview. “The inmates were so excited. It was the first writing class in the prison, and they were great writers and super enthusiastic.”

On top of delivering education to those who need it most, PREP has also given students a new identity:

“I no longer get into physical altercations,” says one PREP scholar.  “The most important thing I gained was giving others the same encouragement to pursue their education that I was continuously given through my professors.

“I cannot predict the future, obviously, but thanks to this opportunity, I can say I see a future.”

PREP classes are face-to-face, which is key to their success. During the pandemic, faculty exchanged written communication with students weekly, making sure that as much of the same curriculum continued until in-person classes could resume. “That face-to-face, positive interaction, committed to activating hidden potential in human beings through education, is transformational,” says Peshon. “We’ve seen these programs, the faculty, staff, and students reshape a culture.”

Plans for the future include creating a full college experience in the facilities, with tutoring, reading, and writing centers — support that students on campus take for granted. 

“Every person in the prison is someone’s child,” says Peshon. “When we can reframe our thinking, it peels away a lot of the … stigma and stereotypes.

“We are truly serving the entire community.”

PREP Fall 2023 DATA

December 2023