Two women who went from jail to university degrees are central to a new effort to help more make the same transition in California, with the programme seen as a potential model for the UK.
Project Rebound was originally launched at San Francisco State University in 1967 to help former prisoners make a successful transition into university life. In 2016, California State University chancellor Timothy White expanded the programme across the CSU system.
Crucial to the expanded initiative was the hiring of two programme coordinators who have themselves been through the transition from prison to higher education. Both were in London recently to share their insights as part of a wider delegation to an event organised by UK organisation the Prisoners’ Education Trust.
Romarilyn Ralston, who spent 23 years in prison from the age of 24, described how “education proved my saving grace. It gave me hope when the governors and courts said I would be carried out in a pine box.” After being released in 2010, she gained a bachelor’s degree from Pitzer College in Claremont, California, a private liberal arts college where she was the only student of colour.
For the past 18 months, Ms Ralston has been programme coordinator for Project Rebound at California State University Fullerton.
“We help those [current and former prisoners] currently enrolled to create a community,” she told Times Higher Education. “We assist those currently incarcerated and being educated through distance learning or a community college to continue once released and access a four-year university programme…And we attend parole meetings, which the newly released have to attend, looking for candidates for our programmes.”
Sara Rodriguez was jailed three times for more than a year each time, but went on to gain a degree in psychology and criminal justice at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. She now has a role equivalent to Ms Ralston’s there. She also teaches an introduction to college course as part of the Prison Education Project, the largest such volunteer project in the US, which brings about 300 people a year (the vast majority students from 12 local universities) into 34 Californian prisons to impart knowledge and skills.
Because some of the volunteers discuss Project Rebound, Ms Rodriguez noted, many prisoners get in touch and “the mission team looks over their transcripts and identifies what they are lacking, so they can take that class while they are still incarcerated”.
Both women draw on their own experiences to help others leap the hurdles they once faced.
Ms Rodriguez encourages former prisoners to be “open about their incarceration issues on campus…I think it helps us rewrite our narrative and not be so embarrassed about where we have been, but proud that we have been able to overcome those hardships.”
She also urges them to aim high and not let themselves be defined by others’ expectations. “I hear a lot of stories where people are trying to push us into safe careers such as drug and alcohol counsellor or cooking,” which usually require just a one-year course in a community college leading to a certificate, she explained.
“Prison has a way of preparing people for rejection,” Ms Ralston added. “It conditions you to think you are not worthy of certain spaces, including the university. The biggest challenge is overcoming the impostor syndrome.”
Yet given that the formerly incarcerated can be found everywhere, she said, it was “ludicrous” for other people to worry about ex-prisoners’ presence on campus. “I’m not a stereotype, a person in an orange jumpsuit you need to be afraid of.”