By Dr. Shelly Conner
Dean, EWD, Comm. Svs. & Non-Credit

Senate Bill 1391 waives the open course provisions for classes a community college district provides to inmates of correctional facilities and authorizes the board of governors to include the units of full-time equivalent students generated in those classes for the purposes of state apportionment.

In response to the opportunities we are now afforded to serve inmates of Valley State Prison and the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, Merced College has developed a pilot program for inmate education at VSP.

In the pilot program 42 student inmates are currently enrolled in two sections of Guidance 48, a for-credit degree-applicable career counseling class that prepares students to develop educational plans that help them meet their career goals.

Merced College has hired a part-time instructor to teach the guidance class and to work with inmates on educational planning.

This first group of 42 student inmates is very pleased and excited about the opportunity to be enrolled in face to face college classes. Educational backgrounds vary greatly, with some students having already completed bachelors’ degrees prior to incarceration, others having completed associates degrees via correspondence classes while in prison, and others who are enrolled in postsecondary education for the first time. The student inmates are extremely interested in learning about careers that are available to them upon their release and are excited about the prospects that their postsecondary coursework will offer them as ex-offenders.

Because the inmates are prohibited from using the Internet, Merced College student services departments are helping to formulate paper processes for admissions, enrollment, BOG fee waiver applications, assessment, transcript evaluation and educational planning. We are also confident that we will be able to address the need for students to do research for class projects without access to Internet resources and are working with VSP’s on-site librarian to supplement the printed research materials available in the prison library. We are working on providing classroom sets of text books for some required courses, and are developing plans by which student inmates will be able to purchase text books for other courses through the Merced College bookstore.

In the near future, Merced College is working toward offering physical education and health, and are intending to offer one or more social science classes, such as history, psychology or sociology, this fall.

The inmate educational program is supported by the principal and vice principal of the Educational Department at VSP, which offers classes for Adult Basic Education and General Education Development so inmates can earn a high school diploma. VSP also offers vocational programs for inmates on-site, and college classes via correspondence school. Merced College is working to build on these existing programs to eventually offer inmates the opportunity to earn an associates degree in a face to face classroom setting.

Student inmates have access to the prison library and have access to computers that can be used for non-Internet class assignments such as typing papers. The vocational education program has equipment and facilities for classes such as Automotive Mechanics, Electronics, Office Services, Small Engine Repair, Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning, Welding, Electrical Works, Carpentry and Masonry. Over time, as we continue to assess the educational goals, interests, and experiences of the inmates, we will develop plans to bring additional college level career technical education coursework to Valley State Prison.

The Central California Womens Facility, or CCWF, has also expressed interest in face to face college classes. As our inmate education program at VSP develops, we will begin to work with CCWF to expand into that facility as well. 

This article originally appeared in the Campus Digest, May 2016 issue.