By Joan Parkin, Ph.D.
Feather River College’s Incarcerated Student Program Director
On July 15, over 200 inmates, correctional and educational staff, and administrators, filled the gym at the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) to participate in CCWF’s College and Reentry summit.
The purpose of the event was to begin a conversation about bringing a four-year Bachelor of Arts degree program to the women at CCWF and to highlight the importance of a college education as a reentry tool.
Retired Chief Deputy Warden Velda Dobson-Davis organized and emceed the Summit, in coordination with Feather River College. The panelists included remarks from CCWF Warden D. K. Johnson (who has since retired), Education Principal Ovidio Gonzalez, Superintendent of the Office of Correctional Education Brantley Choate, Director of Inmate Education for the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office Dr. Robert “BJ” Snowden, Feather River College’s Incarcerated Student Program Director Dr. Joan Parkin and former CCWF inmate Carletha Sterling. Other invited guests included Fresno State University Professor Barbara Owen and Assistant Professor Jenna Kieckhaefer.
CCWF inmates decorated the room with a banner made especially for the Summit and made an impressive showing for the guests with a presentation of flags by CCWF Inmate Color Guard, inspirational songs by the CCWF Choir, and a presentation honoring Warden Johnson.
In an interview following her remarks on the panel, Warden Johnson summed up the Summit’s goals stating, “Education is extremely important. We have a group of women who are first time graduates of Associate Arts Degrees who are ready for the next level. In addition, CCWF’s in-custody support groups, family support, reentry opportunities and education, will assist a successful community return.”
Principal Gonzalez offered the Summit attendees the numbers behind his highly successful college program. He noted that “over 140 women had earned their Associate of Arts degree from Feather River College and that degree completion rates remain high because of FRC’s hybrid cohort model.”
He also mentioned that Coastline Community College provides a good alternative for students who prefer independent learning.
Superintendent Choate mentioned that many inmates have multiple Associate of Arts degrees and that there is a need to expand the Pell grant being piloted in California. But he also underscored the enormity of the task to prepare inmates for college.
“In California, out of 125,000 incarcerated individuals, among 35 state prisons, about one half read below a ninth-grade level. We have a huge initiative to make literary skills correlate with higher education levels,” he said. “The better we correlate these skills the better we are in terms of public safety; moreover, inside, where we have education, the violence has decreased.”
Dr. Snowden told the women in the audience that education not only provides “opportunity and a way to transform themselves but prepare themselves for a life after release.” At present, CCWF does not have a face-to-face CCC on site. CCWF is in the service area of Merced Community College, and they have expressed interest in beginning a face-to-face college program for the women at CCWF.
FRC’s distance education program at CCWF has over 100 inmates on a waiting list of a year or more.
CCWF inmate Carletha Sterling, was “the premier example of someone who had successfully reentered society because of the college degree that she received from Feather River College,” said organizers.
Before turning the microphone over to inmate Sterling, ISP Program Coordinator Kelly Conner presented her with a Reentry Success Certificate signed by FRC College President Kevin Trutna. Sterling, who has since earned her Bachelor of Arts in Organizational Leadership is currently enrolled in a master’s degree program at Arizona State University.
She is the subject of the college and reentry documentary short, co-produced by Dr. Parkin and Videographer Colby Elliot, with approval from CDCR. Before the cameras and a riveted audience, Sterling gave a speech focused on her trademark REO which stands for Rehabilitation, Education, and Opportunity. After the event, she said, “the experience I had today was the most rewarding of my life.”
All in all, the Summit was a step forward in CDCR’s ongoing efforts to make college a key rehabilitative tool. The Summit participants left feeling that the event was a success and confident that CCWF would soon partner with a four-year college to bring those inmates with California Community College Associate of Arts degrees into a Bachelor of Arts degree program.