On a cloudy Wednesday afternoon last spring, 20 Southwestern College students were waiting in line to enter their classroom. These students held copies of “A Place to Stand” and “A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America” along with plastic folders with the Southwestern College logo.
These students didn’t come from Chula Vista, San Ysidro or even Tijuana to wait in line to enter their classrooms. They came from their cells in the A-Yard of Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility, a California State Prison in Otay Mesa.
These 20 incarcerated students were taking classes toward their associate’s degree in business administration as part of the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program. Southwestern College was one of 67 colleges chosen in 2016 by the U.S. Department of Education for the program that provides incarcerated Americans the opportunity to receive the Federal Pell Grant to defray the financial costs of higher education while serving their sentences.
One of the students in Donovan last semester was Michael Jaquith, who was released over the summer after finishing a seven-year sentence for second-degree robbery. Jaquith said that because of Southwestern College, he was able to leave Donovan with a head start improving his livelihood.
“It’s a blessing to see a program invest in me and my classmates,” Jaquith said. “Not too many people have this opportunity. For me to be a part of this, is really something I can’t put into words. I felt like this is was an opportunity I couldn’t miss.”
Once they enter the classroom, nothing distinguishes these students from the typical Southwestern College student except their light blue uniforms. Inside, the students don’t see a barbed wire fence or have groups of prison guards leading them. They’re in a typical white-walled classroom.
On the walls are university banners to top schools like UC Santa Barbara and San Diego State and Southwestern College’s own “Jaguar” banner, provided by the Southwestern College Transfer Center. Waiting for them inside next to a whiteboard is Southwestern College English Professor John Rieder, ready to teach his English 99 class.
“There’s a real commitment in this cohort to improvement, learning and growth,” Rieder said. “Since the beginning, I’ve wanted them to feel that they’re all just students in a classroom together. I call them scholars because that’s what they are.”
Southwestern College’s educational programs are unique from other programs at Donovan because of the face-to-face interaction they get with professors like Rieder. Rieder’s class is a flipped-model classroom with assignments primarily being project-based and student-led, instead of Rieder standing in front of the class and lecturing for two hours.
“Some students are going to get out with their associate degree in hand and some are going to be able to go up for parole with their degree in hand,” Rieder said. “For some, there’s an idea of redemption in their head and they’ve found that higher education is a way there.”
With his courses toward business administration, Jaquith wants to start his own business in heating and air conditioning after he completes his coursework toward his associate degree.
“Education and Southwestern College have given me a new sense of who I am and who I can become,” Jaquith said. “I see more realistic projections in my life. I see a vision of being able to be successful out there and actually contribute to my community. This isn’t going to waste and it’s going to be incredibly beneficial to my life.”
The Second Chance classes inside Donovan are part of Southwestern College’s overall Restorative Justice Program led by Patrice Milkovich. The Second Chance classes build upon Southwestern College’s commitment to offering educational opportunities to its students at Donovan, where the college began offering general education courses in the 2016 spring semester to about 50 students.
When describing the program, you’ll often hear Milkovich proudly say the program’s motto: “Meeting students where they are.”
“Our face-to-face college program was welcomed with open arms,” Milkovich said. “Students demonstrated such enthusiasm by having a live faculty member standing in front of them and being able to learn in a college classroom environment.”
Melvin Norris is six years into a 12-year robbery sentence, but Norris qualifies to have his sentence reduced to a possible eight years thanks to good behavior programs and education programs like the Second Chance Pell program.
“Even if it didn’t reduce my sentence, I would’ve still joined this program,” Norris said. “I always knew education was important, but I just got side-tracked when I was young.”
When he walks out of Donovan, Norris hopes to walk out with his associate degree in business administration and says that it’s a head start to continue his education and get his bachelor’s degree.
“This is going to open doors for me that I couldn’t open before,” Norris said.
A study by the RAND Corporation, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, found that incarcerated individuals who received an education were 43 percent less likely to return to prison. The study also found that for every $1 invested in correctional education, $4-$5 was saved on re-incarceration costs.
In addition to helping reduce recidivism in the local community, many members of Southwestern College’s Restorative Justice team feel that offering education to incarcerated individuals is part of Southwestern College’s mission to serve every student in the South Bay.
“Education is a human right,” Rieder said. “We have an obligation at Southwestern College to serve students in our service area, and that includes the people at Donovan.”
When Norris spends his time studying, doing homework or in the classroom, he says he often thinks of his wife and eight-year-old daughter the most. He hopes that as a college graduate, he can provide a better life for his family and most importantly, he hopes to be able to help his daughter with her homework.
“I hope my experience can teach my daughter that sometimes we might fall, but we always have to get back up and that it’s up to us to give ourselves a chance,” Norris said. “I had to ask myself, ‘what’s my purpose in life?’ I didn’t want to just keep on coming back to prison. I’m trying to do better for myself and for my family.”