Southwestern College Students at Donovan Prison Have Bachelor’s Degree Pathway

Professor with student.
Southwestern College will need to add a new university banner to the wall in its Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility classroom after a new memorandum of understanding is signed with UC Irvine.

A cohort of 30 Southwestern College students at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility now have a pathway to earn a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of California, Irvine, thanks to a new memorandum of understanding signed today.

At a special online signing ceremony this morning, UC Irvine Chancellor Howard Gillman and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) Secretary Kathleen Allison formalized the initiative called Leveraging Inspiring Futures Through Educational Degrees (LIFTED). The signing ceremony—which included a recorded message from Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ)—will make UC Irvine the first in-person bachelor of arts completion program in the UC system.

Patrice Milkovich, Southwestern College’s Restorative Justice Program director, has been working on the partnership for the last 18 months.

“I’m so proud to be part of this life-altering opportunity,” Milkovich said. “Today’s signing demonstrates the power education plays in the rehabilitation process. Delivering higher education inside correctional facilities is hard, but necessary work.”

Four years ago, Southwestern College was one of 67 colleges and universities selected for a Second Chance Pell pilot program by the U.S. Department of Education. What began with 50 students in the spring semester of 2016 has grown to 296 students taking 22 courses last spring semester.

Southwestern College has served more than 3,000 Donovan students since the program began, helping them earn degrees and certificates in business administration, liberal studies, arts and humanities and sociology. There are currently 39 Donovan students who are in the process of earning their Associate Degree for Transfer in Sociology and who may be eligible for acceptance to the UC Irvine bachelor’s program if they have earned a 3.5 GPA. 

The 17 faculty and three counselors and tutors had been working with student inmates in person until the pandemic forced them to move their instruction to paper and pen in March, as no computers are allowed in prison. The fall semester that began in August also continued through personalized education paper packets for each of the students.

Zoom photo of those signing the MOU for the UC Irvine LIFTED initiative.
California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Kathleen Allison and UC Irvine Chancellor Howard Gillman show the signed MOU to offer a bachelor’s degree at the university for incarcerated students. UCI Associate Professor Keramet Reiter congratulates them.

Southwestern College Governing Board Member Leticia Cazares attended the online ceremony and said this program is a shining example of what can happen with equity-minded education and leadership.

“As a justice-impacted individual myself, I could not be more proud that Southwestern College, under the leadership of Patrice Milkovich and her amazing team, once again is leading the way in creating opportunities for all,” Cazares said.

On behalf of the board, Cazares thanked all the administrators, faculty, staff at UC Irvine,  CDCR and the Donovan Correctional Facility who made this initiative possible. She reserved a special thank you for the Donovan students.

“A special thank you to our Donovan students for inspiring us, each other and paving the way for future scholars,” Cazares said. “We are humbled to be part of your educational journey.”

UCI professor speaks with Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility Warden Marcus Pollard.
Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility Warden Marcus Pollard (R) participated in the online memorandum of understanding signing that will allow his inmates to earn bachelor’s degrees at UC Irvine. Associate Professor Keramet Reiter (L) discussed the LIFTED program as part of the call.

Keramet Reiter, UC Irvine associate professor of criminology, law & society and LIFTED’s director, said this program will help reduce recidivism and give graduating inmates the tools to be productive citizens.

“LIFTED will provide them with a real chance to make positive changes in their lives and in society,” Reiter said in an article on UCI News. “As for those who will remain incarcerated, someone with a bachelor’s degree is better acquitted to function and contribute, even while constrained by prison walls.”