A rare second chance for youth with a criminal record


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Feelings of isolation and anxiety and lack of a support system are just a few of the obstacles people face when deciding to pursue higher education after imprisonment. - Pixabay

After working for three months as a tutor at Fresno City College in 2016, Khoi Quach got a call that he needed to go to the campus police station.

"As soon as I heard that, I knew there wasn't going to be any good news," the now 28-year-old said.

At the station, he was told his background check came back, showing a conviction. He was fired.

When Quach was 17, a shooting at a party put him behind bars just a month before his high school graduation. Although he hadn't pulled the trigger, his gang affiliation with the shooter landed him in prison for six years under California laws aimed at cracking down on gang violence.

He was eager to put the episode behind him when he enrolled in college after serving his time.

Quach became a star political science student at Fresno City College, landing him an invitation from his instructor to tutor other students. But his firing proved to him it was going to be difficult to shed the stigma of being formerly incarcerated.

"It really woke me up to the reality of what that label attached to my name meant," he said.

Quach's rocky start at college is frustratingly typical for students trying to navigate college while having a criminal record, according to several formerly incarcerated people.

Feelings of isolation and anxiety and lack of a support system are just a few of the obstacles people face when deciding to pursue higher education after imprisonment.

So when Quach found Project Rebound, a programme that helps formerly incarcerated people integrate into society through higher education, he knew he would fit in.

"We get to share struggles and accomplishments," he said,"and that's the one thing that really helped push me towards the goal I set for myself of graduating. Because with Project Rebound, you get to see other people like me constantly doing amazing things."

Quach, who immigrated from Vietnam with his family when he was 10, was a Dean's Medalist when he graduated in 2019. He is now a graduate research assistant studying sociology (and educational inequalities, such as the ones he faced) at UC Berkeley in California.

What Project Rebound does right

Quach is just one of many that Project Rebound seeks to help by providing mentorship, support, and individualised resources.

"The goal is ultimately to reverse the school-to-prison pipeline," according to founding director Emma Hughes, who is also a criminology professor at Fresno State.

She hopes the programme can change society's view about people who have been to prison and help students who fall into the justice system at a young age by creating a prison-to-school pipeline.

Project Rebound began at San Francisco State University in 1967 by John Irwin, a professor who served time in prison for armed robbery in the 1950s. But it wasn't until five years ago that the organisation's leaders tried expanding it, first to eight other campuses.

In 2016, Hughes was tasked with duplicating the successful programme in the Central Valley with grant money set to expire in only a few years.

"I had been doing research on education programs in prisons for many years," Hughes said. "I believe very firmly in the transformative power of these programmes, and to have an opportunity to put this into practice was just really exciting."

From there, the programme impressed legislators, earning a budget if US$3.3 million. In 2021, five more campuses are joining the consortium, making 14 total: San Francisco, Fresno, Bakersfield, Fullerton, Humboldt, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Pomona, Sacramento, San Bernardino, Northridge, San Marcos, San Diego, and Stanislaus.

Although Project Rebound only tracks recidivism rates while students are enrolled, the data is noteworthy. Since 2016, no Project Rebound student has reoffended while in the programme, according to the organisation's annual report.

When someone chooses higher education, they are less likely to reoffend, making increased safety one of the benefits to the community, according to Leahy.

The programme also offers pathways to resolving conflicts and addressing life problems.

"Education opens people's minds in general," she said,"and these are skills that most of my students were never taught prior to their incarceration, and they certainly didn't learn it while they were incarcerated."

But what about when students graduate or otherwise leave the programme? That tracking does not happen, according to Hughes.

Although it could provide meaningful information, there's a reason the programme is hesitant to collect this data.

"We don't want our Project Rebound alumnae to feel that they are monitored differently than other CSU graduates," Hughes said.

In 2016,180 students were enrolled in Project Rebound CSU-wide. For the 2019-2020 school year, that number jumped to 454. There are about 31 Project Rebound students enrolled at Fresno State, and 52 who are not yet enrolled at the university, Hughes said.

Project Rebound takes a holistic approach to getting participants what they need to be successful. Many students find themselves behind on technology because they've been incarcerated so long and need to find out how to use Google or other school-related programmes.

Project Rebound offers help with gas, food, legal advice referrals, and sometimes housing, too, Leahy says. Group events and classes help students feel connected and motivated.

But even with its flexible approach, there are some limitations as to what Project Rebound can do, leaders say. It's still challenging to find a job with a criminal conviction. So finding a major that fits is sometimes difficult, according to Leahy.

"If you get a felony conviction for drug abuse, you're not going to be a pharmacist, for example," she says. "There are going to be some unrealistic pathways for education. But that doesn't mean that every pathway is closed."

And although staff aims to help participants get ready for college, they can only do so much if the person is not yet ready.

Victoria Rocha, a 37-year-old social work student, said even though she was slightly older than the average college student when she started her journey,"I started at the time I was ready to start. I wouldn't have accomplished all that I accomplished (if I had tried before.) I wasn't in the right state of mind." - The Fresno Bee/Tribune News Servi=ce

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