This shows a wide view of the California Correctional Institution.

Inmates at the California Correctional Institution are taking full advantage of a second chance— improving their lives through education, changing the current environment in prison and planning for the future through Cerro Coso's Community College's Prison Education Program.

“It's an unbelievable transformation,” Patrick, a current inmate at CCI, wrote in a letter one of his professors shared with Tehachapi News. “College has transformed the way many prisoners are now serving their sentences. Where doing time once meant gambling and getting high to avoid boredom, it now means hurrying to class, meeting with study groups, flipping through textbooks or cramming for a midterm.”

Education is influencing people who once focused on racial or social barriers to change and greet each other, improve overall interactions between guards and prisoners and gain meaningful employment once released, Patrick added in his letter.

The program is seeing tremendous growth, reducing recidivism and using data to grow and improve programs for non-incarcerated students on campuses throughout the region.

At the beginning, only 20 students attended one class at the Cal City Correctional Facility in 2015. Now there are more than 800 students and 120 classes between CCI and Cal City.

Senate Bill 1391, passed by the state legislature in 2014, has allowed higher education to be offered in prisons, said Peter Fulks, prison faculty lead of the program and associate professor.

“It opened the door for 30 community colleges to go into 34 prisons and allow students to be treated as if they are a student who couldn't afford college,” Fulks said.

Research has shown that recidivism rates decline if inmates participate in higher education.

Inmates who earned a bachelor's degree returned at a 6 percent rate; those who earned an associate degree at 16 percent; those with some participation in college programs showed a 43 percent return rate; and 86 percent of inmates with no higher education returned to prison, added Fulks.

The college was the co-recipient of the California Community College Chancellor's Office Innovation Award for data collection, guided pathways, and education in prisons. This gave more than $2.2 million toward education in 2018.

Students at regular Cerro Coso Community College campuses are benefiting from data collected at the correctional facilities. Educational barriers are being removed, graduation rates increasing and having transfer degrees available are benefiting all, Fulks said.

Cerro Coso is looking to the future and considering what class time works best for the student, adding career pathways, reducing the cost of textbooks, improving financial aid assistance and adding group counseling to assist with educational planning, said Fulks.

“It's getting rid of things that make it hard for students to go to college,” added Fulks. “We have the ability to test something and look at it and then fix something that isn't working. We use a lot of data and analytics to drive our program decision making.”

Higher education at no or little cost is not just available for inmates at correctional facilities — it's open to everyone.

Cerro Coso Community College students are taking full advantage of the Cerro Coso Promise, a scholarship to help full-time students pay for college. Students may qualify for up to $1,000 per semester for two years to help pay for tuition, books and other needs and must maintain a 2.0 or higher GPA.

“At Cerro Coso we want to do our part to make college affordable and increase completion rates, and we work closely with our students to help keep them on track,” said Lauren Falk, program manager of foundation and institutional advancement at Cerro Coso.