Students get brave opportunity through ‘Prison Project'
The Poly Post, Posted: Tuesday, November 29, 2011 12:00 am
Ana Brenda Ibarra, Lifestyle Editor
"In order to be a compelling person, you have to put yourself in a compelling situation." These are the words that Cal Poly
Pomona Political Science professor Renford Reese tells students before they step foot onto prison grounds as volunteers of
the newly established Prison Education Project.
The still developing PEP is an attempt to enhance educational services for inmates at the California Institution for Men in
the city of Chino. The goal of this project is to transform prisoners into competent and productive citizens of society. In late
August, Reese was invited to speak to eight prison administrators at the CIM to propose an educational program for inmates
after the prison had transitioned from a reception center to a main line yard.
Reese proposed an interactive and dynamic program in which CPP students would serve as volunteers in three different
areas. One group of students would give academic orientation presentations in which they would speak about their majors
and college life. A second group of volunteers, primarily students from the liberal studies and teaching credential programs,
would go into CIM and offer tutoring in math and literacy. The third would be a group of graduate students that would work
with the prison's pre-release program targeted at inmates that would be released in six months or less. The third group would
work with the inmates in career development modules, such as resume building and job interviews.
As soon as Reese's proposal for the educational program was approved, he emailed CPP students that he knew would be
interested in becoming involved in PEP, and on the last week of October, 40 CPP students made their first visit to the CIM.
Volunteers are split up into groups of about four people, and each group visits the prison once a week. Because the program is
still under development, students have only been able to engage in the first part of the educational program-the academic
Prior to visiting the CIM, students attended mandatory orientation meetings in which Reese, along with a personal relations
representative from the Chino prison, explained to students the significance of PEP. "I wanted [students] to really believe that
they can go in and make a difference because the inmates can look through your eyes and see to your soul," said Reese. "I didn't
want any students signing up for this program if they were not going to have a serious commitment to making some type of change."
Rachel Turner, a student volunteer and a fourth-year political science student, said the orientation meetings helped her prepare
for her first visit to CIM. "During orientation, [Reese and CIM representatives] kind of prepared us for the worst. They told us
the inmates might be yelling at us or whistling at us, but we were lucky we didn't experience any of that, [the inmates] were all
really respectful," said Turner. Despite preparation beforehand, other volunteers such as fourth-year Political Science student
Veronica Trujillo, couldn't help but feel nervous the first time she entered the gates of the CIM. "I was scared about teaching.
I was scared that I wasn't knowledgeable enough for [the inmates]. I'm still a student myself, so it was intimidating because like
Dr. Reese says, we're still green," said Trujillo. However, throughout the weeks, Trujillo has learned that volunteering is more
worthwhile than she originally thought it would be. "Volunteering is a life changing experience," said Trujillo. "Even though
[the inmates] might be getting something out of it, personally, I feel like I'm getting more."
The second phase of the program will begin Jan. 23, when more learning spaces are configured on prison grounds. "We're getting
a generous donation from a wonderful friend, Leeba Lessin. She's willing to donate a significant amount of money to this project,
so she's going to help us reconfigure the learning spaces," said Reese. The new learning spaces will include a tutorial center, a
study center and a two-classroom art center. The upcoming building, which was given the name "Mariposa," was designed
with the help of CPP Architecture student Jennifer Takeshi and Landscape Architecture alumna Rumeisha Bowyer. One of the
nicest features of the building, according to Reese, will be the art center where inmates will create paintings that will be exhibited
every other Saturday at the Pomona Art Walk.
The inmate's work will be sold and the money raised will go back into the prison's art program. With the expansion of the program,
Reese expects about 70 CPP student volunteers, as well as help from Coastline Community College, Cal State Fullerton, USC and
UCLA. Reese is receiving help from other CPP administrators, such as the Assistant to the Dean of Education and Integrative Studies,
Kevin Malone, who decided to become involved to give back to the community. Malone, who volunteers directly with the prisoners,
said students can take a lot from a hands-on program like this. "I think [students will] learn how to interact with members of society that
are shunned and be able to change lives for the good," said Malone. "They'll contribute to the bettering of society in a sense."
The PEP has also caught the attention of Scott Budnick, the executive producer of "The Hangover Films" and a longtime advocate for
correctional education. Budnick, who met Reese three years ago through a mutual friend, and knew about the professor's dedication to
education and social service, reached out to Reese for help in coordinating the program's college student involvement. Budnick, who has
worked with the Office of Correctional Education in the past, has a specific goal for PEP. "I want [CIM] to become more of a college
campus and not a prison," said Budnick. "It's never been done...but we have the resources to do it." Budnick counts on the help of celebrities
that are also interested in correctional education such as Robert Downey Jr. and Jake Gyllenhaal. "[Downey Jr.] knows about [PEP] and
is supportive, but hasn't been able to visit the prison yet," said Budnick."Jake Gyllenhaal does a lot of nonprofits as well, especially with
nutrition, so I may bring him in too. He's a big fan."
Budnick and Reese believe CIM is the first site of a major expansion that could potentially spread to the other 32 prisons in the state of
California. "The Governor's office knows about [PEP]...so if we can lay the foundation, we'll have other prisons that can replicate this
model which is, using the resources that we already have in your backyard to optimize and maximize the social service outreach and learning
potential," said Reese. Reese believes PEP cannot only increase social service but can also save California millions of dollars. "My goal is to
help the state reduce recidivism by one percent, and if we reduce it just by one percent we save the state of California $80 million a year and
this is money that can be going to the pockets of our students," said Reese.
Other schools that have a Prison Education Project include Berkeley, Cornell University, Harvard and Boston University. "It's the schools
that are confident with their reputation that engage in programs like this," said Reese. "If we want to be a great university, we have to go
out and do great things." Reese's involvement with PEP and his side project, the Reintegration Academy, has been recognized by the
Obama Administration and was recently invited to go speak alongside a committee of education experts in Washington D.C. Reese hopes
that PEP student volunteers realize they have all the tools to do something historic and unique.
"These student volunteers will never forget the time they spoke to those inmates...that's a compelling experience," said Reese. "That's
something they'll take along for the rest of their lives as a truly life learning experience."
See PEP at: http://www.PrisonEducationProject.org