A new California law could improve higher education outcomes among the formerly incarcerated
VENTURA, Calif. – Christopher Barajas moved into his new apartment earlier this summer.
It’s a small studio apartment in Ventura County, but it’s perfect – considering his former space was a prison cell.
“I was actually living with seven other guys in a pod,” Barajas says.
Barajas spent 25 years in prison after he was convicted of sex crimes. He transferred to Valley State Prison in Chowchilla in November of 2012, where he says he was able to take community college classes. There, he obtained two associate degrees from Merced Community College.
Now, he’s out on parole.
For formerly incarcerated people, higher education has been shown to improve their chances of staying out of prison. Among those who are educated, the chance of going back to prison is 43 percent lower than those who do not participate in education, according to a study done by the RAND corporation.
But depending on where parolees are sent for parole after prison, it may make continuing education harder. By law, parolees are supposed to be sent to their last legal residence prior to incarceration. But, depending on the board that reviews a parolee, the location for their parole can change, which means navigating a whole new college system.
Barajas is more than four hours away from his hometown in Stockton.
There, “I had a job lined up,” Barajas says. “I was going to go to school.”
After arriving in Ventura County in March, Barajas tried attending CSU Northridge, but he says he “fell through the cracks,” and instead didn’t attend the fall semester.
Jennifer McBride is the faculty coordinator for the Rising Scholars program at Merced College. The program helps incarcerated, formerly incarcerated and “system-impacted” students attend community college.
As long as they paid their debt to society, I believe people should be allowed to find a way to integrate.Ben Hueso, author of SB990
“We have had students request that they have their parole be switched to Merced County,” McBride says. “That has been successful in some cases.”
She says students who already have college connections in Merced try to stay in the area, but only some can actually do so.
A new bill could increase options
A California senate bill – SB990 – set to take effect in January will allow parolees to transfer to a different county than the one they’re assigned, but under certain circumstances. One of the key conditions is to enroll in a university.
“As long as they paid their debt to society, I believe people should be allowed to find a way to integrate,” Ben Hueso, a former state senator and sponsor of the bill, says.
Hueso believes the bill could also allow people to start a new life if they wanted to, and move somewhere other than their last place of residence.
While this sounds like a great idea to Barajas, he still holds some reservations.
“Laws are dicey when it comes to this stuff like that,” he says. “So a new law comes into effect – Doesn't mean it affects me.”
Indeed, Hueso says the bill doesn’t mean it will be as easy as just saying someone got admitted to a university.
“[The parole board] is looking at quite a bit of other information,” Hueso says. “Why that person is in prison to begin with. What is his history? What has been his or her behavior while imprisoned?”
Barajas’ conditions for being out of prison means he has to follow rules like “no contact with the victim or victims’ family” and to maintain a distance of at least “35 miles from the victim’s actual residence.”
Stockton, where he thought his parole would take place, falls outside of the location for his crimes in Sacramento County. Barajas says he would like to relocate to the Bay Area if he is able to transfer under the new bill.
“My network of employment, friends and stuff like that are more heavily there and it's closer to Stockton,” Barajas says. “I can drive there and see my family.”
Moving forward with a degree in unconventional ways
Ashley Marie Suarez, a student coordinator for the Underground Scholars program at UC Merced, which supports and services formerly incarcerated and “system-impacted” students, says a college degree does much more than provide an education.
“It has transformed people… education is an opportunity for you to just understand and explore even if it's not something that you're going to see out completely,” she said.
Suarez says incarcerated students have different priorities and outcomes with education than other types of students.
“When you go into college, you think, ‘OK, I'm gonna get this degree in business and I'm gonna become something in business,’ right?,” Suarez says. “But then with formerly incarcerated or incarcerated individuals, they're not thinking that. They get a degree and then maybe they use it, maybe they don't.”
Barajas says earning a degree in prison helped him view the world much more critically. He says he even learned how to communicate with the world outside more effectively once he was released.
On a recent day, Barajas checked out a new coffee shop in his neighborhood. He asked the worker to recommend him a drink. He then sat down with the most popular drink on the menu – the Smoking Gun – and shared what he would like for his future.
He wants to open a transition home – transition homes are residential places that help prisoners adjust back into society – called “Phoenix Recovery.”
“I just feel this calling, to do something more,” Barajas says.
He said he once thought of waiting a few years before starting a business. But now he doesn’t feel like he needs to wait.