San Bernardino

Professor Cultivates College Potential in Prison Parolees

It began for many of his alumni--including the then-inmate who would be awared a full scholarship at a prestigious college--with a TEDx talk given by Prof. Renford Reese in a corner of California desert that is home to Ironwood State Prison.

"I want to challenge everyone in here," said Prof. Reese, as he told audience of inmates about a bold venture he calls the "reintegration academy."

He went on to describe a program in which some 30 parolees are invited to a college campus for a series of sessions to expose them to higher education, and prepare them for striving to obtain a four year degree.

Among those who saw the video was Michael Griggs, a 20-something from Victorville who had gone down the wrong path in high school, and was nearing the end of a six year prison term. Griggs was intrigued and sent Prof. Reese an email. He had done a lot of thinking in prison and knew he wanted to take new path.

"During that time I kind of changed my life around," he said.

After his release, Griggs was accepted into the academy, then held at Mount San Antonio College one night a week.

Griggs was also attending Santa Monica College, and every Thursday made the 50 mile drive to Mt. SAC at rush hour, dedication that impressed Reese.

"You give me someone with that type of commitment, and I'll show you someone who will succeed," Reese said.

As part of the academy, Reese took the group on tour of local campuses. While at one of the Claremont colleges, Pitzer, they heard a presentation for a unique scholarship. 

"It's called the 'new resource scholarship for nontraditional students with nontraditional background of notraditional age,'" recalled Griggs with a smile and the dramatic pause he employs with every telling of the story.  "I said, 'Well, that fits me perfectly.'"

Griggs applied and was chosen.

"His story is amazing because just three years ago he was in a 6-by-8 cell in a prison in southeast California," said Reese. "Now he's studying engineering on a fullride scholarship at Pitzer college."

The scholarship covers full tuition, but not living expenses. To pay the bills this summer, Griggs is making use of a skill he honed while in prison--cutting hair. He wore a suit to his job interview at Tony's Barbershop Stop in Sylmar, demonstrated his skill, and got the job.

At other times of the year, Griggs works as a counselor at a youth camp, and also serves as a mentor to youth in the Ventura County juvenile system.

Credit to Griggs--and to Professor Reese.

"I wish we could clone him and do this everywhere," said Assemblymember Eloise Gomez Reyes, D-San Bernardino, an advocate for inmate rehabilitation programs.

In April, Reyes traveled to Pitzer to attend open house night for the most recent reintegration academy cohort.

"This is the first part of the rest of your life," Reese told the 39 members of the 2017 group.

For their ten Thursday night sessions, the academy provided laptop computers, and meal cards so they could have dinner in the campus dining hall. For the last session before their graduation ceremony, some 30 companies and government entities sent representatives for a job fair.

Funded with donations to a nonprofit set up by Reese, the academy has now provided a boost toward college to a total of 160 parolees. Reese counts a success rate of 85 percent who have not returned to crime, twice the success of parolees as a whole.

Also among the 85 percent: Robert Sims, who served 13 years in prison and was released at age 32.

"Dr. Reese was so passionate and genuine in what we do, I love to partake," said Sims, who intends to major in business.

He now makes a living as a welder. His goal is to launch his own company, for which he intends to employe parolees, Sims said. The chance to network with "amazing people" has been a big takeaway of the academy for him.

"With Robert I see a lot of potential," said Reece. "He has the discipline, the focus."

For Reese, a professor of political science at Cal Polytechnic Pomona, inspiration to launch the academy came in part from a visit to the Robben Island Prison where eventual Nobel Peace Prize laureat Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years as a political prisoner, emerging at long last to lead South Africa out of apartheid as its president.

He reminds reintegration academy members that Mandela left prison "better not bitter." Sims said the academy has helped him achieve that.

While incarcerated, Sims took eight classes offered as part of the Prison Education Project conceived by Reese in partnership with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. It's now provided at 12 correctional facilities, benefitting from volunteer teaching efforts for 800 college students and faculty.

Sometimes Reese has overreached in his efforts to embrace aspects of society rarely represented in colleges.  He had to abandon his initiative to have youth gang members audit classes at a state higher education facility.

His efforts with inmates and parolees have fared better.

As Reese sees it, programs to help them transition to successful lives are not only a moral imperative, but cost effective for the state and its taxpayers. While the average cost to California of incarcerating an inmate is now estimated at $75-thousand, Reese said the integration academy costs $50,000--and its alumni are far less likely to return to prison.

In some, Reese said he sees the transformative power Mandela manifested.

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