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The prison to college pipeline: The transformative impact and ripple effects of hope on incarcerated students, other inmates, and their families

College degree programs in prison are experiencing a national resurgence in part due to the limited return of Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated students in 2015. Previous research on the benefits of prison education utilized a deficit lens on reduced recidivism, increased job opportunities, and higher salaries – all of which presumably contribute to lower crime rates and safer communities. This case study on Cal State LA’s Prison BA Graduation Initiative at Lancaster State Prison found that offering a bachelor’s degree program to incarcerated students may contribute to reduced recidivism, but also much more. This dissertation is built around the hypothesis that college education in prison is a transformative experience that boosts hope for incarcerated students which not only impacts the incarcerated student himself, but also produces a positive ripple effect that extends to the general prison population, friends and family members, as well as society at large. This study examined more than 115 pieces of archival materials and documents including letters, notes, and reflection essays written and submitted by the 45 students who are enrolled in the Prison BA Graduation Initiative. Also included in this research were transcriptions from recorded interviews, original scripts, and letters from men at Lancaster State Prison who are not currently enrolled in the bachelor’s degree program. A focus group with four students who began their education with Cal State LA while incarcerated at Lancaster State Prison but have since paroled, was also conducted. The themes that emerged from this study are overwhelmingly consistent. Incarcerated students believe the value of a college education in prison is not that it lowers the risk of recidivism, but because it contributes to increased levels of hope, their sense of humanity, and ultimately, their own transformation. There is also strong evidence that even college students serving Life without Possibility of Parole (LWOP) sentences have a significant ripple effect on the prison yard, with friends, and family – all of which positively influence a prison to college pipeline that can ultimately break the intergenerational cycle of incarceration.