Professors Sern, Jenness and Reiter of UCI Bring top-tier education to incarcerated students

AMHERST, Mass. – The University of California-Irvine (UCI) and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) will make history on Tuesday, December 15, when the two institutions meet to sign a MOU, commemorating the first-ever bachelor degree completion program in prison offered by the University of California system. Three Law and Society Association (LSA) members from UCI in Carroll Seron, Val Jenness and Keramet Reiter served on the steering committee for the program called Leveraging Inspiring Futures Through Educational Degrees (LIFTED). This innovative initiative enables currently incarcerated students, who have successfully completed an A.A. degree, to earn a B.A. in sociology from UCI.

Tuesday’s ceremonial signing event will take place virtually via Zoom at Noon ET/ 9:00 a.m. PT. Registration for the event is free but is required to attend. UCI Chancellor, Howard Gillman, and California Secretary of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Kathleen Allison will be featured in the event. To register, go here.

“We hope that LIFTED will serve as a model for extending higher education to students who are incarcerated, expanding access to public education, especially, for more students across the state of California and the nation,” said Professor Reiter, who serves as the director for the LIFTED program. “By extending and expanding education access, we hope to mitigate the systemic discrimination and de-humanization of mass incarceration.”

Private liberal arts and community colleges across the country are increasingly offering degree programs for inmates, but few public universities are piloting in-prison bachelor’s degree initiatives. The demand for effective in-prison and re-entry programs is pinnacle, given that at least 95% of those incarcerated will return to their communities after serving his or her sentence. Furthermore, the RAND Corporation projects every $1 invested in prison education generates $5 in economic return. UCI is partnering with Southwestern College (SWC) to launch its inaugural demonstration project that extends access to earning bachelor degrees to students enrolled in courses at Ronald J. Donovan Correctional Facility (RJD).

“This program is a point of intervention into two organizational fields that, as we know, draw on stratification and reproduce inequalities: universities and prisons,” added Jenness, a long-time LSA member and Trustee from 2005-08. “This program provides a venue for those who learn behind bars to gain valuable credit and credentials for doing so and to leverage those accomplishments on their behalf as well as the behalf of our communities.”

Seron, Jenness and Reiter hope to bring a world-class education to incarcerated students and advance diversity, equity and inclusion in their home state. They predict LIFTED will be readily replicable at other universities across the state of California. The program is expected to be launched in the fall of 2022. The first cohort will consist of up to 25 students studying sociology. Additional majors on the horizon may include film and media studies, as well as public health.

“In my presidential address to the Law and Society Association, I argued that in a period of extraordinarily deepening inequalities, our research should take seriously our responsibility to develop ‘pragmatic’ policies—those that hold the promise of ameliorating crisis,” noted Seron, who formally served as LSA President from 2013-15. “When I retired from UC-Irvine, my goal was to work directly on a pragmatic policy project. As colleagues were launching the prison education initiative, the project aligned perfectly with my post-retirement plans. It is thrilling to be a part of a project that holds out the promise of making a significant difference in the life chances of incarcerated people.”

The steering committee saw nearly all UCI campus deans pledge faculty time to teach two courses per school as part of the LIFTED program. Faculty from an array of other disciplines have expressed interest in making the trip to prison to teach, offering incarcerated students a complete liberal arts education. The program aims to provide these students with the same quality of education and intellectual opportunities as their counterparts on-campus at UCI, including access to the humanistic writing, drama and visual arts resources.

“One thing we have learned in this work is that networks matter—for identifying comparable programs, best practices, and evaluation protocols, as well as for fundraising—and LSA has been one such important network for us,” added Professor Reiter.

To learn more about the LIFTED program and hear the stories of formerly incarcerated students, view its recently launched website here. The program has received grants from the Michelson Foundation, Google, and individual contributions, but is continuing its fundraising efforts to underwrite program development costs, such as support staff salaries, textbook and supply costs, and faculty transportation to and from the prison. To make a donation, go here.

The LIFTED steering committee also includes Pavan Kadandale, an associate professor of teaching in molecular biology & biochemistry at UCI. Reiter, who recently finished her term as an LSA Trustee, is an associate professor of criminology, law & society. A distinguished professor in criminology, law and society, Jenness serves as UCI’s Acting Vice Provost for Academic Planning and Institutional Research. Seron is a professor emerita of criminology, law & society.


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