From prison to a campus house: CSU Fullerton welcomes formerly incarcerated students

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Jimmie Conner proudly displays a banner at his new campus apartment for the CSU Fullerton Titans.

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Safe walking paths, study spaces, nearby equestrian trails, and a garden are just a few of the amenities available at the John Irwin House, housing for previously incarcerated students attending California State University, Fullerton.

It’s been Jimmie Conner’s home for almost three years as he prepares for his bachelor’s degree in sociology and business. This is official university accommodation for up to nine students, but was founded and run by Project reboundan on-campus student program dedicated to helping students achieve their goal of graduating from the CSU system upon release from prison.

Such a housing option is rare for students with incarceration experience, and John Irwin House, named after the founder of the program, is considered the first of its kind in the country. Given its success, Project Rebound programs on other campuses, like CSU Sacramento and CSU Fresno, are looking to open similar housing initiatives soon.

The Project Rebound house is designed to support previously incarcerated students throughout their college years.

“I aspire to get a degree and live a different lifestyle, but that’s hard to accomplish when you live in an environment that isn’t conducive to wanting to see you succeed or without the tools to build yourself a better future,” Conner said.

CSU housing gave him peace and security. “I don’t have to worry about gangs, I don’t have to worry about violence. I can study in peace. I’m with a group of guys who are just as driven as me and who share the same goals.

Like many students who join Project Rebound, Conner, who grew up a few miles west of Compton, discovered the program in prison. At the time, he was registered with Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo where he was being held at the California Men’s Colony.

“Project Rebound is strongly advocated in prison,” said Conner, who was recently eligible for a Pell grant and paid for his academic materials with this funding. “Contacting Project Rebound is like your best bet for getting help enrolling in a CSU.”

Upon his release, he completed his transfer requirements to Los Angeles Trade Technical Community College and was accepted to CSU Fullerton.

But not all students are informed about accommodation options in prison. Sergio Torres found Project Rebound by chance.

Sergio Torres heard about Project Rebound while browsing the CSU Fullerton website.

He couldn’t afford to attend the CSU Fullerton orientation in person, so he attended online. As he browsed the website, a description of the Rebound project caught his eye and he called to find out more.

“It’s probably the best decision I’ve ever made,” Torres said.

Before the pandemic, 1 in 10 students at CSU faced housing insecurity, including homelessness. Accessing safe housing can be even more difficult for students who have been incarcerated due to a lack of credit history, employment gaps, criminal records and more.

He then lived at the John Irwin House for about three years while completing his undergraduate studies. Since then, he’s gotten his own apartment, got married, been accepted into a master’s program, and now works as the housing coordinator for the house he once lived in.

“By living in this house, I was able to rewrite my history,” he said. “I certainly wouldn’t have accomplished as much as I did during my time there, and that’s because it took me out of the environment I was in and put me in a beautiful place. home with all the resources I needed to succeed. ”

The success of the program is exemplified by maintaining a statewide recidivism rate below 1% between 2016 and 2021, which means the vast majority of students who enroll in the program do not return. in prison, according to the latest version of the program. Annual Report. By comparison, California has averaged about a 50% recidivism rate over the past decade.

“Our students aren’t going back to jail because education opens people’s eyes and having a safe space to live is crucial,” said Sacramento State Rebound Project Director Aaron Michael Greene. and graduated from the program.

More than two-thirds of Project Rebound students, ages 25 to 44, maintain a GPA of 3.0 or higher, and the number of program students pursuing graduate studies at CSU has more than tripled over the course of the year. for the past three years, according to the program’s annual report.

“We support some of the most marginalized and underrepresented groups in the world. [CSU] system, and their academic performance really speaks for itself,” said Brady Heiner, executive director of the Project Rebound Consortium.

Project Rebound was founded in 1967 in the state of San Francisco. With a mix of philanthropic, state, and campus-based funds in recent years, it has expanded to 14 CSU campuses, with plans to include two additional campuses over the next 18 months.

The program has grown exponentially since 2016, when it secured seed funding from several foundations, followed in 2019 by $3.3 million in state funding. At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the program received a one-time $5 million grant from the state to not only help students with immediate pandemic-related financial needs, but also buy a home in Fullerton. and set aside funds for similar housing initiatives. to Sacramento State and Fresno State.

In Sacramento State, there are at least seven students on the housing waiting list, but the process of buying a house is complicated and requires finding room for eight to 12 students, researching what is available on the market and to finalize the timetable for accessing the allocated funds. .

As director, Greene helps direct housing initiative there, and it’s an option he says would have made his life much easier when he was a college student himself.

He learned about Project Rebound in prison, but after his release in 2015, he was sent to Fresno County because his release conditions required being sent to a county where his family lived. At the time, Project Rebound was yet to expand beyond the state of San Francisco. However, he stayed in touch and was informed about Fresno State’s program early.

But the housing aspect of the program does not exist there, so he struggled to find accommodation for himself and his two children while in school. He got lucky after a former professor rented him a three-bedroom apartment at a rock-bottom price, but he said he wouldn’t have graduated without that option.

Greene has since earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology and is now Sacramento State’s Rebound Project Director.

Increasing housing initiatives through Project Rebound would change the lives of many, he added. “It’s transformative; it not only affects the individual who actually receives the education and brings about a change in their life, but it also affects the family,” Greene said, noting proudly that his children, although both parents went to jail , are currently in college. students themselves.

The increase in funding since 2016 has also exponentially increased the number of students they can support. For the fall 2021 semester, they enrolled 593 students statewide, compared to 137 for the fall 2016 semester. in the 2021-22 school year compared to 24 in the 2016-17 school year.

“We really try to help break down barriers and help with systems navigation and admissions support, and once we do that, our students – they crave opportunity and they are grateful for the support and access because many of them dreamed of it. opportunities for many years in cages,” said Heiner, who previously led the program at CSU Fullerton.

The Project Rebound house is designed to support previously incarcerated students throughout their college years.

In 2016 Romarilyn Ralston was hired to develop the Rebound project on the Fullerton campus. She soon received several letters from incarcerated men who were not only interested in enrolling at CSU Fullerton, but also in need of housing.

It was then that the idea of ​​housing was born. His team visited homes that other organizations provide, such as the Anti-recidivism coalition and A new way of lifeworked with a group of Scripps College students who have conducted research on other models of reintegration housing and created focus groups – all to learn what has made reintegration houses successful and apply it to an academic environment.

By the end of 2018, Ralston and his team had rented a house in Fullerton that housed up to six students plus a housing coordinator. That coordinator was James Cavitt, who calls himself JC and was at the time in his final year of studies for his bachelor’s degree in sociology.

“Part of what makes our housing initiative so successful is that it’s student-centered first,” said Cavitt, who is currently working on a doctorate in marriage and family therapy. “Everything from the layout and design of the house is very intentional and ensures that the color scheme of the house does not resemble that of correctional spaces.”

How long a student stays there depends on their needs and the availability of rooms. Additionally, each student must go through an interview and selection process to ensure they get along well with all other roommates and remain committed to the mission of advancing everyone’s career in the house.

Every student is required to work, pay rent, and save money. Some students have on-campus jobs funded through their financial aid program, others work for Project Rebound, and some work off-campus. Project Rebound takes 30% of each student’s monthly income, so the rent each student pays depends on what they earn at work. The program then takes 33% of this monthly rent and deposits the amount in a student savings account opened by the university.

When a student prepares to move out of the John Irwin home, they receive a check for the amount in their savings account to pay for an apartment deposit, first and last month’s rent, and other necessities. basis for living alone.

“We wanted to create something that was not available. We didn’t want our students to live in something like we had,” Ralston said. “We want people to wake up and know they are in a safe space where they can thrive and see the possibilities of their future.”

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