Lancaster Prison Program

"Fundamentally, I believe every human being has the right to an education." - Prof Sarah Black

Communication Studies--Prison BA

In conjunction with the Office of Engagement, Service and the Public Good and the College of Professional and Global Education (PaGE), the department has offered a BA completion program at California State Prison—Los Angeles County (LAC), since 2016, as part of Cal State LA’s Prison B.A. Graduation Initiative.   The COMM BA was the first in-person bachelor’s degree completion program for incarcerated students in California and until 2021 was the only BA in Communication offered to these students in the nation.  Our commitment to bring higher education to justice-system-impacted individuals is rooted in our mission to transform lives and foster thriving communities, and our values of engagement, service, and the public good.  Students in the program are in the Organizational Communication Option.  We offer between 2 and 4 in person classes a term, including in the summer. During COVID, the in-person classes pivoted to correspondence classes, while in the last year we’ve been able to integrate CANVAS into the classes. Since 2016, we have taught 3 cohorts.  Two have graduated, and one is currently in classes.  

Of the 42 male students enrolled in the program’s first two cohorts at LAC, a maximum-security men’s prison 90 miles from campus, 36 students have received their Bachelor of Arts in Communication Studies. Of those that have graduated, 24 completed their entire bachelor’s degrees while in prison and participated in a commencement ceremony held at LAC.

Fourteen students from our first two cohorts have been released from LAC and all have transferred to complete their degrees at Cal State LA.  To date, ten of the fourteen have graduated and walked the stage at our campus commencement ceremony. It is noteworthy that seven of the nine paroled graduates were released after having their life sentences commuted, partly because of their participation in this program.

Currently, five of our paroled graduates are pursuing graduate degrees at Cal State LA and in May 2022, our first student received his Master of Arts in Communication Studies.  In May 2023, our second student received in MA in Communication Studies. 

In August 2021, we began Cohort 3 with 20 students.  More than 100 incarcerated students in California who completed their AA degrees applied to be a part of this cohort.  Cohort 3 should graduate in Summer 2024.  

Cal State LA continues to work with our external partners at CDCR, LAC, California Community College Foundation, numerous community college programs, and the Educational Coordinators at other carceral institutions across the State to develop a more effective and streamlined system to matriculate new students into future cohorts at LAC.  Recognizing that recruitment and matriculation takes a considerable amount of time, we have begun the process of working with LAC to identify students for Cohort 4, who will start taking classes Fall 2023. 

Apart from taking classes, students in the BA are encouraged to share their work publicly through the Communication Studies department journal, Colloquy, as well as via the publication and public events of WordsUncaged.  In these co-curricular ways, students are encouraged to participate in meaningful public humanities practices.

Faculty who teach in the program go through an extensive training program, that has been developed by Drs. Bidhan Roy and Kamran Afary.  We have trained 15 faculty from Communication Studies, during this period.  One of the things that we have seen since the inception of the Prison B.A. Graduation Initiative is how education has transformed how our students see themselves as human beings. This process of education as transformation has not happened by accident.  All of our faculty who teach in the prison are trained in developing courses that attend to Fink’s taxonomy of significant learning and mentored to design signature assignments that utilize the humanities to promote deep learning.  This training and teaching has also transformed our faculty. 

The program’s proven success – the degree attainment of 36 students to date – has been a wonderful outreach and recruitment strategy.  Incarcerated men throughout California who have completed their AA degrees are requesting to be transferred to LAC, in the hopes that they are admitted to our COMM BA Completion Program. We even have people stop in our department office, asking how they can get a relative transferred to LAC.  Our program has been so successful that a second Cal State LA BA Completion Program in Liberal Studies has been launched at CIW (California Institution for Women) in Chino. We have also become the model for other Prison BA Programs being developed across the state.  

The Department of Communication Studies also publishes a Prison BA Journal, which provides incarcerated Cal State LA students in Lancaster Prison the opportunity to publish their academic work and a chance to have their research and writing seen by others in our field of study - including students, faculty, and researchers. We hope that by creating a dialogue through the publication of this journal we can better address the problem of mass incarceration.

In sum, we are proud of our Communication Studies BA Program offered at LAC, and more importantly, the success of our students who have a 100% program persistence rate after release from prison, and a zero recidivism rate to date.  The Prison B.A. Graduation Initiative transforms the lives of incarcerated students, paroled students, and their families, and it brings tremendous benefits to the Los Angeles County community.  Below is selected press about the program: