Fremont, Calif., October 13, 2021—The Ohlone Community College District has recently joined the Santa Clara County Sherriff’s Office Community College Collaborative, a consortium of community colleges coming together to provide career pathways to incarcerated people at Elmwood Correctional Facility in Milpitas, California.
Led by the vision of Elmwood’s Inmate Rehabilitation Manager Patrick Marshall, Ph.D. and Lieutenant Gurpreet Gill, the College began offering courses in digital filmmaking from late spring through the summer and is the first community college in the Bay Area to provide college-level courses at the jail. Ohlone’s Digital Arts and Interactive Design Assistant Professor, Isabel Reichert, taught the first cohort of incarcerated students. For most, her course provided them with their very first college experience.
The goal of the pathways program is to provide incarcerated individuals a level of hope and service through practical and applicable coursework that allows them to go back into the community and truly put their best foot forward and to help stop recidivism—the cycle of repeat offenses landing people back in the system.
“This is the first time we’re implementing these pathways for individuals in custody,” says Inmate Rehabilitation Manager Patrick Marshall, Ph.D. “They’re registering for college courses that they can continue once they’re released and out of custody and that is something they never had, never thought of, or had the opportunity to do before. They’re in college while in custody and If we get them to make a different choice, recidivism decreases.”
The collaboration between Elmwood’s staff, the college’s administration, and faculty members like Reichert have so far yielded tremendous success. The response from students is overwhelmingly positive. Most are first-generation college students unaware of the educational opportunities that exist for them and unsuspecting of their own academic potential. Some students from the first cohort have already transitioned into the Community College system, enrolling in more coursework and seeking a better life for themselves and their families.
“I had been thinking about doing a college collaboration and suddenly Ohlone appeared. It felt like a blessing,” says Marshall. “My colleague Lieutenant Gill was fully supportive from the beginning, and he said, ‘man that’s my alma mater, I love Ohlone, we gotta’ make it happen.’”
The good vibes were mutual as Reichert also echoes an immediate connection with the group and their discovery of a unified vision for the goal of the program. The first cohort of students consisted of 12 women and eight men. Since the facility is segregated by gender, Reichert taught classes twice weekly instructing male inmates in the morning and the females in the afternoon.
In Reichert’s video editing course, students learned interviewing skills, visual storytelling, shooting and composition techniques, pre-and post-production artistry, and the ins and outs of editing digital video. For their final project, the students produced mini documentaries. The women in the facility interviewed Assistant Sheriff, Dalia Rodriguez about her historic role as the first female minority AS in the history of Santa Clara County. The men interviewed Dr. Marshall and Lieutenant Gill—providing them an opportunity to ask questions, provide suggestions for classes and get to know the men who run the program.
Upon completion of the course, Elmwood’s staff and Reichert held a certificate ceremony which included a showcase for the work developed in the class. Course offerings from Ohlone will continue with plans for offerings in web design, video editing, and game design. The idea is to expose inmates to the concepts of digital technologies through several fast-track four-week class offerings in order to glean interest in the field and to encourage students to see a future in design and technology.
In 2011, California voters passed Assembly Bill 109, which diverted those sentenced to less serious convictions from state prisons to county jails. Since then, jail incarcerations have become notably longer—three to five years at the county level. As a result, facilities like Elmwood have changed their approach to delivering on-site rehabilitation programs to individuals in custody with the goal of providing incarcerated people education, tools, resources, and opportunities for a better life after their release. Elmwood is working with a college consortium to transition discharged individuals and help them register for additional courses, allowing them to seamlessly continue their higher education at Community College.
“Ohlone has set the bar for how we are working and our inmate population. In fact, Isabel’s class has a waiting list,” says Marshall. “We were able to really get a lot of buy-in and interest. The pathway we are creating with Ohlone College is something that will last the test of time at the Elmwood facility.”
The pathways program at Elmwood Correctional Facility, and the new partnerships it is creating with Ohlone College and other Bay Area Community Colleges has proven its success by leaving a lasting impact on individuals released from custody. Their college experience gives them a new window into the possibilities that lie before them as they start a new chapter in their lives with the realization that college can actually be a reality should they choose to take that next step.