Phoenix Project aims to help formerly incarcerated students rise


Most people go to college to increase their job options and earn a higher salary. A majority of students struggle to stretch a limited budget to cover housing and food costs, tuition and school supplies.

Many are coordinating all of these things for the first time along with inaccurate expectations of college life, so it’s no wonder that Corrections to California, a joint project between The Opportunity Institute and the Stanford Criminal Justice Center reported 70 percent of students struggle just to get through their first year in college.

Those challenges are magnified if the student was formerly incarcerated and is now working to rebuild their life.

Delta’s Office of Student Equity and Diversity is working to provide extra help to students who are ‘system-impacted’ — incarcerated, homeless, undocumented, or foster youth.

“I provide support through resources…development or training opportunities to assist…in reducing achievement gaps for disproportionately impacted students,” said Edward Aguilar, Manager of the Office of Student Equity and Diversity at Delta. “If these [formerly incarcerated students]…want to come to Delta, pay their fees, do good in school, get back to work, transfer, or get a certificate, what can we do to support them?”

There are advantages to helping current and formerly incarcerated individuals go to college.  According to a 2016 report by the RAND corporation, “inmates who participate in any kind of educational program behind bars are up to 43 percent less likely to return to prison.”

Providing education opportunities to inmates helps the student, their family and everyone else in the community.

The Student Equity office doesn’t have a formal program yet, but is in the process of designing the Phoenix Project, a pathway specifically to support formerly incarcerated students.

For the last two years Delta has been providing limited general education classes to adults at  Deuel Vocational Institution and youth at the Division of Juvenile Justice.

Some students want to continue their education at Delta. However, the adjustment from prison to college can be scary and difficult.   

Formerly incarcerated people can face barriers in finding housing and jobs. They may have to report to a probation or parole officer. They may not have internet access, which can narrow the field of classes they can take.

There is also the stigma around whether and when to tell others about their previous incarceration.

“There might be barriers or obstacles that these students face that we as a college need to anticipate,” said Aguilar. “A student who may be released, their time was served, restitution was paid…so they’re ready to go to school. We’d like to have a place in a space that students know they can go and somebody there is gonna have knowledge, experience and sensitivity to their circumstance.”

However, something as simple as getting a library card can present an obstacle, since you need a legal identification to get one. And here is where’ knowledge and sensitivity to circumstance’ comes in – according to the Legal Action Center, many inmates come out of prison with no state ID at all, which makes it nearly impossible to secure a job, housing, or public benefits including a Delta library card.

“There are already students on this campus already who are formerly incarcerated, whether they choose to disclose that or not is up to them.  We’re not here to ‘out’ anyone,” said Aguilar. “But by us beginning to create a structure, and then to share that information more broadly, to know that there’s a resource and a support mechanism here we’re hoping that we’ll see more students begin to voluntarily say ‘I want to be a part of that.’  We’re hoping to build and strengthen that community of support.”