25 inmates were admitted in spring 2022.
IRVINE, Calif. (KABC) -- LIFTED, or Leveraging Inspiring Futures Through Educational Degrees, is a pilot program giving incarcerated individuals a chance to pursue a bachelor's degree at University of California-Irvine.
Even though all 35 California state prisons have offered associates degrees since 2014, LIFTED is the first opportunity for a bachelor's degree in the UC system.
"People in prison tend to have lower literacy rates, have had a lower rate of education than the average person outside of prison," explained Keramet Reiter, a professor of criminology, law and society and director of the program. "So this is a way to work on that and address those challenges that might have landed people there in the first place."
Twenty-five inmates were admitted in spring 2022.
Patrick Acuna was with that class while serving a life sentence, but when the governor commuted his sentence, he was released in September, three weeks into the quarter. Now, he'll take classes on campus at UCI, but still very much aware of the value a four-year degree offers for people still in prison.
"It gives a lot of people hope, inspiration, and it's an opportunity to show themselves in the change that they've made within themselves from the person who came to prison 5, 10, 20, even 30 years ago," said Acuna, who is now a junior at UCI.
A handful of bachelor's programs are operating in prisons across the state, most of them run by Cal State Universities. LIFTED only offers a sociology degree currently, but Reiter's hope is to expand the degrees available over time.
"What we've done is build a model of a triangle between a community college, a state prison and a UC, and we would like to see replications of those triangles across the state," said Reiter.
This isn't remote learning or a Zoom class, this is in-person instruction by UCI professors taught to the inmates here at Donovan Correctional Facility. To date, 12 UCI faculty members have made the hour drive to Donovan for in-person instruction.
"Prison is not what we're used to, teaching on campus," said faculty member Nicole Iturriaga, a professor of criminology, law and society. "After a while, you're getting into your stuff and the class and they're so engaged and they're asking so many questions that you sort of just, for me, I'm more marveling at 'Wow! They did all the readings!'"
Students in prison can free their minds through education even while behind bars, but because 95% of inmates will one day return to their communities.
Reiter explains how the transformation through education can benefit everyone.
"We know that people who earn a college degree in prison have a recidivism rates approaching zero," she said. "So we can work with them in prison and then we create all of these opportunities when they get out."
Acuna adds, "one less criminal is one less victim."
"Everybody sitting out there has been 'justice impacted' and they don't want to be victimized and this is part of the solution," he said.