Courtesy Steven Hensley
Steven Hensley at his graduation from Fresno State.

California public universities are becoming more equitable and inclusive as programs emerge to help formerly incarcerated students earn college degrees.

These programs include the California State University system’s Project Rebound and the University of California’s Underground Scholars, both of which have shown promising results in the successful reintegration of people into the education system.

Project Rebound was started in 1967 by professor John Irwin to help facilitate the transition from the criminal justice system to receiving bachelor’s degrees at San Francisco State University. Since then, the organization was adopted by Associated Students and has expanded to 14 Cal State campuses, aiding in the passage of hundreds of formerly incarcerated students through the four-year education system. Another, newer California program, the Underground Scholars Initiative, was founded by two UC Berkeley alumni in 2013. This program has since expanded to all nine UC undergraduate campuses, furthering the support of educational equality.

Statistically, the work of these organizations has proven to be invaluable in reducing rates of recidivism. The term recidivism refers to the tendency of someone who has been convicted of a crime and imprisoned to reoffend and re-enter the system after their first release from custody.

California has one of the highest recidivism rates in the country. In 2019, the state released a report that 62% of inmates released by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation from 2017-2018 had returned to prison. In contrast, according to the California State University Annual Project Rebound report of 2021, zero percent of students in the program from 2016-2020 recidivated.

The EdSource California Student Journalism Corps explored the impact of these organizations by speaking with students and administrators involved with Project Rebound and Underground Scholars. To hear their voices, read the eight stories below.

Note: EdSource has recently explored the topic of student housing for formerly incarcerated students through print and podcast mediums.

Duncan Martinez

'There are some things that I know about but never experienced'

After hearing his verdict in the courtroom, Duncan Martinez was prepared to take his own life.

Martinez, who was charged with first-degree murder with special circumstances after being involved in the murder of his roommate, was sentenced to life without parole in 1994.

“I get ‘guilty’ and then five minutes later, I have to start thinking about how I’m going to do a lifetime of this,” Martinez said. “I had decided it. And I have never remotely been suicidal.”

Spending more than two years at Los Angeles County Jail emotionally and physically drained Martinez. It was “egregious,” he said of the jail. “It shouldn’t be fixed. It should be shut down and started over. There’s no answer other than that.”

With this context, he was unsure how he’d fare transitioning to a lifetime sentence at Lancaster Prison. This led to his plan of ending things there.

But feelings changed.

“As they went to walk me out of the courtroom, there was a sound behind me that I can only describe as pain,” Martinez said. “I turned, and it was my mom. Her face was broken. And in that moment, I realized that I can’t hurt them more.”

Because Martinez began studying film at the University of Utah two years before being arrested, he completed his undergraduate degree in prison.

“I immediately was looking for what programs I could do to better myself. Not because I thought I would ever go home,” Martinez said. “But because I knew that the only thing I could do for the people at home was be the best version of me I could be.”

Through programs like Project Rebound, Martinez was able to continue advancing himself inside and outside of prison. In fact, Martinez, who was released in early 2021, is now a Master of Fine Arts student at Cal State LA.

Regarding his program of study, Martinez, 52, said, “You know, 24-year-old me wanted to be in the film industry. And I still love that stuff. But I don’t know if I fit in in the same ways.”

That’s why he’s grateful for the three-year program at Cal State LA. “This is a perfect program for that. I mean, you get an immersion into TV, film and theater from every aspect from a writing focus.”

He added, “I will have to act, I will have to direct, I will have to do everything. And somewhere in there, I’ll find what it is I want to be.”

After 27 years in prison, Martinez’s education spans more than just what he’s learning in school. “There are some things that I know about but never experienced,” he said, noting “there’s a disparate kind of maturation” for formerly incarcerated people.

For example: “I’m a big video game guy,” Martinez said. “I heard about Halo, I read the books about Halo, I read magazine things about Halo; but I never played Halo until recently.”

He’s also trying to catch up, technology-wise. “I was in a conversation yesterday where somebody said ‘You know, we all lived through having the iPod thing,’ and I said, ‘I didn’t.’ Everybody stopped: Like, ‘Oh, wow, you missed that.’ And that’s a trivial example, but there’s thousands of those.”

While he is pessimistic about the prison system — he criticized it as “an infrastructure that pays a lot of people a lot of money, versus trying to actually effect change for human beings” — Martinez feels confident that his education will shield him from ever returning to prison. “We know that education is the easiest route to making sure that people don’t recidivate,” he said.

And, he vows to “not be miserable.”

Said Martinez, “The one lesson that I learned, that is maybe functionally more important than anything else, is that whatever I do, I’m going to be happy doing it. … It might be a ton of work, but it will be something that I care about.”

As for his specific aspirations after college, Martinez replied, “I have a three-year program to figure it out.”

By Erik Adams

Steven Hensley

'I want something more for others around me'

Steven Hensley is a first-year law school student at UC Berkeley, focusing on learning more about criminal justice. He wants to help change the system for future lawyers and students alike.

“I want to help underserved populations. … I want something more from life for others around me,” Hensley said.

At 17, Hensley was incarcerated. During that time, he saw that prisons weren’t very aware of student needs. “There was usually one book per class of 10-20 people,” Hensley said. ”It was almost impossible to get those books.”

Upon his release six years later, he was able to work his way into Fresno State University where he earned Bachelor of Arts degrees in both philosophy and political science.

In a video produced by Fresno State that accompanied an announcement that Hensley was awarded the President’s Undergraduate Medal, Hensley admitted he felt hopeless upon first leaving prison.

“My perspective originally was that there is no hope. I’m going to come out of this cell with a criminal record, I’m not going to be able to go forward, have a career, have a family, have a normal life. And that wasn’t the case.” He credits Project Rebound with helping him gain that hope.

While at Fresno State, Hensley worked with the ACLU Fresno County Chapter to stop illegal sweeps of homeless encampments. He also was elected to the board of directors for ACLU Northern California where he currently serves.

Although the barriers are definitely there for formerly incarcerated students, Hensley said that throughout college, he found that classmates and faculty were supportive of his educational goals, regardless of his background.

“Students are usually open and most teachers are open, especially humanities professors. I have nothing but good things to say,” Hensley said.

As he now navigates law school, Hensley wants to pass along that encouragement to other people with criminal records.

“There’s always hope even when it seems like there’s not.”

By Abbie Phillips

Jason Bell

'I didn’t think it was an option for me'

Jason Bell was sent to prison for 17 years at the age of 20. “I was trying to do life the easiest way,” Bell said, which included bypassing college. “I didn’t think it was an option for me.”

Two things changed his mind. First, while in prison, Bell saw brochures about Project Rebound’s founder, John Irwin, who’d gone from prisoner to earning a Ph.D. in criminology and sociology. Irwin used his education to teach at San Francisco State University for 27 years, where he created the first Project Rebound campus.

Bell also found that Ohio University had a program for prisoners, which he utilized while in prison. “I just fell in love with studying, even in a place that wasn’t conducive to studying,” he said. With credits from the Ohio program, Bell was able to transfer to San Francisco State, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in sociolog, and a master’s degree in counseling.

Bell is now the executive director of Project Rebound at San Francisco State University as well as the director of program development for the California State University’s consortium of Project Rebound.

An important aspect of his role is helping other CSU campuses establish their own Project Rebound programs, which is sometimes a struggle. Aside from needing physical space for the program — Irwin’s first office at S.F. State in 1967 was a mop closet with only a desk and a phone line — Bell helps determine if there is a community of incarcerated people and parolees who can take advantage of the services.

“Can you imagine having a college in Timbuktu, and there’s no one even remotely close to the population you want to serve?” In addition, Bell wants the campuses to reach out to prisons or jails to speak about education opportunities. It’s also valuable if a campus already has student organizations that support formerly incarcerated people.

Beyond Cal State campuses, Bell gets contacted by colleges from different states, including Rutgers University in New Jersey. They see the success of Project Rebound and want to model their own version. He has also helped University of California campuses, such as Berkeley, start their own version, known as Underground Scholars.

In his position with Project Rebound, Bell is doing some of the same work Irwin did decades ago, helping prisoner students have an opportunity to pursue higher education. This includes responding to letters from interested incarcerated people, answering phone calls from prospective students, and offering a lot of encouragement that former prisoners can succeed in college.

There are many success stories: Bell recalls one recent Project Rebound student who went to jail for assisting in a crime, who then went to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement because she was an immigrant. When she got out of ICE detention, Project Rebound helped her succeed in her education, and she graduated this past year.

“She’s done a lot of TED Talks and is doing some great policy work for other Asian Pacific Islanders,” Bell said of the student. “She’s doing really well in her life after feeling it was over.”

By Ramon Castaños

Crystal Navarro

'Living in those cycles and not understanding them, you stay in them'

Crystal Navarro stumbled upon one of the most impactful components of her college career completely by accident.

In a stroke of luck while looking for a classroom at Fresno State University that she could use for a Zoom class, Navarro knocked on the door where Project Rebound meets. A student assistant in that classroom explained what the program was, Navarro said, “and I qualified because I had been previously incarcerated. So I went that very same day to sign up.”

She hasn’t looked back since, now in her third semester with the program.

Project Rebound, as she came to learn, did a lot to help formerly incarcerated students financially, from food vouchers on campus to school books. While affiliated students were previously reimbursed for books after they bought them, Navarro said, “This is the first semester they just gave us the option to go into the student store and get our books, and they’re completely free to us.”

The program also helped her with grants for emergencies and tuition costs, although the grants usually depend on exactly what a student needs.

But Navarro has received far more than financial help.

“When I got to Fresno State [from Porterville Community College],” Navarro explained, “I was still, I guess, used to being by myself all the time.” She said she’d gotten in the habit of not sharing her past while in community college.

“I never once spoke about my past,” she said. “I was always made to think that was just something that I should keep to myself because I would not be accepted. Or maybe my professors wouldn’t, you know, like me.”

Navarro continued, “And so when I came across Project Rebound, I felt like I found my place.”

Navarro truly had to work her way back up from an extremely tough situation. “When I was incarcerated in 2016, I was pregnant with my son. And that was just very rock bottom,” Navarro said.

She knew that once she was released she would have to have a plan to provide for her son. With student financial aid, Navarro said, “I was able to just kind of better my life, you know, a little bit at a time.”

Beyond the financial support, she was also able to get connected to other volunteer opportunities through Project Rebound and Fresno State. Navarro works through Americorps’ California Justice Leaders program where she says they help formerly incarcerated people with reentry services. “We help them get back into school, get them into trades … get them employment, help them build resumes [and with] interviewing.”

She also works with youth in Fresno’s juvenile hall and is able to share her story about the importance of education, although she admits she had her doubts about school.

“I actually almost didn’t even go to a university because I was worried that my education was not going to help me. I thought, ‘I’m going to do all of this school for what? I’m not going to be able to get a job.’”

But, Navarro said, “I started going to school, and I actually enjoyed it.”

Regarding her studies, she explained that she started as a business major while at Porterville Community College but quickly switched to social sciences.

As a psychology major who also is interested in sociology, Navarro said, “I feel like I’ve kind of learned the whole aspect of how to help people and the ways that our environments, you know, shape us and hurt us.”

She added, “Sociology is pretty much studying all of the environmental factors — like dead-end cycles of poverty — and how they affect a person, how they shape you.”

And then there’s psychology. “Now you’re studying the brain,” Navarro said, “and how certain traumas and different functions of our brain affect us as well. … The population of people that I come from, we don’t think about the way that you’re living as wrong or bad or even not normal, because it’s all you grow up knowing.

“I’ll be honest,” Navarro continued, “the chances of a family member of mine being sent to jail or prison is a lot higher than if they graduated high school. That’s just what I grew up in. So living in those cycles and not understanding them, you stay in them. And I stayed in them for a very long time.”

Now, however, she credits studying sociology and psychology with “completely transform[ing] me and help[ing] me understand why I was the way that I was or why I did the things that I did.”

Navarro is closing in on the finish line as she nears getting a bachelor’s degree in psychology where she hopes to get a job as a clinician. “My education, like I said, has transformed me and has saved my life.”

By Titus Wilkinson
— Ramon Castaños contributed to this story.

Ismael Davila

'Underground, but not underheard'

While all college students have different backgrounds and stories to tell, those who have been incarcerated have distinct experiences from most others on campus.

The Underground Scholars Initiative was founded to help such students, assisting those who want to pursue higher education.

UC Riverside was added to the Underground Scholars Initiative in 2018; Ismael Davila took on the role of director this past June.

Davila isn’t a stranger to the incarceration process. Years before he was the Underground Scholars lead at UC Riverside, he was an inmate himself, giving him perspective on what the students need.

In these past few months, Davila has seen some of the challenges that formerly incarcerated students face while coming back to school. Simply the label of being a formerly incarcerated student automatically puts them at a disadvantage.

“It’s a real deterrent,” Davila said. “You’re starting something from the ground up.” He understands that people who have not been incarcerated don’t understand the roadblocks, like being hesitant “to apply for jobs … and even apply for scholarships.” Some job and school opportunities are less achievable to students who have criminal records, he added.

While these challenges do exist, formerly incarcerated students do take off with successful careers after exiting the program, he said, including as researchers at universities and attending law school.

When asked how he thinks the Underground Scholars Program can improve at UC Riverside, Davila pointed to housing. “I’ve already had three students that I know for sure are houseless.”

Joe Schroeder, who worked for 28 years as an adult probation officer and in juvenile halls in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, agreed.

Schroeder said that for former inmates, having both guaranteed housing and employment are important factors for a successful return to the academic world or working world.

“If you have neither, you’re in trouble,” he said. Those on parole and probation with guaranteed housing and employment are “much more able to go back to life.”

By Abbie Phillips

Irene Sotelo

‘I want to make sure our students are taken care of'

Talking about her former incarceration has never scared Irene Sotelo. As a matter of fact, in a class she was taking, she once brought it up directly in a discussion.

“I took a criminal justice class and we had a debate: ‘Can somebody in prison or jail be rehabilitated?’ And I picked that subject,” Sotelo said.

Her classmates at California State University, Long Beach were unaware of the fact that Sotelo had been in prison. Obviously, she made the argument that formerly incarcerated people could be rehabilitated.

“At the end … that’s when I told everyone in the class I’m formerly incarcerated.” She said that she’d gone to prison and was now standing before them working on a bachelor’s degree. “And that shut everybody up,” Sotelo said.

Sotelo has not only dealt with the struggles of being formerly incarcerated, but she’s also experienced homelessness and addiction.

Listing off what she’s overcome, Sotelo said, “Seventh grade dropout, gangs, streets, having to live a real rough life, homelessness. I was homeless before I went to prison. And due to drugs, I suffered a stroke, and I was paralyzed on my left side,” Sotelo said.

Despite all of these setbacks, she continued to fight and earned her master’s degree in social work in 2021.

As an undergraduate student, Sotelo helped co-found a student organization at CSU Long Beach called Rising Scholars for formerly incarcerated students. As the organization grew, Sotelo worked to establish a Project Rebound program at Long Beach.

“From 2017 to 2020, I advocated for Project Rebound at all the meetings,” Sotelo said. When the time finally came, Sotelo became the program coordinator and was promoted to director in 2021. She is passionate about helping people get over “imposter syndrome” and see themselves achieving their higher education goals.

Despite being such a new program, the CSU Long Beach membership numbers have been impressive: As of the day this interview was conducted, Project Rebound at Long Beach had 57 students in the program.

Sotelo is proud of the membership, noting that CSU Long Beach loses students to Project Rebound programs at nearby California State universities in Fullerton and Los Angeles.

Part of that boost in numbers has been through the hard work Sotelo puts into the program. She talks at community colleges and helps to collaborate with their organizations and programs at different events.

“We’re all connected. We’re all sort of the same population. And we all do a lot of collaboration,” Sotelo said.

As well, she is loyal to her Project Rebound participants at CSU Long Beach. “I want to make sure our students are taken care of,” Sotelo said.

By Titus Wilkinson
— Mary McFadden contributed to this story.

Jennifer Leahy

Fresno State’s program offers ‘clear, supportive pathways'

Seventeen years ago, Jennifer Leahy went to prison. Now, as an adjunct criminology professor at Fresno State University and the program director for its Project Rebound program, she helps formerly incarcerated students succeed in their education.

Leahy knows firsthand that returning to society and to education is difficult after incarceration. When she got out of prison in 2008 at 38 years old, no one wanted to hire her because of her criminal record.

Said Leahy, who was taught how to weld and worked at an auto body shop while in prison, “There was a box on every application that asked if you had ever been convicted of a felony. Thus, I would have to check that box and never get any callbacks.” She said that she decided to go to college because of the difficulty finding a job.

Initially, Leahy majored in math at Madera Community College because, while in prison, she helped tutor prisoners working to get their GEDs. She switched her major to criminology at Fresno State because one of her parents’ taught the subject at Humboldt State. She eventually earned her master’s degree in criminology and later taught as an adjunct professor.

A colleague in the department of criminology suggested that Leahy should apply for a position with Project Rebound. “She knew about my background,” Leahy said, “and lived experience was one of the preferred qualifications for this position.” Leahy was hired and has directed the program since 2016, helping students to succeed in their education.

Leahy said she and the Project Rebound staff work to help their students understand some of their trauma of being in prison. “It creates a network of community that is safe for them to be who they are and not be afraid of the stigma of being judged,” she explained.

Project Rebound also teams up with other organizations and career service centers in the community to help their students find success. Leahy gave an example of “working to remove legislative barriers, to putting parameters on moral boards so that there are particular criteria that [can’t be used] against individuals.”

Leahy and Project Rebound helped push “Ban the Box,” a law that prevents employers from asking about applicants’ criminal records. (Note: Project Rebound at Fresno State is now state- funded rather than grant-funded and can no longer push for legislation.) They also work to find ways to help students with educational costs such as books, parking fees and graduation costs. “We partner with the agencies on campus so that we have clear supportive pathways in place,” Leahy said.

“We continue to build out their network in terms of the alumni,” Leahy added. “So as they move into positions of employment in the community, [they can] mentor students.”

Of the 23 California State Universities, 14 offer Project Rebound. Some CSU campuses, like Chico State, want to be involved, but Leahy said there is an application process and certain requirements to be part of the program.

“If you’re the university, you have to guarantee that you will provide space,” Leahy said. “A space on campus, a mail slot and a telephone” that is answered 24 hours a day.

At Fresno State, many students thank Leahy and the program for what they provide.

She talked about a Project Rebound student at Fresno State who struggled with getting financial aid.

“I worked with financial aid [and] the academic counselors to help him build a pathway to add those relationships he needs.” Leahy said. She was able to encourage this student by “writing letters of support along the way.”

Now this student has a successful career in a company that does major spill clean-up at San Francisco and Oakland Airports.

Students such as these add to Leahy’s fulfillment in her role. “Just all the joy of seeing them [succeeding]…it’s like beyond joyful.”

By Ramon Castaños

Hector Cervantes

‘I didn’t really know how empowering it could actually be to share my story’

Sometimes the inspirations for our greatest ideas come from within ourselves or are brought out by others. For Hector Cervantes it came from an off-chance meeting with someone who was formerly in a predicament similar to his.

While participating in an internship in Washington, D.C., Cervantes met a student from UC Berkeley who helped spark the idea for an Underground Scholars Initiative at his campus, UC Irvine.

“I think just the fact that I had that conversation in D.C., where the student was sharing with me about Underground Scholars at Berkeley and the work that they did just drew me in,” Cervantes said.

Cervantes himself admitted he was somewhat surprised by the conversation, as he usually never reveals this aspect of his life to others.

“I was just surprised that someone would even share this information on any campus … it’s not the norm, right? At least at that point I didn’t feel like this [information about previously being incarcerated] is gonna be well-received,” Cervantes said.

“I didn’t really know at the moment … how empowering it could be to actually share my story,” Cervantes added.

The UC Irvine program’s early days on campus were rather informal, mostly just a program for students to help each other out; whether that be connecting each other to resources, fellowships, scholarships, or employment opportunities.

From firsthand experience, though, Cervantes knew how important it is to have that sort of support.

“My lived experience — and not only with incarceration — I always linked my incarceration to my socioeconomic status. Because we think about these buzzwords,” Cervantes said, “like, ‘prison-to-school pipeline’, and ‘war on drugs.’ All these things that are tied to incarceration, but the underlying cause is poverty, is socioeconomics.”

Due to the growing success of the program, Cervantes was given an even bigger opportunity in fall of 2021 — to become the director of a UCI Underground Scholars Program. It was not the easiest transition, even Cervantes would admit, but giving more students access to UCI was what mattered most.

“I’ve always been passionate about increasing access to UCI. That remains my passion,” Cervantes said.

With the expansion of the Underground Scholars Program at UCI, currently incarcerated students are also able to take classes while in prison. Out of the 55 students in the program 25 of them are currently incarcerated. Professors go in-person to teach classes in special facilities, helping incarcerated people earn their bachelor’s degrees.

Once they are released from prison, the program helps them earn their graduate degrees, as well.

One example Cervantes cited with pride involved an incarcerated student who had been sentenced to life without parole.

While he doesn’t know why, the student was released. “I’m happy for him,” Cervantes said, not only because he was facing life without parole, but also because he’s going to have the full university experience.”

Working from within the program, Cervantes hopes to remedy the issues faced by many formerly incarcerated students, a community he is close to. Originally from Santa Ana, not far from UCI, has helped him evolve the program “organically. … I was there when this work started being done here at UCI, and it’s just gone up from there,” he said.

By Titus Wilkinson
— Mary McFadden contributed to this story.

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  1. Nicole Miller 2 months ago2 months ago

    Let’s remember the victim, Ron Baker, and the victim’s family. This was an extremely heinous crime, of which Duncan Martinez and Nathan Blalock both committed. To be angry with the incarceration system, because you committed a crime against a friend/roommate, is insulting. And lest we forget Duncan actually spoke at the funeral of the victim, Ron Baker! It’s insane to allow this person a voice, when he stole that of Ron Baker!

  2. Billie hensley 4 months ago4 months ago

    I’m so proud of you Steven you are amazing. Love, your dad

  3. Dale Lendrum 5 months ago5 months ago

    Thank you for this article. The Rising Scholars Network in the California Community College System spans some 50 campuses and prepares many future Project Rebound clients and Underground Scholars. Together we all make a difference. One student at a time.

  4. Salvadore Solorio 5 months ago5 months ago

    Instead of waiting for former prisoners to be released to be educated, the time spent in prison would be an opportunity for a law violators to pursue their higher education, then be more prepared for success upon release from prison. More resources should be diverted to where society would benefit most. As a former California state prisoner, I know I would have taken advantage of any higher educational opportunities.