Dornsife program offers classes to local inmates

Prison Education Project student co-directors Colin Petersdorf (left) and Hadiya Culbreath (right) helped with the logistics of the program and with student-led discussions that range from Oscar-nominated films to inmates’ existential theories. (Courtesy of Dornsife Prison Project)

A group of more than 30 students and faculty spend their Saturday mornings in makeshift classrooms at prisons across Southern California. The volunteers facilitate discussions on topics ranging from inmates’ opinions on Oscar-nominated films to theories behind the existence of the universe as part of Dornsife’s Prison Education Project. 

The program, which is part of a larger nonprofit composed of student volunteers, aims to expand educational opportunities for inmates by offering faculty-led classes across a variety of academic disciplines. The program began in 2011 at Cal Poly Pomona and has since expanded to 20 other universities, including USC Pitzer College and UCLA. 

The Prison Education Project emphasizes the importance of prison education in decreasing rates of recidivism, or a person’s relapse into criminal behavior. A 2013 Research and Development Corporation study revealed that participation in prison education programs reduces the risk of recidivism by 13%. 

Faculty co-directors Kate Levin and Nik De Dominic launched USC’s chapter in 2018 after students in the Levan Institute for the Humanities expressed interest in volunteering for the  program. Levin, who also serves as a faculty member in the Writing Program, said the experience of teaching inmates allows students to deconstruct their preconceptions of criminality and mass incarceration. 

“This is not service work primarily,” Levin said. “This is an educational experience for all involved, whether it’s the students who are incarcerated or the students who are traditionally enrolled.”

Dornsife’s Prison Education Project offers five courses for inmates this semester, including film studies and creative writing, led by faculty and student volunteers and aims to provide diverse educational opportunities. (Courtesy of Dornsife Prison Education Project)

Faculty volunteers develop a curriculum for an eight-week course to teach a group of 15 to 20 inmates. Students act as teaching assistants for instructors, leading small group discussions and helping participants with the coursework.

The classes offered each semester vary depending on which professors participate in the program. Five courses are being taught this semester, including film studies and creative writing. 

“You’ve got undergraduate students and students who are incarcerated, learning materials together and working through materials together,” said De Dominic, who taught a creative writing class for the program last semester. “It’s much like your own coursework, but just in a very different kind of environment.”

USC’s teaching is based primarily at two medium-security facilities: the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco and the Custody to Community Transitional Reentry Program in Santa Fe Springs. 

Hadiya Culbreath, a sophomore majoring in health and human sciences, acts as one of the student directors of the project. She helps organize the weekly transportation to the facilities and manages the application process for students who want to volunteer. 

Culbreath said she joined the program to broaden her perspective on the criminal justice system and gain exposure to life experiences different from her own. 

“Being inside the prison facility and working alongside students that are incarcerated, there’s an entirely new outlook on life, an entirely new amalgamation of life experiences that you don’t get when speaking with USC peers,” Culbreath said. 

The program primarily offers humanities courses, but Culbreath hopes to increase the number of STEM classes offered in the future. 

“We don’t only want to do writing classes,” Culbreath said. “We want students to have access to different types of education while they are in the facilities.”

While faculty typically lead classes, co-director Colin Petersdorf, a senior majoring in biological sciences, taught a screenwriting class last semester at the California Rehabilitation Center. Petersdorf organized the class after a shortage of faculty volunteers from the School of Cinematic Arts. 

Petersdorf modeled the course after the “Introduction to Screenwriting” class at USC, which teaches students how to write a short film. Petersdorf took the course for his screenwriting minor in Fall 2017.

Technological devices are prohibited inside the facilities, so inmates wrote their screenplays in notebooks that Petersdorf transcribed using the screenwriting software Final Draft. He said participants wrote primarily about their lives as incarcerated people. 

“One man had a very touching piece about his first interaction with his family once he gets out,” Petersdorf said. 

The program also grants inmates the opportunity to grapple with the reasons for their incarceration through writing, Petersdorf said. 

“[The stories] were so moving, the students’ experiences with incarceration and with themselves and fighting those demons and trying to push forward — it was so, so incredibly powerful,” Petersdorf said. 

Aris Mangasarian, a senior majoring in psychology who started Underground Trojans, USC’s post-prison advocacy group, serves as the project’s outreach coordinator. Mangasarian, who spent time in prison as a young adult, emphasized the importance of expanding educational opportunities for incarcerated people. He said that education is a critical part of integrating former inmates into society.

“It’s in everyone’s best interest for us to move towards rehabilitation rather than a punitive approach,” Mangasarian said. 

Mangasarian has also spoken as a guest lecturer about prison education, or the “prison-to-college pipeline.” A play on the phrase “school-to-prison pipeline,” where students from marginalized communities become disproportionally incarcerated, the “prison-to-college pipeline” aims to funnel inmates into higher education after release. During the seminar at the facilities, he reflected on earning his GED in prison and his efforts toward continuing education. 

“It’s extremely rewarding, especially because I didn’t really have that [resource] when I was in their position,” Mangasarian said. “Granted, I was able to earn a GED … but I never really knew what I was going to do with that GED, and I never actually thought about college.” 

Levin said she sees the project as a powerful opportunity for students to develop a deeper understanding of the factors that lead to incarceration and to humanize the experiences of inmates. 

“It’s really important to me, to see [students] come away with a deeper, more meaningful, and frankly, more accurate understanding of how the world works,” Levin said. “I think having this experience can facilitate that.”