CCSF courses expand to include psychology, creative writing for incarcerated students

A program that offers college credit classes to San Francisco County Jail inmates will add a psychology course and creative writing course with an emphasis on poetry to its curriculum next semester.

Through a 2012 partnership among City College of San Francisco, the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department and the Five Keys Charter School, inmates have previously had access to six units (generally equating to two courses) each semester.

On Monday, representatives from the three entities gathered at CCSF’s main campus to sign a Memorandum of Understanding and expand the program to offer nine semester units. The program is offered at the County Jail No. 2 at 425 Seventh St., and County Jail No. 5 in San Bruno.

Five Keys was founded by the Sheriff’s Department in 2003 as the first charter school in the U.S. to operate inside a county jail. Previously operating as an accredited high school, the idea behind incorporating CCSF was to “re-envision jail from a place of incarceration to a campus,” Five Keys Executive Director Steve Good said.

The program has been successful in “increasing the likelihood that people who leave our custody do not reoffend,” Sheriff Vicki Hennessy said.

“To me, that’s the definition of public safety,” she said.

Newly minted CCSF Chancellor Mark Rocha praised the program Monday and noted that “research shows that inmates in college programs have 51 percent lower odds of reoffending.” He vowed to support expanding the program even further, to 12 units.

“It is not routine for law enforcement officials to envision a program like this and to make it happen,” Rocha said.

Since CCSF joined the program, more than 400 students have taken college classes while incarcerated — many of whom have continued their college enrollment even after being released or sentenced.

Five Keys currently operates accredited charter schools and programs at 70 locations throughout the state.

The program began as an experiment, offering half- and one-unit classes to gauge interest on part of the inmates and to ensure the safety of CCSF instructors. CCSF officially entered into an MOU agreement with the program in 2015, and a year later, the course load was upped to three units per semester.

Earlier this year, the units available to Five Keys students was increased to six, and student services offered by the program were bolstered to ensure a smooth transition into CCSF or other colleges following an inmate’s release. The additional support became a large part of its success, according to CCSF Dean Jill Yee.

“We offered math and English placement testing,” Yee said. “Student services goes into the jails and they get the results and develop a mini educational plan for the students.”

The program doesn’t offer enough courses for inmates to complete their degrees while incarcerated, but “that is ultimately the goal,” Good said.

CCSF instructor Patricia Nunley has worked with both male and female inmates, and said that despite the jails’ controlled teaching environments — students attend classes clad in orange uniforms, and the classrooms are supervised with security cameras and a deputy standing outside — she has been “humbled by my orange scholars.”

“A lot of times, I would forget that I’m in a situation where I’m not supposed to touch them,” she said. “Next thing you know, I’m sitting down with them. I would go to their pods to help them with homework.”

The courses are accelerated — inmates have just six weeks to complete a three unit class that would normally span an entire semester. Expanding the amount of units available will allow students to take classes all day, Monday through Friday, according to Nunley.

Apart from offering inmates a sense of escape from their daily lives in jail, the program requires 100 percent commitment by those enrolled in it — as any college would, Nunley said.

“You have to do your work,” Nunley said. “You’re no different, you’re just wearing orange.”

Laura Waxmann
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Laura Waxmann

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