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Photo by Tony Wallins | Humboldt County Probation services in Eureka, Calif. The only available resource for formerly incarcerated HSU students is the probation dept.

Student life after prison lacks resources

Nine California State University campuses offer programs assisting formerly incarcerated students, Humboldt State is not one of them

Nine California State University campuses offer programs assisting formerly incarcerated students, HSU is not one of them

The current nationwide prison strike has shed light on the inhumane conditions reflecting slave labor, prisoner mistreatment and the absence of education within prison walls.

But life after prison is still a challenge for prisoners. Specifically for those who go back to school.

Steven Ladwig, associate director of admissions at HSU, says there is definite need for some kind of program at HSU for formerly incarcerated students.

When Ladwig was an Educational Opportunity Program advisor 20 years ago there was a formerly incarcerated student running Operation U-Turn, which was a club helping other incarcerated students. Since that student graduated the club ended and Ladwig hasn’t seen anything like it since.

“We need a safe space for the incarcerated attending HSU. We need a center, advisors, the whole nine yards,” Ladwig said.

Stigmas and stereotypes can create barriers and separations for the formerly incarcerated. These judgments follow them outside prison walls and make it difficult to adjust into the real world, especially when wanting to further their education.

The Opportunity Institute and the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, both designers of Renewing Communities, state that to address the staggering mass incarceration in the nation, over 2.2 million people, California is using higher publication education but is still falling short.

Before 2014 there was no one enrolled in face-to-face community college in CDRC. After California Senate Bill No. 1391 was passed there were 4,443 inmates enrolled in fall 2017.

According to Correction to College, there are currently 700,000 Californians in the correctional system and another 8 million residents with arrest records. 30 of the 35 prisons in California teach face-to-face community college.

One-third of the 114 California community colleges have student groups or programs that build support systems for recently incarcerated students.

20 miles south of HSU, College of the Redwoods in Eureka, has partnered with the Humboldt County Jail to create an educational pipeline for inmates, howvever Humboldt State itself has nothing to offer formerly incarcerated students.

Renee Byrd, assistant professor of sociology whose current research areas are mass incarceration and prisoner re-entry, said some of her best students have been formerly incarcerated.

“There’s definitely space and a need for resources,” Byrd said.

But HSU has nothing specifically targeting formerly incarcerated students. She knows that there are barriers for people getting out and education is the number one way to improve their lives and economic standing and HSU should make it easier.

Schools such as UCLA, UC Berkeley and UC Davis offer The Underground Scholars Initiative. Nine CSU campuses, Sacramento, Bakersfield, Fresno, San Bernardino, Fullerton, Los Angeles, Pomona, San Diego, and San Francisco, all successfully support the Rebound Project: a 50-year old program started at SFSU in 1967 by John Irwin that offers support to those who have been incarcerated in transitioning to life on an University campus.

When asked about a program like Project Rebound migrating north to HSU, Byrd said she is very supportive but it would not only take time and money but a coalition of faculty and administrators who are having a hard enough time making sure students are housed.

“I think this is precisely where this institution should go,” Byrd said. “HSU should be a leader in this rather than following.”

In 2016, a Humboldt County Reentry Resource guide was published along with an HSU master thesis called “Reintegration in rural community; strengths, barriers, and recommendations for reentry in Humboldt County.” The author Vanessa Vrtiak, who has since earned her masters in sociology and is active in the community’s prison activism, said there hasn’t been a difference before or after the resource guide was published.

This might be because it isn’t posted anywhere easily accessible or in any HSU buildings. If one wants to find it they have to search for it on the internet.

Vrtiak created the resource guide because there was nothing put together for anyone who had been formerly incarcerated to know what resources were available in that community, especially for those people who aren’t from the area. It is still like that on campus for those searching for some kind of help.

“Not a lot of people organizing in our community,” Vrtiak said.

While a student she coordinated a week long criminal justice dialogue on campus that had an event each day. The topics included housing, employment, success stories, resources and barriers. But just like Ladwig, this was all she witnessed that addressed formerly incarcerated students and once the week of events ended there wasn’t anything else.

Vrtiak had Project Rebound come up to HSU in the past and thinks it would be great if the program was integrated permanently because the biggest resource at the moment is the probation office. If you were formerly incarcerated but off probation or parole you no longer have that option of resources.

With a 400 inmate capacity jail in the middle of Eureka and Pelican Bay only 60 miles away this problem is in Humboldt county’s backyard. California is starting to address the need for educational transitions from correctional facilities and support is needed to move north to HSU.

“The goal always is to educate the community and ask for compassion for people who are incarcerated,” Vrtiak said.

Formerly incarcerated students with questions on resources or who would like to talk can reach Tony Wallin at or Vanessa Vrtiak at and

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