From Prison to College

By Avery Peterson

Student Life After Prison

Transitioning from prison to college can be a difficult and scary experience. The stigma of possessing a criminal record magnifies many of the challenges students face. Formerly incarcerated individuals often face barriers to employment, housing, income and services, according to a 2014 collaborative study conducted by Stanford Law School and Berkeley School of Law. Creative writing major Gary Hallford knows this first hand. Prior to enrolling at SF State, the 54 year old served nearly 11 years in prison for manslaughter. Hallford said his background and criminal history have generated many obstacles, including difficulties with finances and relationships.

In Storage

Gary Hallford spent close to 11 years in prison before coming to SF State. The 54-year-old creative writing major continues to find unique ways to deal with the challenges his criminal record poses.


While many students struggle to afford the high cost of college, those with criminal records must overcome steeper hurdles. The Sentencing Project’s Poverty and Opportunity Profile found that individuals with criminal records are half as likely to be called back after an interview and if hired, typically earn 30 to 40 percent less than their counterparts without criminal histories. The stigma can be inescapable, according to the profile, which states that negative effects tend to follow these individuals for the remainder of their lives.

Despite being released from prison in 2012, employment is still a challenge for Hallford. He said that he has given up on finding a traditional job and instead struggles to get by solely using student loans and any extra money he can make by tutoring other students.


San Quentin inmates explore topics that include life in prison, what led up to their crime, finding hope and the importance of education.


San Quentin's inmates explore topics that include life in prison, what led up to their crime, finding hope and the importance of education.


Securing stable housing is especially difficult for this segment of the population. It has been a tremendous struggle for theater major, John Neblett, who before coming to SF State spent over 30 years in San Quentin for murder.

“I'm on Craigslist all the time, every day I'm checking,” Neblett said. “It's difficult being in my demographic because they’re wondering why this old white guy doesn't have a house of his own.”

In addition to being older than many other applicants, Neblett also cited lack of credit, gaps in employment and insufficient references as stumbling blocks.

“There are complications involved with being an ex-con and it doesn't pay to be honest about your background,” he said, going on to explain that roommates and landlords typically turn him down after running a background check.

Since being released from prison in 2015, Neblett has lived in various transitional housing facilities, but said that he is anxious to finally rent a room of his own.

“Just because I'm not on the street doesn't mean I'm not homeless,” Neblett said. “Until I’m a leaseholder and have some rights as a renter, I'm homeless.”

Theater major, John Neblett poses for a portrait in an empty classroom, November 10, 2016.

Neblett’s situation is common, according to a 2013 report by the National Health Care for the Homeless Council. Background checks eliminate a majority of housing prospects for individuals with criminal records and bar them from receiving federal housing assistance. The report found that these challenges contribute to the fact that individuals in jail are 7.5 to 11.3 times more likely to experience homelessness than the general population. Furthermore, incarceration and homelessness are believed to precipitate each other. According to the report, experiencing homelessness increases an individual’s chance of becoming incarcerated and incarceration in turn increases the probability that an individual will end up homeless. This was the case for Hallford, who like Neblett considers himself homeless. After a failed housing search over two years ago, Hallford was forced to turn to alternative housing. Since then, he has called a small 12-by-4 foot storage locker near campus home.

On one side of the unit, makeshift shelves overloaded with books, canned food and miscellaneous items stretch from floor to ceiling. Clothes-filled grocery bags and a bath towel hang on pipes overhead. When Hallford enters the unit, he ducks, twists and pulls himself through to the get to the other side.

“The scary thing is that I have lived in prison cells smaller than this,” Hallford said turning back to peer out through the tunnel of belongings.

The unit, which costs about $135 per month, offers him secure storage of his possessions and much needed solitude.

“Sometimes it's not bad and sometimes it's horrific,” Halford said regarding living in the unit. “It really depends on my mood and the day, but it’s my own place and allows me a chance to get away from everyone.”

Although it is accessible 24 hours a day, Hallford limits time spent at the locker to avoid being evicted. He spends a majority of his time in the library on campus, only sleeping in the unit a few nights out of the week. Hallford said that living in a storage locker can be difficult, but limited finances make it currently his best option.

360 Video of Gary's Storage Locker

360 Video of a san quentin Cell

Use your cursor to explore both 360 degree videos. Click below for the full tour inside San Quentin State Prison.



Education offers current and formerly incarcerated individuals assistance in overcoming many of the challenges a criminal record poses. It not only offers them socio-economic mobility by increasing job prospects and earning potential, but also helps them foster beneficial connections with their communities. Together these factors contribute to the role education plays in reducing the recidivism rate of the formerly incarcerated.

California has one of the highest recidivism rates in the nation with nearly two-thirds of those released from prison returning after only a few years, the Sentencing Project’s profile states. However, a meta-analysis conducted in 2013 by the RAND Corporation found that inmates in prison who participate in any form of education are 41 percent less likely to reoffend than those who do not. College had an even greater impact, according to the study, which found that engagement in these programs reduced the recidivism rate by 51 percent.

While incarcerated at San Quentin, Neblett participated in the Prison University Project, one of the only on-site college programs offered within the California prison system. Upon release, he headed straight to SF State where he immediately began the enrollment process.

“I was in San Quentin at 5 a.m. in a cell and by 10 a.m. that same morning I was at SF State talking to [a community college liaison],” Neblett said. “Then I checked in at Project Rebound with Jason Bell and that day just got the ball rolling for me.”

Hallford’s post-release plan also centers on education. He hopes that college credentials can boost his credibility and allow others to see past his criminal record. Since being released, Hallford has obtained three associate degrees and five certificates. He is currently working on adding another associate degree in child development and bachelor's degrees in creative writing and journalism to his repertoire.

“You have to have paperwork behind your name to get any kind of job today,” Hallford said. “I really believe that worldwide education is the key.”

360 Video of Gary's Storage Locker

360 Video inside san quentin

Project Rebound

SF State’s Project Rebound supports formerly incarcerated individuals throughout their transition to student life. The program offers assistance with housing, meals, transportation, tutoring, as well as with the application and financial aid processes, according to Jason Bell, the director of the program, who spent most of his twenties behind bars.

“If we have to put Project Rebound in a nutshell, we are we are living examples of what successful reintegration looks like in a college setting,” Bell said. “... I believe that you cannot validly talk about re-entering society and not include education at some point, so we’re the support around all the bureaucracy that higher education entails.”

Project Rebound serves as many as 150 students on campus each semester and helps thousands more via phone calls and correspondence, the collaborative report by Berkeley and Stanford states.

“They have been very helpful,” according to Hallford, who said the program has offered him assistance during financially tough times.

Hallford not only utilizes Project Rebound’s services, but is also participating in an internship there where he is creating a creative writing curriculum that will be taken into local jails. Bell described Hallford as a super student and said his situation reflects the many challenges formerly incarcerated students face.

”The kind of students that come to Rebound are the ones often times that have done the real work to know what they want to do with themselves after release from prison and they're willing to step up to the challenge,” Bell said.

Participants of the program are reaping a variety of benefits. With over a 90 percent graduation rate, they graduate nearly twice as frequently as the rest of SF State’s student body, according a 2016 article by The Atlantic. The program has also achieved an extremely low recidivism rate, at only 3 percent as of 2010, the article states.

Bell said that he is currently helping seven other California State Universities establish their own programs modeled after the one at SF State so that Project Rebound can be shared with even more students.


Jason Bell shares his personal experience adjusting to life at SF State after spending most of his twenties in prison. He discusses the challenges that formerly incarcerated people face and how Project Rebound can help.

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