Gunner Johnson discovered Project Rebound while working as a clerk in the law center at the Federal Correctional Institution in Sheridan, Oregon. He held to the idea to continue his education through the California State University program following his release.
It was a circuitous route from prison to higher education for Johnson, influenced, on more than one occasion, by his proximity to the Sacramento State campus.
The son of two Sac State professors, Johnson received many a lecture on the importance of education. As a young man, Johnson was the target of an armed robbery less than five miles from campus off Fair Oaks Blvd., during which a friend was killed.
Johnson dealt with residual pain and survivor’s guilt through the use of opioid painkillers before being incarcerated for a robbery – his third strike. Now, after serving 15 years, Johnson finds himself in the master’s program for sociology at Sac State.
Project Rebound was started in 1967 at San Francisco State University by Professor of Criminology and Sociology John Irwin as a means of helping the formerly incarcerated navigate higher education.
Following Gov. Gavin Newsom’s 2019 budget signing, Project Rebound is slated to receive $3.3 million in state funding across nine campuses. The governor’s initial budget proposal set aside $250,000 for the program. According to CSU, seven additional schools have expressed interest in adopting it.
Budget committee chairman and author of the Budget Act of 2019, Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, cited the funding as both a fiscal and social investment for California.
“We’ve been looking for different rehabilitation programs that, frankly, have worked. We know that if we can honestly rehabilitate a former inmate we can save hundreds of thousands to millions in costs for the state down the road,” Ting said.
According to a 2012 report by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 63.7 % of those released from California’s prison system return within three years.
Data provided by Project Rebound shows that since its expansion in 2016 its graduates have maintained a 0% recidivism rate.
Services provided by Project Rebound have grown to include assistance in attending conferences and social events, liaison services between students and parole officers, prison outreach, as well as academic advising.
For Johnson, assistance from the program came in navigating the online application process.
“I had been incarcerated for 15 years, didn’t understand computers. Technology was really foreign to me. My brother gave me an iPhone when I got out. It just blew my mind,” Johnson said.
According to Jennifer Leahy, Project Rebound director at Fresno State, the expansion schools follow the model created by SF State, while attempting to personalize the program to each campus and student.
It’s a task Leahy said requires a great deal of networking.
“It’s critical. I can’t afford to have a psychiatrist, and a drug and alcohol counselor, and a marriage, family and child counselor, a food bank and a lawyer. Nobody can,” Leahy said.
“There are so many resources within the community and what we try to do is identify them so we can bring them all together in one place, so we’re like a one-stop shop of resources for our students.”
Andrew Winn, Sacramento State director for Project Rebound, said students and faculty of multiple campuses took the initiative in petitioning lawmakers for state funding with assistance from CSU Advocacy and State Relations (ASR.)
“We could’ve allowed the chancellors’ office to do it, but for the amount of money we were asking for it was really important that we all took a bigger role. We couldn’t just rest on other people doing it for us,” Winn said.
“No complaints about ASR or anything else, but we were just really worried about the future of this program.”
Johnson petitioned legislators by writing grants and proposals before testifying at the Capitol on the program’s behalf.
“Before I think we would have been dismissed – maybe eight or 10 years ago. Now they really want to know what our experience is like, and it seems like our voice has some value,” Johnson said.
Winn said that the support of Assemblymen Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, and Jose Medina, D-Riverside, was instrumental in securing the funding for Project Rebound.
Medina witnessed the correlation between education and opportunity while working as an educator at the California Institute for Women in the mid ‘70s.
“They took it seriously. I realized the connection between a lack of education and people who commit crimes. On the flip side, there’s a great connection with people who are able to pursue education and a lack of recidivism,” Medina said.
According to the chancellor’s office, the CSUs will receive state funding after a review of recently submitted budgets and operational plans for each of the nine campuses taking part in Project Rebound.
Johnson says that there is still a great need for assistance for those reentering society and that education and opportunity are invaluable to those individuals.
“We can’t ignore the human cost of what people have gone through with incarceration. We’ve made mistakes, but those mistakes shouldn’t define us for the rest of our lives. Especially if we’re willing to put the work in to better ourselves,” Johnson said.
This story is part of a collaborative project between McClatchy and seniors in the journalism program at Sacramento State University. For more information about the program, or to send a message, visit facebook.com/sacstatejournalism.