While he was locked up, Bell asked about continuing his education, but discovered the system didn’t offer much beyond the high-school level. Eventually, he found a prison-correspondence program through Ohio University, earned about 25 credits, and was able to transfer to SF State after his release. Now, with a bachelor’s and a master’s under his belt, he’s running Project Rebound. “I knew what it did for me, and I didn’t want to see it fold,” he said, of taking over after Irwin’s departure.
Every Project Rebound student’s experience is different. There are no required weekly meetings or courses, so it’s hard to pin down exactly why students who go through it are so successful. But the gist is that students have support wherever and whenever they need it. Bell and a few others help students as needs arise. They answer letters from people still in prison about how to transfer in. They liaise with the admissions office to help shepherd applicants through the admissions process. (While Bell says Project Rebound students must apply and be admitted like any other student, he works with the school to identify people who may not have traditional resumes but who might be successful students.) They show men who have spent 30 years behind bars how to set up email accounts and submit coursework online. They serve as mentors. They provide food vouchers, transportation stipends, and money for books. Sometimes they help with housing. They keep in touch with alumni who have gone on to launch successful businesses and might be willing to hire other graduates. Mostly, they serve as a constant source of support and a reminder to students that they are capable of success.
On the day I visited Project Rebound’s office, Bell was fielding calls from nervous students about required forms and deadlines to select classes. School was starting the following day, and the 30 or so new program participants weren’t entirely sure what to expect. Bell answered them all calmly but firmly. No excuses, but no prejudgments or stereotypes either.
“They have a lot to say,” Bell said, of the students, who so often were overlooked by counselors and others as teenagers. Grown men have collapsed into tears in his office, he said, when they finally realize they can earn degrees. “They thought something was wrong with them,” he said.
Chris Bettinger, an associate professor of sociology at the school who has taught a number of Project Rebound students, said he appreciates the different perspectives the students bring to everything from math exercises to discussions of the works of the economist John Maynard Keynes. “There’s a myth that math is about talent,” he said. “But it’s really about work. Those guys put in the work.”
Around 140 students have graduated through Project Rebound since Bell took over in 2005. But those numbers stand to go up because Bell is spearheading a statewide effort to bring similar projects to seven other colleges in the California State University system. Bell has also advised schools like Rutgers University in New Jersey on how to start programs for formerly incarcerated students. The expansion is part of a larger nationwide pledge by colleges across the United States and the Obama administration to reduce barriers to higher education for people with criminal records.