The Free Schools of California has been a beacon of hope for disadvantaged girls since its inception.
Its founder and executive director, Jennifer Richardson, saw the need for a way to provide a high-quality education for young girls, and she began working on a project with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in 1995.
Richardson has gone on to build Free Schools into one of the largest, most well-funded educational programs in the world.
Today, Free Schools has more than 5,000 students serving over 50,000 inmates across the state.
Today Free Schools is home to a school that provides free tutoring, online learning and vocational training to all students.
While some of its graduates have chosen careers in the prison system, many more choose to attend Free Schools and earn a degree from the nonprofit institution.
Free Schools’ graduates, who are predominantly women and girls, are also often subjected to severe physical and psychological abuse by their captors.
“It’s a brutal life for these young girls,” Richardson told NPR’s Diane Rehm.
“They’re not being able to leave.
They’re trapped, they’re being forced to do these things, and the violence against them is real.
And they’re still in there.”
In the 1970s and 1980s, Free School was a place where inmates could be treated with dignity and respect, and were encouraged to seek out employment.
Today it is a beacon for many incarcerated women and young girls in the United States, as well as the world, who have been denied access to an education and other forms of social support for the past 40 years.
The United States Department of Justice has acknowledged that Free Schools “was one of several prisons where inmates were subject to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.”
In a 2014 report, the DOJ said that Free School has a “history of abusive practices against girls and women inmates, including sexual abuse and gang rapes.”
In 2015, the Department of Education said that it had identified “significant systemic and cultural problems” in Free Schools, and that “free school inmates are often physically and sexually abused and subjected to sexual assault.”
In 2016, the American Civil Liberties Union of California filed a lawsuit against Free Schools alleging that it “violated the rights of incarcerated women, children, and youth by failing to protect inmates, who may be mentally ill or physically disabled.”
“It was a really good idea,” Richardson said.
“When I was first approached to come on board, I thought, Oh, I can’t wait to see what happens.
I’m really excited to be a part of it.
Today, the Free Schools project is thriving, and it’s the only place in the state where incarcerated women are able to attend. “
There was a lot of pressure from the outside, because I had been working for years to make it work for the prisoners, and to get some of the money to pay for the school.”
Today, the Free Schools project is thriving, and it’s the only place in the state where incarcerated women are able to attend.
“We’re very proud of Free Schools,” Richardson explained.
“This is the most diverse school in the country.
We’re one of two in California that actually serves a majority of our female prisoners, with an average of 50 percent female inmates.”
The Free School project was funded through the National Institute of Justice’s (NIJ) Office of Women’s Education, which has helped create the nation’s first prison-school pilot program for girls in prisons across the country since 1994.
The pilot program, called The School for Girls, began in 1995 and is funded through grants and other resources.
It was a program that allowed incarcerated women in the US to attend school and earn the right to vote, to attend college and participate in civic activities.
The school was opened by the late, incarcerated, activist and civil rights leader, Barbara Jordan, who was convicted of murder.
Today the school operates with a budget of $2 million per year and employs over 50 teachers.
Richardson said that she would not have made it in prison if not for Jordan.
“Barbara Jordan has taught me how to fight for my rights,” Richardson recalled.
“She taught me to be proud of what I’ve done, and what I’m able to do, and I can help her fight to make sure we have more programs like this.”
Free Schools currently has more female inmates enrolled in the program than any other school in California.
In 2016 alone, more than 4,300 girls attended the school.
“For me, it was the best decision I’ve ever made,” said Michelle Williams, a Free School student who has attended the prison for the last eight years.
“I wanted to come here because I needed to know that I had options and that I could make my own choices.”
In her memoir, “No Place to Run: A True Story of Hope and Courage,” Williams said that as a young girl in California’s San Joaquin Valley, she would frequently hear her mother and grandmother say