Butler is a founding member of Pitzer’s Inside-Out Pathway-to-BA program
Claremont, Calif. (April 27, 2022–updated June 22, 2022)—Pitzer College student Kenneth Butler ’22, who pursued his Pitzer degree through Inside-Out courses while incarcerated in a medium-security prison, has been awarded a 2022–23 Fulbright US Student Program grant to study the lives of men released from a maximum-security prison in Uganda. Butler, one of the College’s 14 Fulbright awardees so far this year, is the first formerly incarcerated student from Pitzer to win a Fulbright. He served 15 years before being paroled in June 2021.
“I am about to spend 10 months in Uganda as a cultural ambassador for the United States,” Butler said. “Never in my wildest dreams would I have believed it possible.”
Butler, 47, first learned about Uganda’s prison system in an Inside-Out course he took in spring 2021. Built on a model developed at Temple University and overseen by the Justice Education Initiative of The Claremont Colleges, Inside-Out classes bring “inside” incarcerated students and “outside” campus-based students together to take the same college classes with the same professors in the same classroom.
Butler studied the low recidivism rates at Luzira Upper Prison in Kampala, Uganda, in an Inside-Out course called Carceral State in Comparative Perspective, taught by Pitzer Professor of Political Studies Nigel Boyle.
Boyle says Butler, a former gang member who participated in a 1992 agreement between gangs in Los Angeles that became known as the Watts Truce, is one of the biggest student success stories in recent memory.
“Thirty years after he was a junior participant in the famous Watts Truce, Kenny Butler has become one of the most decorated students in Pitzer history,” said Boyle, who was a driving force behind the College’s initiative to establish Inside-Out classes at The Claremont Colleges and Pitzer’s Inside-Out Pathway-to-BA program. “In the intervening years, he was mostly incarcerated, and he was also a leading figure in the Crips. But he was changed by his religious faith and his Pitzer education, and a life derailed is now spectacularly on the academic fast track.”
Butler’s Fulbright research will explore how the educational, athletic, and social networks inside the walls of Luzira Upper Prison help men reintegrate into society after they are released from prison. He will also examine why the under-resourced Ugandan prison system has a lower recidivism rate than the US, which spends more than $80 billion a year on mass incarceration, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
“I think the US may have a lot to learn from a different approach to incarceration and recidivism,” Butler wrote in his Fulbright application. “My investigation of the lives of those who have been through the Ugandan carceral system is the first step on that path.”
Butler’s collegiate academic journey started with correspondence courses in 2015. When he was transferred to the California Rehabilitation Center (CRC) in Norco, CA, in 2018, he signed up for Inside-Out classes, initially “just to break up the monotony of daily life in prison.”
He didn’t know that outside students and professors from The Claremont Colleges would be coming into the prison for the classes. Those courses, with 12 inside students and 12 outside students sharing a classroom at the CRC, made “an indelible mark on my life,” he said. He estimates he took more than 15 Inside-Out classes from 2018 through 2021.
Recognized as a leader, Butler was asked to join the Inside-Out Think Tank—composed of inside students who advise program administrators—and advocated creating a way for incarcerated students to earn credits toward a Pitzer degree, which became Pitzer’s groundbreaking Inside-Out Pathway-to-BA program. He also took classes through Norco College’s Prison Partnership Program and ultimately earned an Associate Degree for Transfer from the community college, which he applied toward his BA degree at Pitzer.
An organizational studies major, Butler served as a representative in Pitzer’s Student Senate while he was an inside student, making him the first currently incarcerated student to participate in Pitzer’s student government. After being paroled in summer 2021, Butler took classes on campus in fall 2021, joined the Student Senate curriculum committee, and became an Institute for Global/Local Action & Study fellow.
Boyle encouraged Butler to apply for a Fulbright and other post-graduate awards and opportunities. On April 9, Butler and Pitzer senior Benjamin Sievers ’22, who had been an “outside” student in the Carceral State in Comparative Perspective course, received Napier Awards for Creative Leadership from the Napier Initiative.
Butler won the Napier to establish a peace and reconciliation program to bring together formerly incarcerated people whose lives have been impacted by gang culture. Almost exactly 30 years after the Watts Truce, Butler will participate in the inaugural conference of the Justice Education Initiative, which is being held in commemoration of the Watts Truce, on April 28 and 29.
One of Butler’s goals for his Fulbright research—and for the rest of his life as an activist-scholar—is to be “a voice for the voiceless.”
“Many scholars speak as experts on people and issues in spaces I occupy,” Butler wrote in his Fulbright application. “The subject population is not given a voice.”
As a man who once faced a life sentence without the possibility of parole, Butler says the way his life has changed since he took his first Inside-Out class at the CRC sometimes doesn’t seem real. Less than a week after being awarded a Fulbright, he learned that he had been accepted into Cal Poly Pomona’s master’s program in public administration. In May, he will don a cap and gown to walk in Pitzer’s 2022 Commencement ceremony.
In his Fulbright application, Butler wrote that before his educational journey, he was a man “with a lot of information but no purpose.”
“Now, I am a man with a drive to succeed at the highest levels of academia and, along the way, serve as a ‘cultural ambassador’ who represents the redemptive quality of higher education.”
UPDATE: KABC-TV Los Angeles aired an interview with Kenneth Butler on May 14, 2022, the day he walked across Pitzer’s commencement stage to receive his diploma.
UPDATE: NPR aired an interview with Kenneth Butler on June 21, 2022, about his educational journey from receiving a dictionary in a prison cell to earning several distinguished fellowships.