The mark of a champion is turning tragedy into triumph. 14 incarcerated men, new champions, marched down the aisle wearing black caps and gowns to standing applause in a packed visiting room at the 2017 Prison University Project graduation.
The Prison University Project (PUP) provides men incarcerated in San Quentin State Prison an opportunity to earn an associate’s degree, tuition free, under the tutelage of professors.
A 2013 Rand study shows that educating incarcerated people significantly reduces recidivism.
“The reduction in recidivism saves the state money. California and this nation are better off thanks to PUP,” said the valedictorian, Angel Falcone. “This program would not be successful without the hard work of all the volunteers. You care more about our future success than our past failures. PUP gave me my first second chance.”
Falcone joked that graduating brought more joy than anything, except maybe dating Rihanna.
The Honorable Judge Steve White of Sacramento County gave the keynote address congratulating these men, like the many men he used to sentence to prison.
Justice White told a story about meeting a 23-year-old Hispanic gang member about to parole. He asked the young man what he thought he was going to do when he went home and the man answered, “I guess go to prison.”
“Because his mother, father, uncle, cousins went to prisons, he had a world without perceived possibilities,” Justice White said. “He didn’t believe he had the character and discipline to do better. As you know from achieving your degree, you have to have the smarts and the horsepower, but more than that, you need the discipline and strength of character to make it happen.”
“This day is an accumulation of sacrifice, hard work, family support, love, a willingness not to give up and a wife that puts up with me”
After the judge finished speaking, host Phil Melendez, an incarcerated man, joked, “Thanks your honor. I never thought I’d say thank you, your honor.”
Executive Director of PUP Jody Lewen, Ph.D., beamed, like a proud parent, as graduates George “Mesro” Coles-El and Troy Phillips recited poems for the audience.
Coles-El recited a poem about the periodic table of elements, called the Human Element, and Phillips recited Man Cries. Phillips described finding his voice in PUP.
“I’ve never been good at expressing my emotions,” Phillips said just before reciting his poem. “I was in a creative writing class that told me I could write it down.”
Phillips also uses the organization skills he learned in PUP in his work as vice-president of the self-help group Alliance for Change.
Aaqilah Islam, Ph.D., who taught Phillips, said, “Troy sat in the first row. He applied the material well, not just to get a good grade, but to improve his life.”
Islam volunteers her time to teach incarcerated men. “I believe in the potential of change because of my own experience with education. It gave me a community. I’m contributing to a legacy and I get to work with folks I admire.” said Islam.
President Thomas Stewart, Ph.D. says PUP was the first higher-learning program in a California prison where the students learn from instructors in person.
“I think it’s great that there are correspondence courses where that’s all that’s available, but I don’t think learning can fully happen without access to conversation and exposure to other people’s ideas,” said PUP’s Amy Jamgochian, Ph.D. “I think education is about civic engagement. It says to society that people are citizens and deserve the rights of citizenship.”
As a teenager growing up in San Francisco, Shadeed Wallace-Stepter chased the allure of the streets over sitting in a classroom. At 35, the graduate now understands the value of education. He has a TEDx talk on YouTube called The New American Hustle, where he shares how the skills he learned selling drugs can be applied to legal entrepreneurial endeavors.
“He’s the first college graduate of my five sons,” said Lateefah Ali-Robinson, Wallace-Stepter’s mother. “It means that my gene pool is strong and what I gave him is going to manifest into something great.”
Graduate William Blackwell also realized the importance of education in prison.
“I wasn’t interested in school on the street,” he said. “Now I realize education is more important than having street knowledge to be a success in society as a whole.”
Brothers Eddie, 42, and Emile DeWeaver, 38, graduated together before their family members.
“I’m so honored, blessed and excited about the future for them,” said their aunt, Evanglist Candace Hunter.
Volunteer teacher Hiba Fakhri gets off work, takes a quick nap, comes into San Quentin to teach, then takes a nap and goes to work again. Seeing the men graduate made her feel it’s worth it.
“I do this because I feel like this community is so marginalized, so starved for education that they need it the most so they will make better decisions later on in life,” Fakhri said. “It’s to society’s benefit.”
Algebra teacher Susannah Raub started teaching in a prison because, “I wanted to do something to address issues around criminal justice and I keep coming back for the students. They are dedicated and really fun.”
The complete graduating class of PUP 2017 included: William Blackwell, Peter Bommerito, Isiah Caldwell, Chris Deragon, Eddie and Emile DeWeaver, Angel Falcone, Shawn Garth, Sam Hearnes, Eddie Herena, George “Mesro” Coles-El, Troy Phillips, Ruben Ramirez and Shadeed Wallace-Stepter.
“This day is an accumulation of sacrifice, hard work, family support, love, a willingness not to give up and a wife that puts up with me,” Deragon said as he sat with his wife, mother, aunt, uncle, cousin and friends seated around him
Deragon’s mom, Vickie, said, “I’m proud, just proud. It’s taken a lot of time, a lot of hard work and knowing he stuck to it through some very trying times — I’m just proud.”