By Juan Haines
The 2014 graduating class at San Quentin State Prison included more than a dozen inmates receiving associate degrees in social and behavioral science, humanities, American studies, business and liberal arts. In addition, Robert Tyler earned a Bachelor of Arts in business administration.
“It’s so important, the support we receive from family and prison administrators,” said Tyler, who has been taking college classes for the past 20 years. Quoting Calvin Coolidge, Tyler stressed, “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.”
The two-day ceremony also acknowledged 45 inmates who earned General Education Development (GED) diplomas, seven who received associate degrees from the privately funded Prison University Project (PUP) and an inmate who was awarded a vocational machine shop certificate.
Dozens of inmates’ families were allowed inside the prison to watch their loved ones receive recognition for completing the educational programs.
“What a wonderful day it is today. Your hard work has paid off,” said Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, the first day’s keynote speaker. “Thanks (go) to the teachers, prison administrators and family support. No one does it by himself. Everyone needs a support system. We can overcome our challenges. Keep doing the great work.”
“Thank you so much for giving nourishment in a place that sometimes could feel like a desert,” said the second day’s keynote speaker, former San Quentin inmate, Pat Mims.
“Everyone says San Quentin is a flagship for rehabilitation. We need to put the sail to the wind, and get these programs in other prisons,” continued Mims. “I want all of you to get out to better your community. Always remember, this is the start to what’s to come. I’ve walked in those hard brown shoes, those tennis shoes, that CDCR shirt. That’s not you. They do not define you. Freedom goes in steps. You’ve made a part of freedom. Keep taking those steps. As long as you keep taking the steps, you move toward upward mobility.”
“I work in the most active rehabilitative place in the United States, in the world,” said Associate Warden Steve Albritton. “It’s not how we start our race; it’s how we finish the race. For those continuing your education, I commend you. You have my full support. We can never over-educate ourselves. Education is the great equalizer.”
PUP receives its accreditation from Patten College. Thomas Stewart, Ph.D., the prison university’s president, told the graduates: “Take your degree and knowledge and use it for good.”
Stewart then made the following offer: “Each graduate is extended a scholarship to get a bachelor’s degree. The only challenge is to use it for social justice.”
Aly Tamboura, this year’s Patten valedictorian, told the audience about his journey toward a higher education. He began his incarceration at prisons where violence, despair, racial division and gangs were prevalent.
“When I heard about the college program at San Quentin, I wrote a letter to Jennifer Scaife to get in. I believe that education allows positive change. Education gives us the ability to look at life through a different lens,” said Tamboura.
Tamboura acknowledged his family in the audience and thanked them for supporting him. “This achievement is for you, mom,” he said.
“I’m so proud of my son,” Tamboura’s mother said. “I knew he could do it. I can’t wait for him to come home.”
Tamboura’s daughter, Alyssa, said, “When a person thinks about how their life’s going to turn out, you don’t think your father is going to be in prison. But my father is taking the time to better himself.”
“It’s been hard, but I’m happy that my father has found something that is his calling,” added Tamboura’s other daughter, Samantha.
Inmate John Lam, who arrived at San Quentin in 2012, earned degrees in social and behavioral science, humanities, American studies and business from Coastline Community College. “I started in Level IV and kept studying,” he said.
“I’m very happy and proud of his accomplishment,” said Lam’s mother, Denh Y. “It was no surprise. He’s very strong. It is my hope that my son will come home soon. I thank San Quentin Prison for providing the opportunity.”
Lam’s father, Sung, added, “I’m very thankful that the teachers take time to teach in prison. I hope that more teachers would volunteer to teach inmates who want to learn.”
Tommy Winfrey earned degrees on both days. His mother, Martha, traveled from Texas to see her son’s graduation. “He’s a great son. He’s in all sorts of programs and he’s done marvelous things. Sometimes it’s hard, but I come once a year. I expect him to do greater things.”
Sandy Claire is a tutor in PUP’s study hall. Claire began volunteering at San Quentin in early 2011 with the Restorative Justice program. “Volunteering at San Quentin has become an important part of my life,” Claire said. “There’s so much talent and intelligence and creativity here.”
“I saw education as a chore,” said GED valedictorian Andrew D. Sabatino. “It didn’t really hit me until I saw all my friends graduating. When I saw the prison programs, I saw hope. We have control of what and how we think. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to reshape my life.”
Phillip Brown began studying for his GED at California Men’s Colony in 2009. “I left the streets at a young age,” said Brown. “I’m the first to graduate of my brothers and sisters. I can do all things through Christ Jesus who strengthens me.”
“It’s a blessing that my husband’s received his GED in spite of the obstacles of prison,” said Brown’s wife, Janaun. “I would love for him to go to college.”
“He’s a real good dude,” inmate Greg Eskridge said of Brown. “I’ve known him about six or seven years. He’s like a little brother to me. His educational journey was a struggle. He kept telling me that he didn’t think he’d finish it. But he said he made a promise to his grandmother that he’d finish his education, and he kept his word. He has a lot of strength and he wants to better himself.”
Marcus D. Chavarria said he started studying for his GED in 2011. “Finding a quiet place to study was hard to do in prison. But getting a GED allows me to get a raise at my job,” he said. Chavarria’s job assignment is with the Prison Industry Authority. “It’s my source of income and it gives me a chance to learn a trade. Getting an education has helped me understand how to do my job better, especially the math classes. My grandkids were happy that I got my GED.”
Kenneth Cooksey, 53, received his GED and said, “It feels like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders, because everywhere I go people would throw it (the lack of a high school education) in my face.” Cooksey has been at San Quentin for seven years and it has taken him about a year, off and on, to earn his GED.
Todd “Silk” Williams, 51, from Oakland, has been incarcerated for 16 years at High Desert State Prison, California State Prison-Solano, Correctional Training Facility in Soledad and now San Quentin. What’s next? “Parole and home … put this degree to work.”
Williams’ family came from Oakland. In attendance were his two daughters, Tamara and Tangelia, nephew Eric Gilbert and sister Tracy Patterson.
“I’m very proud of him. He’s always been the smartest person I’ve known, so I’m not surprised” that he graduated, said Patterson. “No matter what has happened or transpired in his life, I’ve always been proud of him.”
Rodney Baylis, 54, said it took him four months to earn his GED. “I made it on my first try.”
Baylis is a three-striker who is not eligible to have his sentence reduced under Proposition 36. He has been incarcerated for 20 years and has done time in Soledad, Solano, Susanville and Tracy (Deuel Vocational Institution) before arriving at San Quentin.
Baylis said he took advantage of the voluntary education program (VEP) to earn his GED at San Quentin. He did this in spite of his 3 a.m. work assignment in the kitchen as a line server. “This is a good program, but you have to be the one to do it. If you show them (the instructors) interest, they will help you,” said Baylis, who is now on the waiting list to attend Patten College.
Music provided by: Reggie Austin, keyboard, Greg “Dee” Dixon, bass, Dwight Krizman, drums, Lee Jasper, guitar, Larry “Popeye” Fasion, trumpet, Jimmy Rojas, congas, and Roman Claudio, percussionist.
Color Guard: Craig R. Johnson, David Tarvin, Norfleet Stewart and Ernie Soltaro.
“I’m just glad it’s over with,” said Glenn Hill, 58. Hill said it took him about two years to complete his GED studies. He started in the GED prep program and the Reach program. Hill has also participated in GRIP, IMPACT, Breaking Barriers, No More Tears, CRI and Peer Health Education.
“I feel great. I finally finished it and got it behind me. The experience has been priceless,” said Osbun Walton, 65. Walton said he has been at San Quentin four years and it has taken him about three years to complete his GED. He has taken the GED Prep; Non-Violent Communication I, II and III; and VOEG.
Don Billington, 68, said, “I started in February this year and I’m graduating” with a GED.
San Quentin Chaplin Mardi Jackson said she’s supportive and proud of the men who graduated.
Aly Tamboura’s family:
“I’m very proud to see him complete what he started, said Tamboura’s brother Sean. “I’ve been to every prison that’s he’s been to and I live in East Texas. I always come to check out my brother, no matter where he’s at.”
“I didn’t know that prisons had these opportunities to grow,” said Tamboura family friend Lisa Rodriguez. “Under the circumstances, I’m very glad to see organizations give money and time. It’s very inspiring.”
“This is a great day. I’m really happy for him. He’s a brilliant guy,” said long-time friend Caroline Johnson. “I’m looking forward to attending his graduation for his BA after he’s paroled.”
John Lam’s family:
“He’s a very supportive brother,” said John Lam’s sister, Annie. He’s always giving us pep talks. He’s very caring and wants to do good things. I’m very proud of him. He’s very curious and wants to learn. It makes me want to learn.”
“John’s a great little brother,” Tom said. “He’s very smart. When you’re young, you make mistakes. He’s always teaching us something. This is huge.”
Robin Guillen: “Are there any peacemakers in the house?” asked Robin Guillen “As a peacemaker we learn that hurt people hurt people, heal people heal people and free people free people,” he said before playing a friendship tune on a windpipe.