Striving for a good education has its challenges for anyone, but for incarcerated students those trials and tribulations are greater. However, one incarcerated man has persevered and has become the first student to earn a Master’s of Business and Administration (MBA) degree at San Quentin State Prison in almost a decade.
“He is the first guy to receive that level of a degree since I started overseeing the education department in 2013,” said Michael Wheeless, the principal of San Quentin’s education department. Wheeless is in charge of handling educational tasks and the overall education responsibilities, plus keeping track of who receives AA degrees and BA degrees.
There are other outside correspondence colleges active at San Quentin, as well as the Prison University Project that offers face-to-face classes and awards Associate Degrees upon graduation.
“For an incarcerated person to achieve any accomplishment in education is remarkable,” Wheeless said.
“Since Proposition 57 was implemented in November of 2016, there have been plenty of instances when inmates have earned time off their sentences for achieving AA and BA degrees, but this is the first time under the San Quentin rules of Prop.57 that I’ve seen a Master’s earned.”
Smiling while leaning back in his chair and beaming proudly, Wheeless continued,
“I’m impressed with Mr. Johnson’s educational achievement, at having earned an MBA degree while incarcerated. It means even more to have earned it while in prison rather than being on the streets.”
However, Johnson is modest about earning the MBA during his prison stay. Although he received his bachelor’s degree while at another prison, the challenges there were much greater to overcome.
“I treated my prison time as if I was away at college,” Johnson said, “I did my time and did not allow the time to do me.”
Johnson took such courses as Managerial Accounting and Business Management along with a laundry list of other business classes– and emerged triumphant.
He maintained a 3.86 grade point average, earning “A’s” and “B’s,” grades that he could not imagine earning back in Woodland, California where he was born.
“When I was in the fourth grade I could not even read; I was like in what they call, “slow learning classes,” said Johnson. He was a late starter and said that he actually started learning after he got to high school.
“I was determined to learn, though,” said Johnson.
Other SQ residents stopped by to congratulate Johnson even during this interview, but he modestly accepts compliments on his achievements from his peers. His wish is that he can encourage other guys in prison to pursue their dreams like he did.
Johnson understands the challenges an incarcerated person can face while in prison. During his humbling six year prison experience, Johnson was not always on the right path to education. It was a life-altering experience with a family member that sparked his desire of higher learning.
“My first year in prison my grandmother passed away,” Johnson recalls, “Her name was Mary Rita Moncrif. She was my inspiration to do better. She raised me and when she passed, it pained me that I could not be there for the funeral.”
He somberly sank back in his seat at the memory. So, in honor of her memory, Johnson wanted to do something that would make his grandmother proud of him. For Johnson, education was the best way to show his appreciation to his grandmother for raising him.
Throughout his life, Johnson has been familiar with loss in many other situations. Due to alcoholism he lost his wife and other assets. “Now I know how to appreciate the things that really matter in life, like family and loved ones, not the material things, the superficial things.”
He credits his Aunt Elizabeth for supporting him financially and helping him achieve his education goals.
“Feels good to be the first one to achieve this milestone at San Quentin,” Johnson said.. “I encourage other guys to go ahead and do it, too.
“If the government would focus more on education instead of just locking people up, I believe that would help communities out there a lot better.”