The California Prison Industry Authority and The Last Mile held their first graduation ceremony at San Quentin since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020.
Over 50 residents were honored in the Feb. 8 ceremony at the Garden Chapel. Graduates were from The Last Mile’s computer coding and audio-engineering programs as well as CALPIA’s Health Facilities Maintenance, Pre-Apprentice Construction, and Furniture-making programs.
The special day was even more special because family members were in the audience, some traveling from as far away as Texas.
San Quentin’s Acting-Warden Oak Smith gave the first speech. “I want to thank all the family members for being here — your support is what drives them,” he said.
To the graduates, he said, “You have taken an important step on your journey, don’t stop now … keep challenging yourself to be the best you. There have been and will continue to be challenges to your success. When those challenges come, remember today and that you can accomplish anything you set your mind to.”
Next was CALPIA’s general manager, William “Bill” Davidson. “You took control of your situation in a very positive way,” he said. “I congratulate and recognize you for that. As you return to your communities, be good husbands, fathers, friends, neighbors.”
Rickey Nolan, a Health Facilities Maintenance graduate, said the ceremony was unlike anything he had ever experienced before.
He said he feels hopeful after successfully completing the 2,000 hours of apprenticeship to earn his certificate. “Now when I get out,” he added, “I don’t have to rely on just one thing, I have multiple choices.”
One of the speakers was Last Mile graduate Ricardo Romero, who distinguished himself by completing both computer coding and the audio-engineering programs.
Before turning his life around in prison, he said he was “more comfortable at failing than succeeding because I became great at quitting. I quit on my family, my community, and myself.”
Yet he added, “Who we are today is not by chance — it’s because of our accomplishments, it’s because we didn’t quit, it’s because we believed in ourselves and each other.”
Last Mile graduates had high praise for program staff. “They treat you like a human being, not like a convict,” said graduate Charles Robinson. “They do that unconditionally, and that’s why this program works.”
One of those staff is Katy Gilbert, an in-person classroom facilitator. “I feel truly honored to be part of their growth …. Some of them had never even touched a computer before and are now making websites,” she said.
The Last Mile started in 2012 at The Q and is now in over a dozen locations across the nation.
Last Mile alumnus Chris Schumacher was at the event. Thanks to The Last Mile, he launched a successful career in tech after his parole.
“There are opportunities waiting,” he said. “The work that you put in now will pay off in the future. There’s a Last Mile community out here waiting.”
One member of that Last Mile community in the waiting is Kevin Kelly, a “returned-citizen advocate” for the program, who was the last speaker at the event.
“I’m so proud of each and every one of you guys,” he said.
He explained that his journey from being first arrested at the age of nine to being homeless, addicted, incarcerated, and eventually paroled was not easy. “The real work begins when you walk out that gate,” he said, adding that if he could find sobriety and success, so could they.
For the new audio engineering program, it was the first-ever cohort of graduates.
“I’m humbled that I got to be a part of an amazing class and experience music in a new light,” said graduate Kevin Rojano. “This program has helped me … to do more with my life and time to acquire the skill I need to be successful.”
Graduates were met with boisterous cheers, friendly callouts, and beaming smiles as they were called up one-by-one to receive their certificates.
As Last Mile graduate Lawrence Cox-Davis walked to the stage, his sister jumped up and shouted out with pride, “I love that man!”
Afterwards, graduates soaked up the moment. Many of them were amazed to be relaxing with their loved ones outside of a visiting room or to be reunited after far too long apart.
Amidst the hugs and occasional tears of joy, one mother could be heard saying, “Wow, look at this! This is really nice.”