On a sunny June morning over- looking the bay, 12 incarcerated scholars were honored at the 2019 Prison University Project (PUP) graduation. University instructors, staff, classmates and family of the graduates gathered in San Quentin’s main visiting room to celebrate the conferring of Associate of Arts degrees in liberal arts to the men in blue.
As “Pomp and Circumstance” sounded, the 2019 graduates began their procession, and PUP Board Chair Maddy Russell-Shapiro’s eyes were already welling up with tears.
“One of the things I love about PUP is that the students are going to become a growing body to represent the carceral state and represent the truth of what’s really going on in here,” she said.
“This is an achievement we all can be proud of,” said valedictorian Tommy “Shakur” Ross.
He described to the audience the research project he did in one of his PUP courses. “I am most proud of this work because it altered my worldview about women, igniting the initial spark that led to my identity as a feminist.
“Now who would’ve thought that I, a former full-fledged, hard-core, misogynistic gangbanger, would be writing papers on feminist theory? But here I am!”
The alluring calls of a higher education resonate within the walls of this prison
Ross thanked his family, including his fiancée, “She has been my inspiration.”
“I’ve seen him become more of a critical thinker,” said Ross’ fiancée, Adrienne Skye Roberts, after the ceremony. “He’s always been hardworking and disciplined.”
Graduate Matthew Nguyen’s family was also in attendance.
“I’m so happy my son finished college!” said San Nguyen, Matthew’s father. “I believe his future will be very good.”
Matthew translated in Vietnamese for the San Quentin News interview with his father, who was dressed in a suit and tie for the occasion. San Nguyen said his son looked very handsome in his cap and gown. “This is my first time attending a college graduation,” he said. “It’s very emotional.”
“I’m really proud of him,” said Matthew’s sister Martha Nguyen. She said that before her brother was incarcerated, the two of them went to college together.
“I had no idea about the Prison University Project,” she said, “I’m thankful Matt had the opportunity to get his degree.”
“Even though he did something bad, he turned his life around,” said Matthew’s mother, Theresa Nguyen.
“I’m overwhelmed,” she said during the post-ceremony celebration, “just trying to take everything in.”
Matthew’s niece Jessica and nephew Brian were also celebrating the graduation. Brian said his uncle’s accomplishments in college at San Quentin inspired him to excel in high school, where he graduated the week before.
Graduate Timothy Young’s family also attended the graduation. “It’s a huge accomplishment!” said his sister-in-law Anjeanette Young. “I’m very proud of Tim and everything he’s learned on his journey.”
“The college program changed my life and the way I see the world,” said Timothy Young, “It opened doors, and I have more hope for my future.”
“He’s very humble, and he doesn’t start trouble,” said Tim’s brother Clifton Young. “He’s 100% genuine,” added their sister Sandra Webb.
“People are capable of becoming better than their worst moments,” said key- note speaker Kenneth Hartman, development coordinator and prison programs specialist at the Catalyst Foundation. He was incarcerated for 38 years with an LWOP (Life Without Parole) sentence until he received a sentence commutation from Gov. Jerry Brown and was released in December of 2017.
“People outside are not waiting to throw rocks at you when you get out,” Hartman said. “I have not had a single negative encounter with a single person out there.”
“I attribute my success to all the instructors and tutors who treated me as the student they knew I could become,” said graduate Sumit Lal to PUP Development and Communications Director Lauren Hall in an interview. Lal is the youngest member of the graduating class.
“I’ve seen such a tremen- dous change in him. He’s made such a big change in such a small time,” said Lal’s brother, who attended the ceremony. Lal paroled from San Quentin just days after his graduation.
“Me sentí muy emocionado, contento porque fui capaz de lograr algo que cambiará toda mi vida,” (I felt very excited, happy be- cause I was able to accomplish something that will change my whole life), said graduate Juan Espinosa, de- scribing the ceremony. He said that learning English, his second language, at the same time was difficult and sometimes frustrating—but worth the effort.
PUP’s mission is to provide excellent higher education to those at San Quentin, to support increased access to higher education for incarcerated people, and to stimulate public awareness about higher education access and criminal justice.
Louis Calvin, Nythell Collins, James Evans, Jose Luis Lopez, Corey McNeil, Jerry Smith and Kamsan Suon rounded out the dozen graduates of PUP’s class of 2019.
“Congratulations to all the graduates!” said Jody Lewen, Ph.D., Executive Director of PUP, after the degrees were conferred. “It’s not possible to describe the dedication to the unbelievable work you do.” Director Lewen acknowledged the extraordinary teachers, staff, Board of Directors, donors and tutors. “We couldn’t do everything you see here today without you.”