"Former gang members make incredible students. The same skills that made me a good drug-dealer — resiliency, hustle, determination — I now use on campus to succeed in school," Jesse Fernandez tells the audience attending our panel discussion at this year's Gang Prevention and Intervention Conference in Long Beach.
I was on stage with Jessie as co-moderator for the first education-focused panel in the conference's history. (The Michelson 20MM Foundation convened the panel, tapping Jesse, Taffany Lim of California State University, Los Angeles, and Brittany Morton of Homeboy Industries to share their experiences.) Only 25, he has come a long way from the gang life he once knew. Today, he interns for Homeboy Industries, helping other students on their path to college, has finished an associate's program in Los Angeles, and has studied abroad at the Oxford University. He may not look like a typical college student, but he speaks with the certainty and eloquence of someone who has been in school for years.
"College means hope. It means understanding your identity. For me, it was learning about my indigenous heritage, what it means to be Chicano, and how my community has been affected by violence and loss."
I first met Jessie over a lunch of chilaquiles (with salsa verde) and agua fresca (Angela's Green Potion is a "do not miss") at Homegirl Café, an L.A. staple since the 1990s. The café is run by former gang members and offers a safe space for people coming out of prison, providing many of them with their first job, creating a pipeline to sustainable employment. It's so popular that Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and other politicians on the national stage have stopped in for a bite while in town.
Jesse is one of thousands of justice-involved students attending college in California. The exact number is unknown, as public colleges in the state do not require the disclosure of a criminal history. Many students choose to self-identify in order to take advantage of resources specific to the justice-involved population. Others, says Morton, academic program coordinator for Homeboy, are still trying to overcome the perceived "stigma" of having been incarcerated.
"Imagine getting released from prison after twenty-plus years on the inside, and you've never used a computer before. Then you get to campus, and every form, assignment, and application is online. It's intimidating for people and there is a lot of shame connected to these experiences."
It's estimated that 53 percent of formerly incarcerated people have a high school diploma or GED, yet fewer than 5 percent have completed college (Vera Institute of Justice). Persistence in postsecondary education is fraught with challenges, especially for non-traditional students. The typical formerly incarcerated person has served more than two years in prison, has at least one minor child, and is over the age of 30. In the year after their release, they earn around $9,000 in wages. A year of community college in California costs around $10,000, putting postsecondary opportunities squarely out of reach for most people who have served time.
Making a Difference
That's where peer-led organizations like Homeboy Industries, Project Rebound, and Underground Scholars come into play. All three not only provide a physical space and financial resources to help justice-involved students graduate, they also cultivate a sense of belonging and deserving that stretches far beyond campus.
"The first thing people think when they hear about college opportunities for 'felons' is, why?" says Morton. "Why waste your resources on people who have messed up time and time again. Why focus on college when people with a criminal record can't even find jobs or stable housing. Why? My response is always, why not? Why not give people who have been let down by our education system a first chance at success? Why not help them become leaders, change-makers, peer mentors. Why not give them a sense of hope that they can strive higher and make an impact."
What's more, the programs have proven to be successful — for students, colleges, and even for taxpayers. Initial outcomes data demonstrates that programs for justice-involved students help keep students enrolled, out of incarceration, and on a path to economic stability. They also save money. For every $1 invested in correctional education, there is a resulting $4 to $5 return in avoided costs from reduced recidivism and increased employment rates.
While California has led the country in providing resources to justice-involved students, we still have a long way to go. Recent legislative efforts in Sacramento have helped catalyze a new push for expanded postsecondary opportunities. If enacted by the state legislature, the Smart Justice Student Fund would provide an additional $25 million to community colleges in support of justice-involved students both on campus and in prison.
This winter, Jesse Fernandez will be continuing his education at the University of California, Berkeley, where he hopes to major in Chicano Studies. He says he has already connected with other students on campus who were formerly incarcerated — and that has made it "easier to imagine the day-to-day of being a full-time college student at a place like Berkeley." In a few years, Jesse will be part of a new generation of justice-impacted college students who strive to become leaders and visionaries in the fight for criminal justice reform in the United States. The first step is helping the public understand that people who are incarcerated deserve opportunities to better themselves above and beyond the limitations and barriers our systems have placed on them.
Allison Berger is program officer for the Michelson 20MM Foundation's Smart Justice program.