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Home » 25 Inmates From California State Prison Graduate And Receive A Bachelor’s Degree – A First Of Its Kind

25 Inmates From California State Prison Graduate And Receive A Bachelor’s Degree – A First Of Its Kind


For many people, a prison sentence also spells the end of living a good life. This was where they would serve out the rest of their lives, and if they do get out, they would have to live with the stigma of being an inmate for the rest of their lives.

However, going to prison doesn’t mean that you need to be stuck. A total of 25 inmates from California State Prison decided that they could do something better and make a name for themselves while being stuck behind bars. They chose to live their lives despite the circumstances.

A prison yard lies 70 miles away from Cal State LA’s campus. In here, the well-respected university celebrated its newest graduates, the first of their batch. While the school has been around for years, they’ve never had students who matriculated from behind bars.

A total of 25 incarcerated men received their first bachelor’s degrees. They arranged a commencement ceremony at California State Prison, Los Angeles County in Lancaster. The even took place just recently and this marked the culmination of a journey that’s like no other. What makes this so special is the fact that the graduates, however unique they may be, reclaimed their power back and worked hard for a much better future despite the limitations they faced.

“Today, an education to me, means freedom, redemption, and opportunity,” graduate Dara Yin spoke during his student address at that time. He further said, “The freedom to create better lives. A redeeming quality in the sense that we can step out of an identity that was destructive and into the person our mothers always meant for us to be. The opportunity to show that we are not our worst decisions, that we crave to be a part of the larger society so that we can put to use our unique combination of lived experience and education.”

Cal State LA’s Prison B.A. Graduation Initiative is the first in-person bachelor’s degree completion program designed for students who had been incarcerated in California. This began in 2016 and it came with the support from President Barack Obama’s Second Chance Pell federal pilot program. The program is also supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Through this, the inmates involved earned a Bachelor of Arts in Communication. They focused on organizational communication.

During the graduation, the students had worn black caps and gowns over their blue prison uniforms. The October 5 outdoor ceremony was held on the yard of the prison’s progressive programming facility (PPF). For those unfamiliar with it, PPF is a voluntary program that houses men who had managed to demonstrate good conduct and a dedication to personal growth during their time behind bars.

A group of family and friends of the graduates gathered with officials from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and Cal State LA faculty, staff, and administrators. They were all there to celebrate this wonderful time with everyone.

“I am struck by the resilience and dedication you have demonstrated as you embarked on your educational journey,” Cal State LA Provost and Executive Vice President Jose A. Gomez said as he spoke to the graduates. He further inspired them by saying, “You didn’t give up, you didn’t quit. I speak for everyone at Cal State LA – the faculty, staff, administrators, alumni, and our community – when I say that we are so proud of you.”

Cal State LA Newsroom

Professor David Olsen was the chair of the Department of Communication Studies. He was also the emcee for the ceremony. The event gave way to touching speeches and performances from the graduates, as well as statements made by CDCR leaders.

“This program is so unique—it is one of the only of its kind in the country and the nation has been watching you,” Brant Choate, director for CDCR’s Division of Rehabilitative Programs, said. He further stated, “Because of your efforts, you have set the stage and example that this works. This opportunity is going to be available to thousands in the future in California and across the country. Thank you for all you’ve done.”

Choate said that there also would possibly be an expansion of prison education programs. This came after a move by the federal government to allow incarcerated students to apply for federal Pell Grants that allowed them finance for higher education. During the ceremony, five of the graduates performed a piece they wrote, directed, choreographed, and rehearsed. This was overseen by Cal State LA Professor Kamran Afary, who had guided them all throughout.

The performance was entitled When I Becomes We [Ubuntu]. In it, the men made use of spoken word, rhythmic language, and movement as an expression of their personal growth, transformation, and experiences as they completed their studies despite being stuck in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Afary was a proud mentor as he became a part of the audience. “I am overjoyed and so emotional today,” shared Afary. He was one of the 15 faculty members in the Department of Communication Studies who became teachers during the inmates’ time in the program. “It’s been a wonderful journey and an honor to have been able to watch them grow.”

State LA’s pioneering prison education initiative drew on expertise from across the university. This project was a collaboration between the university’s Center for Engagement, Service, and the Public Good, the Department of Communication Studies in the College of Arts and Letters, and the College of Professional and Global Education.

In July of this year, the first nine graduates from Cal State LA’s Prison B.A. Graduation Initiative also took part in commencement ceremonies on the Cal State LA campus. The participants either had their life sentences commuted by Gov. Jerry Brown or Gov. Gavin Newsom or were released because of the changes that took place in the law.

There were also men released who attended Tuesday’s ceremony. They went back to Lancaster to watch their friends and former classmates earn their respective degrees. This was Tin Nguyen’s first time going back to the yard since his release last December 2019. When he came back and saw the gates of his former prison last Tuesday, he said that he felt like hurling. However, things changed quickly for him as his anxiety became elation when he witnessed everyone. Under bright sunshine and blue skies, he finally felt happiness at seeing his friends and their accomplishments. This was a feat that they all had conquered

“Look at us now,” Nguyen said when he saw his former inmates. “We are transformed men—assets to society both in here and out there. I am proud of them and so amazed at how far we have come.”

Cal State LA’s B.A. program was designed to properly equip the students, men who are incarcerated and were formerly incarcerated, with skills such as critical thinking capacity, public speaking abilities, and writing. These experiences have given way to wonderful transformations on the people involved.

“Other schools prepare you to execute a task,” said Samuel Nathaniel Brown. He was one of the graduates who had recently earned a degree. He explained, “This school prepared us to change the world.”

Brown co-founded the Anti-Violence, Safety, and Accountability Project (ASAP) with his wife Jamilia Land. The project’s goal is to dismantle systemic racism and end the cycle of violence in different communities. Brown had also been incarcerated for over two decades. After his experience, he will also become the thirteenth student in Cal State LA’s prison education program to be released from behind bars.

During the ceremony, Brown and his contemporaries crossed the stage in their caps and gowns. This time, they walked with pride as their names were called to get their diploma. Gomez congratulated the Class of 2021 and asked them to finally shift the tassels on their caps from the right to the left. This symbolized their transition to university graduates. Of the 25 names called, two had not been there. This was simply because they had been transferred to another facility at that time.

By the end of fall, a total of 37 incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students in Cal State LA’s B.A. program would have completed their bachelor’s degrees. Some have even enrolled and took further studies, giving them a chance to earn a master’s degree programs in communication studies and counseling. The others have also started businesses or are giving back to communities through nonprofit organizations they have helped grow and develop. The point is, they’re now working hard to make their world a better place.

At the closing of his remarks, Yin pleaded with his fellow graduates. He told them to consider their degrees as just the start of their journey to further growth. “Imagine what else we could do? Find the answers to poverty? Homelessness? Help rebuild our K-12 schools? Put an end to kids joining gangs,” Yin pleaded. “Impossible? Not if you ask us. Imagine if those answers are here among the incarcerated – among those that have changed and reclaimed their positive standing in society. Imagine that it starts today.”