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Ed. Magazine

Outside Chance

Noel Gomez

After years in and around the criminal justice system, students find that their best hope for staying off the streets and in school is to get support, especially from other students who are making the same transition.


noel gomez

He's a community college counselor who specializes in students more conventionally known as "lost causes." They come from the streets, from drug addiction, from juvenile halls, and prisons. And, like Noel Gomez, Ed.M.'06, their lives started in poverty in communities that share more in common with war-torn developing nations than most people's notions of America. Some of them are one strike shy of life in prison. Others have never known an adult life outside the criminal justice system. College was the last place any of them expected to end up.

Yet there they were on a cloudless day in January in a conference room with the hint of an ocean view on the campus of Santa Barbara City College (SBCC), swapping heartbreaking stories but still laughing, still inspired to move forward. Gomez is one of the key reasons these people showed up at all. A native of Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles, he grew up in the gang capital of America in the turbulent early 1990s. His cousins were members of one of largest, most powerful gangs in the region. But Gomez, 26, had to cross two turfs to get to school.

"If I'd pled allegiance to any of these gangs, I would have been dead in two or three days," he says.

So he stayed out, got through high school, and against the advice of a school counselor, applied -- and got accepted -- to the University of California, Santa Barbara.

"I just wanted to get out," he says, wiping away the tears, "but at the same time, solve all these problems."

He can still hardly believe he got into Harvard, let alone graduated with a master's. But Gomez's journey is what inspired these students to take what for them was a terrifying leap of faith and join SBCC's six-week summer program called Transitions.

There, Gomez and others teach them how to navigate the campus, how to write essays, and read a syllabus, but also how to build trust, how to stay out of trouble, how to believe in themselves.

"A lot of these students were individuals the school system failed years ago," he says. So he doesn't chide them if they slip back into their old habits, get arrested, or disappear. Instead, when they do show up, Gomez tells them, "As long as you're still here, that's all that matters."

In its first two years, Transitions has proven a spectacular success. Nearly all the students who participated in the summer enrolled in the fall semester and about half continued into the spring. They say they come back for the relationships they forged and the extraordinary sense of achievement that every day on campus brings them. Most striking, though, is the fact that they all graduate from Transitions with more hope than any of them have known in their lives.

"I rely on this program like it's my life," says one of Gomez's students, Tia Macias, a recovering addict now studying to be a drug and alcohol counselor. "It is my life."

Transitions is modest as so-called "re-entry" programs go. But its success is an especially marked achievement for a population whose chances of returning to prison are staggeringly high. Of the 700,000 people released from U.S. prisons each year, two-thirds will be rearrested within three years. (The United States has the world's highest prison population: 2.3 million. That's a 500 percent increase over the last 30 years, despite a relatively stable crime rate.) The reasons why are myriad. This group is wrestling with substance abuse, posttraumatic stress disorder, poverty, and the lure of their old lives. Keeping them in college demands constant peer support, state and federal financial aid, an open-minded college board, and the willingness to let these students take three steps backward for every one they take forward. As Gomez admits, "It doesn't necessarily mean they're going to be successful just because they've been through the program."

It's a big commitment on all sides. But as cash-strapped states seek to cut costs by reducing prison populations, it is heartening to know models like this one work.

Educating people who have spent years behind bars is just as much about compassion and humanity as it is about effective study habits and good test scores, say their counselors and teachers. People who have served time say they are dropped back into the world with shattered identities, better prepared to resume their criminal careers than they are to live healthy lives. They say it takes them years to heal the dehumanizing experience of prison, where every day is a test of stamina, an exercise in humiliation, where people learn to sign a Department of Corrections ID number instead of their given names because they are the property of the government.

Even before prison, though, people who have been incarcerated say they often endured early lives that were virtually bereft of compassion. Many of Gomez's students, for example, had indifferent teachers who taught them in underfunded and neglected schools. Many of them never reached the ninth grade. They learned that crime paid better. So their criminal records became their resumes on the streets and a source of enormous respect among their peers. Leaving that world for the so-called "legitimate" life typically demands years of delayed gratification and long-shot odds.

"I'm working at McDonald's now," says Transitions student Ismael Hernandez, 19, who left his last probation camp last year and is now earning a 3.5 GPA. "I could easily make more money slinging dope. I could make $400 quickly. I don't want to do that."

Cesar Oyervides-Cisneros, Ed.M.'07, knows this story well. He and another alum, Ariela Friedman, Ed.M.'07, work at the Manhattan-based nonprofit The Door, helping teenagers leave gangs and the street life by showing them options.

"It takes some work to convince young people that this is the more beneficial route," says Oyervides-Cisneros. "We conduct classes and workshops where they discuss openly the different ways people make money. We talk about drug dealing, risk factors, benefits, how long can you be in this type of job, what you need to be aware of, and the risks and benefits of legitimate employment."

The greatest challenge for this group, though, can be the willingness to reach out for help.

"The ego can get in the way of being fully receptive to someone trying to help you," says Senior Lecturer Ronald Ferguson, director of Harvard's Achievement Gap Initiative. "There's the fear that they won't be able to understand the help. They're afraid somebody's going to try to explain something to them and they're not going to understand. There's a fear of being overwhelmed by the help."

noel gomez and students

One of the student founders of the Transitions program, Martin Leyva, took that chance. Now 37, he left prison for the last time three years ago. He landed at Santa Barbara City College in 2008 after his felony record got in the way of a series of jobs. For him, education was the only chance he had of earning a legal, livable wage. After a few lonely weeks on campus, he recognized a lot of the faces in his classes from the probation office. He knew that, like him, they were living in i
solation, members of the same group of refugees. On one hand, he found an odd sense of comfort in that loneliness. As Leyva put it, "I'd rather exile myself from society because I'm already used to society exiling me, putting me in jails, prisons, and other institutions." On the other, Leyva realized that his best hope of success was to build a network of like-minded people.

So in the spring of 2008, Leyva started a support group for people on parole on campus as part of the school's statefunded, federally mandated Extended Opportunity Programs and Services department, which aids the low-income and otherwise disadvantaged students. That led the department's director, Marsha Wright, to establish Transitions and select Gomez to advise the group and recruit new students each month at the county's monthly parole board check-ins. There, Gomez often starts conversations with the question: "What do you need to succeed?" The answers are always the same: "I need to find motivation to succeed at school. I need to know how to read, how to study."

The "tough on crime" legislation of the last 30 years has, according to prison education advocates, created a sort of lost generation. These are the people Gomez seeks out, the ones who, like 30-year-old Transitions student Phillip Silva, describe their experience of school this way: "You sit in a corner and you don't feel like you're worth nothing." Gomez says many of his students were labeled as troublesome by middle school and sent to so-called "continuation schools" that "have this approach of educating them as criminals. Somehow the administrators have this assumption that these kids are done."

From there, Gomez and his students say, it's just a short step to prison. That's because people who are essentially raised in prison-like environments become more comfortable inside them than they are in society. Once they're released, they're often socially stunted. Gomez recalled his first face-to-face meeting with a middle-aged man who'd been imprisoned since age 13 and was eager to join Transitions. First, though, he had to get used to close human contact again.

"He says, 'This is uncomfortable because there's nothing dividing me and you,'" Gomez recalls the student saying as they sat in his office. "'I'm not used to that. I haven't had physical contact with an individual for such a long time.'"

Today, one of every 31 adult Americans is in jail, prison, or on probation. Prison populations have ballooned to catastrophic proportions. California, for instance, has been ordered by a three-judge federal panel to release more than 40,000 people from prison by December 2011 because it simply cannot provide them proper healthcare. That order came just two weeks after Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger cut $1.2 billion from the state's prison budget. (The court put its order on hold in January, pending further review.)

Despite the mammoth problem of overcrowding, the federal government still denies funding for the one service that people coming out of prison rank at the top of their "needs" list and that research repeatedly has shown dramatically reduces recidivism: a college education. (Notably, only one of California's 33 prisons has an on-site college program.) The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 prohibited students with felony records from receiving Pell Grants, ending 350 prison education programs overnight, despite the fact that prison education accounted for less than 1 percent of the Pell Grant budget.

"It was devastating," recalls Kaia Stern, director of Pathways Home and the Prison Studies Project at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School. "People who had worked for decades getting books into prison libraries were suddenly shipping them out."

People in prison, she says, are often seen as undeserving of education. She points out that society is largely ignorant of the fact that about two-thirds of all people behind bars are serving time for nonviolent offenses, so taxpayers wonder why "the murderer" is getting a "free ride."

"Yes, too many law-abiding Americans are struggling to pay back their student loans, but what's up with the myth that there's not enough education to go around?" asks Stern. "Kerala, in South India, has a 91 percent literacy rate. We're doing something gravely wrong in the United States. And the resistance to education behind bars speaks to a larger issue of access to quality post-secondary education for low- and midincome people. It's a real class issue. What better population to demonize than the people with a criminal record?"

But the political will is shifting. Federal agencies, governors, and lawmakers are focusing unprecedented attention on helping people on parole integrate into society and stay out of prison. The passage of the Second Chance Act of 2008 signaled this about-face, granting $165 million per year to help state and local governments and community groups provide education, drug treatment, housing, jobs, and counseling. The law also mandated that the Justice Department increase research on reentry issues. That same year, the department, and others, set guidelines to help state governments and community organizations work together to support ex-prisoners.

Much of this renewed interest is motivated by the nation's worst financial crisis in 80 years. It costs exponentially more to imprison people -- an estimated $50 billion a year -- than it does to educate them. Whatever the real motivator for the change, though, research shows that society will benefit as a result. There's a well-proven correlation between education and lower crime rates, reduced recidivism, and healthier communities, Stern reminds us.

"And people are pushing now to figure out how to use this knowledge as momentum," she says. "People are starting to think creatively."

In New Jersey this year, the legislature is considering a $12 million package of bills that would not only mandate education and job training in prisons, but also make people on parole eligible for food stamps and other welfare programs.

Naturally, the academic community, though seriously thwarted by the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, hasn't given up on this population. Long-standing programs such as San Francisco State University's Project Rebound, the Bard Prison Initiative, the Inside-Out Prison- Exchange Program at Temple University, Boston University's Prison Education Program, and the Education Justice Project at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, to name a few, are still proving the benefits of higher education in prison.

Their results lead others to help. In 2003, Alabama Prison Arts and Education took root at Auburn University and is now creating libraries and teaching arts at 18 prisons in the state. In Boston, Bunker Hill Community College has for the last two years funded classes for about a dozen people with criminal records. After they graduate, the students are required to give back to the community by volunteering at approved nonprofits. Last fall, Wesleyan University launched its privately funded, two-year pilot program, the Center for Prison Education, which offers a liberal arts education to inmates at Cheshire Correctional Institute.

And in September 2008, Stern and Bruce Western, director of the Multidisciplinary Program in Inequality and Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, launched the Prison Studies Project, which developed a four-year partnership with Boston University's Prison Education Program and the Massachusetts Department of Correction. The program allows Harvard students to take college courses inside prisons alongside students admitted to Boston University as full students while incarcerated. Stern has co-taught two courses at MCI Norfolk and a third course at MCI Framingham, the oldest women's prison in the United States.

At one of Stern's so-called "inside/out" classes, Harvard students gather each week inside the prison's school building for a three-hour "urban sociology" seminar with the incarcerated Boston University students. Everyone works together throughout the semester to find solutions to problems of race, poverty, crime, and gang violence. Initially, the contrast is striking between the incarcerated and the nonincarcerated students. But over time, they become powerful collaborators. For the students who don't leave the prison after class, this is an invaluable dose of humanity.

"People who are mistreated know they're mistreated and know that our justice system is broken," says Stern. "Students in prison have historically been excluded from educational opportunity and they can't learn when they're being objectified. They may not be able to articulate dehumanization but they can feel it. And when they're in a classroom space, which can be a kind of sacred space, being listened to, where no questions are stupid, it resonates that this is a real learning environment and education is deeply transformative."

A large Aztec sun stone hangs on one wall of Noel Gomez's tiny office. It is here that parolees get their first taste of college life. The vibrant colors of two Mexican zarapes brighten the small space. But a visitor's eye is immediately drawn to the dozens of black and white photos depicting East Los Angeles gang life. These are haunting images shot by documentary photographer Joseph Rodriguez of guns and tattoos and barefoot children playing at the feet of brooding gangbangers.

"Every time I look at those," Gomez says, pointing to one photo in the background in which stands his late uncle, barely discernible, "it reminds me of home."

Gomez shares more with the Transitions students than he did with his fellow Harvard classmates or any of the other SBCC students milling around campus. Some of his most formative experiences were with heroin addicts and ex-cons. By age 10, Gomez had seen his first drive-by shooting, watching as a young man fell bleeding. Even his middle school basketball practice was interrupted by gunfire.

From this vantage point, it's no surprise that Gomez considered Harvard "unobtainable." But unlike the students he mentors, Gomez wasn't burdened with a criminal record. He had just enough moxie to get beyond his disadvantages. Even so, his first semester at UC-Santa Barbara was still tough.

"Professors were expecting me to write 10- and 12-page papers," he says. "I didn't know what a midterm was. I didn't know how to study for a midterm. It blew me away. I remember passing one or two classes that quarter." Ultimately, he buckled down. He lived in the library. He used the tutors. "I totally disconnected myself from everything," he says, "and said, 'This is my opportunity.'"

Gomez hopes to instill a similar sense of confidence and drive in his Transitions students. He teaches a personal development class covering everything from test-taking and money management to self-defeating behaviors and learning styles. Guest speakers -- experts on prison abolitionism, cultural history, and gang intervention, as well as people who have left gang life to achieve extraordinary academic success -- help augment the lesson. He also leads a mandatory weekly support group to give students a chance to vent, forge friendships, and cultivate a sense of belonging. Every Friday, the group takes a field trip to places like the Museum of Tolerance, Dodger Stadium, or to Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, the nation's largest gang intervention and re-entry program.

For Leyva, Transitions helped underscore his own commitment to change. He is now a certified substance abuse counselor and sociology major who mentors young people and won't be satisfied until he earns a master's degree from Stanford University. By his own admission, this is a profound evolution for a guy raised by drug-addicted convicts, who by age 10 considered himself tough enough to survive the streets, and by adulthood was an expert carjacker handy with a 9 mm.

"I learned so much about myself, my history, why I am the way I am," he says. "I've learned acceptance and I've learned to give it on to the next person."

-- Gina Piccalo is a freelance writer based in California. This is her first piece in Ed. magazine.

Video of Noel Gomez and studentsTo view the multimedia companion piece to this story, visit…edia-slideshow/

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