A group of California prisoners just got a bachelor’s degree in prison

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The 25 students imprisoned at the California State Penitentiary in Los Angeles County (LAC) celebrated their graduation in the prison yard 70 miles from the campus, which made this possible.

“The freedom to create a better life. In a sense, this is a redemptive quality, that is, we can step out of a destructive identity and enter the person our mother has always wanted us to be. The opportunity to show that we are not the worst decision ,” Yin added.

According to the university, California State University, Los Angeles’ prison bachelor’s degree graduation program is California’s first face-to-face bachelor’s degree program in prison. So far, 37 students in custody have graduated from the program, 12 of whom have been commuted and released.

Graduates at graduation ceremony.

“Getting higher education in a prison setting through a partner like UCLA is a real second chance for inmates,” Kathleen Allison, Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) ) Said in the press release. “There is no more powerful resource than education, where people can acquire new skills and learn new perspectives.”

The imprisoned students who were released before graduation completed their degrees and graduated on campus. According to Taffany Lim, director of the prison bachelor’s degree graduation program, the five outside graduates are now also completing their master’s degrees at UCLA.

“The power of college education is not just accepting a piece of paper. This bachelor’s degree is hope and transformation for these people,” Lin told CNN. “Their achievements have had a positive ripple effect on other people in the prison, their friends, family and the community. Therefore, we believe that college education is to break the cycle of imprisonment.”

‘Another opportunity for life’

Alan Burnett grew up in prison.

For 27 years, violence, drug abuse, suicide, murder and rape have surrounded him, constantly reminding him that he will spend the rest of his life in prison, while the world outside the four walls remains as usual.

When Burnett was 18 years old, he and two other people were involved in a carjacking incident, and the other shot and killed the victim. Burnett was charged with robbery, kidnapping and first-degree murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole, he said.

“I don’t want to tell people my sentence because I hate the way they responded to me,” Burnett, 48, told CNN. “They will look at me as if they are saying,’Oh, you are dead. You are dying,’ like I have cancer or something. My life is over. The feeling of despair is always there.”

The woman was jailed for 23 years for a crime she claimed not to have committed, and she received a bachelor's degree with honors

Until 2016, he was still in prison in the prison bachelor’s degree graduation program of California State University, Los Angeles, and began to study to obtain a bachelor’s degree.

Over the past five years, his focus has been on completing one course after another, creating works of art, analyzing literature, and writing articles that opened a gateway to a world he thought he could never participate in.

“Allowing professors to enter the facility and make room for us changed our lives. They told us something I was never used to hearing, something I never thought I would hear, such as’we believe in you’,’that is one Good job,”You got it right,'” Burnett said.

“I was affirmed in this field, so I began to believe that my life is more than just the crimes I committed and the life that led me to commit crimes when I was growing up. This gave me another opportunity to live.”

Burnett was released after being commuted by California Governor Gavin Newson in June 2020.

On the day of his release, Burnett climbed to the top of a cliff overlooking the sea. He sat with his 13-year-old sister when he was arrested and realized that she was old and looked like their mother. He drove quietly along the same road as the prison bus from one institution to another.

Alan Burnett speaks at the graduation ceremony at the California State Penitentiary in Los Angeles County (LAC) on October 5, 2021.

“It takes a long time for my freedom to feel real,” he said. “I am a different person. I went from a person who never took responsibility or accountability to a scholar and a loving person.”

In July of this year, Burnett stepped onto the stage at the campus graduation ceremony.

“This is still the best thing that happened to me,” Burnett said.

Today, Burnett is pursuing a master’s degree in communications at California State University, Los Angeles, and he is also a member of the Human Rights Watch leadership committee, a national project aimed at opposing people’s life imprisonment.

“This is not a luxury, but a necessity”

When Kamran Afary watched his students walk across the stage to receive their diploma, he said he couldn’t help crying.

Afary is an associate professor of communication studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, and one of 15 professors who teach face-to-face in prison.

“Emotionally, when I stood on stage and watched them walk on stage, it was a place worth seeing, tears of joy slipped, sadness of loss and hope for a different future,” Alfari told CNN .

“I have witnessed their tremendous growth, development and transformation, and have become articulate advocates, speakers, researchers and scholars. I feel very lucky to have the opportunity to work with them.”

Two imprisoned students hugged at the graduation ceremony.

Afary has always been an outspoken advocate for inmates, many of whom have no opportunity to receive an education that can change their lives.

The professor who teaches interpersonal communication, healthy communication, and performance and social change also uses his courses to teach conflict management skills.

“This is not a luxury, but a necessity. We need to change the prison environment, from the disciplinary and punishment facilities for detaining and isolating people,” Afary said. “We need to get rid of all the stigmatization and dehumanization that occurs in prisons, and education is a very important part of it.”

Although some people believe that imprisoned people should not be given a second chance for their crimes, Afary said that education is the key to creating a healing environment inside and outside the prison.

“Men who graduated, including myself, are very grateful to have a second life and the chance to go home, but we understand that we have a great responsibility to the family we destroyed,” Burnett said.

“The public should know this. Our education is not a free pass to wipe off our slate. It recognizes that we must change our lives to take responsibility, and education enables us to do this.”

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