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COLUMN ONE : School’s Out for Convicts : Taxpayers have stopped paying for inmates’ college degrees in a backlash against prison reform. Corrections officials decry the loss of a powerful rehabilitation tool.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A few miles east of this San Joaquin Valley town, a pale gray prison compound rises from a flat expanse of land. Here, separated from society by a perimeter of two chain-link fences topped with coils of razor wire, convicted felons Raymond Walker, Arnold Trevino and Melvin Yu once found a way to make themselves free.

Murder brought them together. Walker killed a woman after she insulted him during sex; he beat her and she bled to death. Trevino got drunk at a party and stabbed a guy in a fight. Yu blew away five people in one of California’s bloodiest gang slayings, the 1977 massacre at San Francisco’s Golden Dragon restaurant.

Yet several evenings a week, these men contradicted their history as killers. Dressed in their prison-issue denims, they left their cellblocks, filed one by one through a steel door, past a guard and into Classroom 103 of the Education Wing of the Deuel Vocational Institution, where they are all serving life sentences.

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There, seated in neat rows of wooden student desks facing a green chalkboard, Walker, Trevino and Yu entered the realm of educated men, immersing themselves in literature, philosophy and mathematics--at taxpayer expense.

“I took every class I could get my hands on,” said Walker, an articulate 37-year-old who breezes through a dozen books a week. His favorite was a course in critical thinking. “They taught me how to order my thoughts, how to put everything in perspective, how to assess what I’ve been reading.”

That was in 1993, before the politicians in Washington got up in arms. Today, Classroom 103 is mostly silent at night, save for an occasional meeting of Narcotics Anonymous. Last year, Congress cut off the federal grant money that Walker, Trevino and Yu--and 27,000 inmates across America--had used to go to college.

The ban on prisoners’ use of Pell grants--which are intended to help indigent students--was adopted quietly, as an amendment to 1994’s anti-crime legislation. It provoked little debate. “The bottom line is that the honest and hard-working are being elbowed out of the way by criminals,” declared the senator who sponsored the measure, Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas.

Few argued with her--not even officials of the federal Department of Education, which administers the grants and took the official position that they served the worthy goal of rehabilitating offenders. “You just have to pick your battles,” said David Longanecker, the assistant secretary for post-secondary education. “Nobody was a champion of Pell grants for prisoners. But there clearly were champions for the alternative point of view.”

The Pendulum Swings

That even educators were not champions for prison education says a great deal about the way America regards its inmates in 1995. In Alabama and Arizona, chain gangs are back. In Texas, weightlifting in prison has been banned; California is considering a similar action. In Mississippi, convicts will soon wear striped uniforms.

In the long-running debate over whether the purpose of prisons is to rehabilitate or to punish, the pendulum has swung clearly in the direction of punishment.

Ever since the turn of the century, prison officials have aspired to rehabilitate offenders--through recreation, counseling, education and other programs. But that goal has long been at odds with the public sentiment that criminals should not be coddled. As Hutchison said: “Prisons exist for the protection of society, not the comfort and convenience of criminals.”

But in ending the education grants, critics say, Congress has lost sight of a simple but important fact: Most of the nation’s 1 million inmates will be released. Only half of those in state prisons are serving longer than four years, according to the Justice Department. In federal prison, the median time is two years.

Meanwhile, research has repeatedly shown that education--and in particular, higher education--helps keep former inmates out of trouble. While national recidivism rates hover around 60%, a Texas study found that only 13.7% of inmates who earned an associate of arts degree returned to prison; the figure was 5.6% for those who earned a bachelor’s degree. In New York, 45% of offenders without college degrees returned, compared to 26% of those who got diplomas in prison.

“This is sound-bite politics,” said Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, a nonprofit research group, of the Pell grants. “When you eliminate these programs, you are increasing the odds that criminals will re-offend. These policies are really self-destructive. They are self-inflicted wounds.”

An Inmate’s View

Melvin Yu knows all about sound-bite politics. He is well aware that it is not politically popular to ask taxpayers to help murderers get a college degree.

“I see their point, wasting taxpayers’ money, getting upset that I can’t even afford to send my kid to college and why should we send those convicts to college,” he said in an accent that lingers from his native Hong Kong. “Nowadays, you know, anti-crime sentiment. It’s hard. Too much crime out there. People just got fed up. Plus the stereotype, you know, about criminals: Once they a criminal, always a criminal.”

It has been 17 years since Yu and two other members of the Joe Boys donned masks and stormed the Golden Dragon, ending the lives of five diners and injuring 11 in a hail of bullets while the intended targets--a rival gang--ducked under the tables. Now 35, he has spent nearly half his life behind bars.

He has had plenty of time to reflect on his carnage; eight years ago, he says, he became a Christian. When he thinks of his victims, he says, he compares their families’ grief with that of his mother’s, who lost an older son to the same gang violence that got her younger boy seven years to life in prison--a sentence that might have been even harsher had his crime been committed more recently.

Like Walker and Trevino, Yu is hoping for parole; clearly, this is part of his motivation in educating himself. Talking to him, it is difficult to reconcile the old Melvin--the brash kid who murdered without a second thought--with the man who peers from behind round lenses encircled in silver frames, a man who enjoyed the study of algebra and communications and literature of the New Testament.

He is asked how he thinks his victims’ families would feel if they knew their tax money had sent him to school.

“For those victims, I say: ‘Well, I have nothing coming. I should have nothing coming,’ to be honest with you. But on the other hand, life has to go on. I’m a person. Life has to change. Do they want me to be the old Melvin or do they want me to change?”

The old Melvin dropped out in the ninth grade; he had been in this country just two years, barely understood English and found school a waste of time. The new Melvin seems startled by the As and Bs he got in college.

“I look at what I do now, my grades, I say: ‘Man, I didn’t know I got some kind of intelligence.’ ”

A Bright Spot

It is easy to be skeptical of such talk, but Shirley Larson is not a skeptic. She believes that criminals can change--and that going to school is one means to it.

Larson directs education programs at the Deuel Vocational Institution. The bulk of her time is spent supervising vocational education--courses in welding and the like--and basic literacy classes. Most of DVI’s inmates are hardly college material. English as a second language and GED classes are the meat and potatoes of her work.

The college program was her cherry pie. It was minuscule compared to the other courses; of more than 2,000 inmates, 60 participated. Still, Larson believed that the classes had a ripple effect: “It was an uplifting thing for a lot of people.” To be certain, the DVI could use some uplifting. The 42-year-old prison is hardly as benign as its name. While the prison does have good vocational programs--it is noted for its aircraft engine repair shop--in the 1970s and ‘80s, it also had the reputation as the “stabbing capital of the world.”

That has changed a bit in recent years, ever since the state began sending its most hardened inmates to the new, ultra-maximum security prison at Pelican Bay. Says Trevino, without the slightest trace of bravado: “The stickings are not that severe anymore. When I first came in, a sticking was a sticking--they actually put the steel into you. Now, all they do is scratch you.”

Like prisons throughout California and the nation, DVI is overcrowded. With 2,387 inmates, it houses twice as many as its capacity. Half the gymnasium has been converted into a dormitory, with 320 cots spread across the basketball floor and an armed guard--the only one inside the prison--pacing a catwalk up above. The gym dorm was set up as “temporary housing.” That was seven years ago.

Racial divisions, a fact of life in most prisons, are evident here. Latinos, blacks and whites shower on different floors--by choice. In the chow hall, there are unwritten rules. Blacks eat on one side. The other side is divided in three: southern Mexicans on one end, whites in the middle, northern Mexicans on the other end.

The college classes had a way of making this hard place just a little bit softer. One prison educator says she noticed a distinct change in Trevino, a rough-around-the-edges high school dropout who grew up “drinking beer and watching the grass grow” in the small Central California town of Porterville.

He came to DVI a tough guy, says Janis Sanchez-Jardim: “I had several run-ins with him as far as his attitude. After he went to college, he had a different perspective. . . . He seems more mature.”

Trevino, now 30, has been at DVI for nine years; he spent the first five doing what he did on the streets--getting high on heroin, cocaine, acid, PCP. When he went clean in 1991, he discovered education. He liked the study of ancient Egypt, and also biology. He marvels now at the human body, the perfection of its machine. The former drug abuser barely even takes aspirin; he doesn’t want to mess up his internal balance.

In 1993, Trevino was one of the last two inmates to receive associate of arts degrees at DVI, in a simple ceremony in the prison visiting room.

“I think about it a lot,” he said. “It’s unbelievable. In the group I hang around with in Portervile, you get a high school diploma, you’re like a doctor. If I would tell the homeboys about this, they would never believe it. I sit around myself and I don’t even believe it. I think: ‘Wow, I actually got this. . . .’

“I walk around real proud now, and people see it. They say: ‘Man, you walk around with your head up high. You know something I don’t know?’ And I say: ‘Yeah, I know something.’ ”

Help From Outside

This was precisely the effect Larson had in mind when, in 1990, she set up the associate of arts program at DVI.

While other California prisons offered a loose collection of college courses, Larson wanted a curriculum that would offer inmates two-year AA degrees that would be transferable to four-year colleges, so they could continue their education when they got out. She also had plans for a baccalaureate program, but it never came to pass.

To execute her vision, Larson turned first to a community college in the San Joaquin Valley, then to Patten College, a tiny school run by fundamentalist Christians in inner-city Oakland, about an hour’s drive from Tracy.

The school, which is fully accredited, was already offering a biblical studies certificate to inmates at 13 California prisons. Some of the Patten faculty volunteered to teach secular classes in their spare time; they saw it as an extension of their Christian mission. The cost to inmates was $300 a course; the school charges more than twice that for its regular students. Classes were held at night because inmates are required to work during the day.

The program became so well-known that some inmates, including Walker, requested transfers to DVI just to attend.

The Orville native reveals little about his crime, other than to say he cannot quite understand how he could be capable of murder. Indeed, the facts of his life seem to point toward a better outcome than prison. He came from a solid family; his mother has been a sheriff’s deputy in that rural Northern California town since 1962, becoming one of the first black women on the force. His siblings are all employed. He worked in a rock quarry, then as a cabinet-maker, and then served in the Army, where he repaired computers and missile radar systems.

He is also more educated than most, having spent two semesters in college. He says he liked school but was never serious about it. “I’m an intelligent person,” he said, “but I never valued my intellect.”

Gary Moncher, Patten’s vice president, directed the program, and he was struck by the eagerness of Walker and the others. He is a crusader of sorts, in a conservative gray suit and black wingtips, and he found working in the prisons seductive. Before long, he began seeing for himself what researchers in prison education had found. Two inmates completed their degrees at Patten after they were released. Others found good jobs.

“That prison program gave me new life,” Moncher says now. “Every faculty member I sent said: ‘Send me back again.’ The psychic reward of being there was phenomenal.”

Paying the Bill

Of course, someone had to pay for all this. That someone was the taxpayers.

In 1965, at the urging of Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), the federal government established the Pell grant program to help finance college education for the indigent. No one knows when incarcerated students first began availing themselves of the money; the Education Department did not begin tracking inmate applications until two years ago, when controversy began brewing in Congress.

The prisoners’ share of the program was small. The 27,000 who received Pell funds in the 1993-94 academic year comprised fewer than 1% of recipients. The government spent $35 million on them, as compared to $6 billion for the entire program.

Hutchison argued that criminals were taking away grant money from “the honest and hard-working.” That is not true, says Longanecker. Pell grants are an entitlement program. That means that anyone who is eligible is approved. If applicants exceed budget estimates, the government has traditionally allocated more money.

Hard Lessons

When Congress’ intentions became clear, Moncher tried to save his program. He got a cold, fast lesson in political realities.

“I wrote 45 letters or so,” he said. “I got one phone call from Sen. Ted Kennedy’s office from an aide who said he would look into it. I got a form letter from Dianne Feinstein. I was very disappointed, to tell you the truth. I found out there wasn’t a whole lot of concern about offering educational opportunities to inmates.”

Walker, Trevino and Yu were disappointed as well. All say they would like to continue their educations, but their prison jobs bring in no more $48 a month, and at that rate it would take more than six months to pay for one course.

So they have found other ways to spend their nights. Yu, who works in the prison medical clinic, recently enrolled in a career development program. He’s hoping some new Bible study classes will be offered soon.

Walker keeps his nose in his books; he recommends Machiavelli’s “The Prince” and Erich Fromme’s “The Heart of Man,” a philosophical discussion of whether civilized society can tame “the beast within.” He has also plunged into a prison arts program; his medium is wood sculpture, and he would like to get a degree in fine arts someday, when the parole board decides to let him out.

Trevino, meanwhile, has carved a rigid nightly schedule. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Sundays, he attends meetings of a substance abuse group; On Tuesdays, he works with the “Straight Life” program, helping kids stay out of crime. On Thursdays, he’s at the prison hobby shop. On Fridays, he teaches English to inmates. Saturdays are his nights off. He wants to get his bachelor’s degree--"an AA degree doesn’t get you anywhere,” he said--and he recently wrote to a Latino scholarship fund in San Francisco.

But the letter came back unopened, stamped “return to sender.”


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