Like many young men his age, Daniel Ayala has high hopes for his future. Ayala, a college student with a brilliant smile, wants to be a history teacher.
There’s just one thing holding him back. Right now, Ayala is incarcerated.
But for the past six weeks, Ayala, 18, has been working with a group of nine students at CSU Channel Islands who come to the Ventura Youth Correctional Facility in Camarillo on Thursday and Friday evenings to tutor, teach and mentor about a dozen young men there. They’re tutoring the young men in such basic skills as taking notes and writing a short essay — and giving them advice on college life.
The experience has encouraged Ayala to continue with his college education, he said.
“I like to learn about history — that’s where we come from,” Ayala said, sitting in a classroom on a recent evening, going over an essay with a tutor. “And I like teaching other people. Why learn something and keep it to yourself?”
The Camarillo university introduced the Prison Education Project this year. The project reflects Channel Islands’ focus on service learning, said Lindsay Scott, a lecturer in liberal arts. At Channel Islands, that can take the form of classes in which students do volunteer work that has included monitoring water quality and tutoring elementary students.
The idea of the project is to build empathy and help incarcerated young men get an education, said Scott, who helped organize the program at Channel Islands.
“We want (our students) to see others and not define them by the wrong they’ve done but by the people they actually are — to be able to work across those differences,” she said. “We’re not concerned about why they’re there or how long they’re there.”
On a recent Thursday evening, the wards, most released from their rooms, filed in small groups into a classroom at the facility. Their tutors, having gone through the facility’s screening, were waiting, sitting at desks clustered in groups of three.
Most of the wards are already taking classes through local colleges whose instructors come to the facility. But on this night they were in study group, where their tutors were going over essays they’d written about how they feel about the project. Later, three of the inmates read their essays aloud, greeted with enthusiastic rounds of clapping when they finished.
In his essay, Daivion Davis, 19, said the study sessions made him take college seriously. Now he’s curious about politics, inspired to broaden his thinking and is considering becoming a psychologist.
“I’m seeing that my thinking is so boxed in and simple,” Davis wrote in his essay. “Now I want to expand my mind outside the simple things that make a young African American Male from the hood happy. Money, Cars, Jewelry, and Women. I wanna be able to have a intelligent conversation with a stranger without feeling dumb and useless. I want to make my mother proud of me ... I want to help my little sister with her homework and teach her how to be an adult.”
Jaime Ortiz, 18, who has wanted to be a firefighter since he was a kid living next door to a fire station, is simply grateful for the extra help with writing.
“I didn’t really know how to write an essay before,” Ortiz said. “Now I’ve learned how to write a proper essay.”
As so often happens when people volunteer, Chelsea Vinas, 19, a sophomore at Channel Islands, believes she’s gotten more out of the experience than the wards she’s mentoring. She may even have found a career — working with youths.
“I feel like I’ve learned so much from them,” said Vinas, who is majoring in psychology, with a minor in communication. “Not everyone has the same opportunities you grew up with. They’re so pumped up about getting out of there and getting their education that you want to get your education even more.”
The Prison Education Project, which the facility prefers to call the Youth Education Project, started at Cal Poly Pomona, with Renford Reese, a political-science professor who plans to expand it to other CSU campuses and community colleges. The program is now at four campuses, including Channel Islands, and soon will expand to six, Reese said.
Reese hopes to create a “culture of learning” through which inmates inspire others with their own learning. An inmate who earns his degree, or even gets excited about history, for example, might inspire someone in his life to start taking classes.
And that could lead to a second goal — reducing recidivism in the state prison system by 1 percent — which would mean a savings of about $44 million, Reese said.
“The university is a perfect place to make transformative change,” he said. “Let’s draw on that. ... People understand from a fiscal perspective this makes sense.”
The wards are also still young enough that they’re open to transforming themselves, said Victor Almager, superintendent of the correctional facility.
“Yes, they’re criminals,” Almager said. “But they’re at a stage of life where they can change. Adult offenders have to age before they’ll change. With young offenders, there’s an escape hatch that stays open for a while.”
In addition to tutoring and teaching, the Channel Islands students serve as mentors, helping their fellow students figure out the logistics of college — anything from applying to choosing a major. If a young man wants to be a chef, for example, a Channel Islands student might research culinary programs.
Alysha Cordova, 22, was surprised at how little some of the young men understood about going to college.
“A lot of them have questions — ‘What kind of degree are you getting? What kind of job do you want?’ — Cordova said. “Somehow, they didn’t get information about the options they have.”
But it’s critical they get that information, said Cordova, an art history major.
“It’s important to realize that a lot of them are going to come out,” she said. “If we don’t give them an opportunity to change, how can we expect them to change?”
The class will continue next semester. So far, about 60 students have said they’re interested.
(This article first appeared in the Ventura County Star and is used here by permission)
Jean Cowden Moore