“Pomp and Circumstance” played and everyone stood to applaud the Prison University Project’s (PUP) class of 2018 as they took center stage in San Quentin State Prison’s visiting room in June.
Nine men graduated and received their Associative Arts degree from Patten University.
One of the graduates, Gerald Morgan, welcomed his 98-year-old aunt, Juanita Stone, to attend the ceremony.
“I’ve been to many graduations,” Stone said. “Patten University at San Quentin has been a category, well organized
“I couldn’t be happier for Gerald’s great achievement.”
A sign read “Room Capacity 200” in the rectangular visiting room with its mismatched tiles in spaces on the floor. An array of orange, blue, black and rose-colored chairs methodically lined the crowded room.
Inmate James King, the college program clerk, welcomed everyone.
“There’s nothing like a graduation,” he said. “By any standard you can think of, these men are exceptional.”
King gave the example of graduate Craig Johnson, a U.S. Navy veteran who served during the final days of the war in Vietnam. Johnson started with PUP in 1996, but was transferred to other prisons for 10 years before returning to San Quentin.
“Ever since I served in the Navy, I’ve been fascinated with the stars and the planets,” Johnson wrote in the PUP graduation program. “So when the opportunity presented itself, I signed up for the astronomy class.”
Before the ceremony, Claudius Johnson said he felt a little anxious. He started taking classes with PUP in 2014.
“I made it,” he said after the ceremony. “I feel great. I still feel empowered.”
He said an inmate named Johnny Willis once told him about PEACE — Proper Education Always Corrects Error.
“I shed tears,” said Wilhelmina Johnson, Claudius’s mother. “He’s worked hard.”
“This (degree) is my reward,” she added holding it tightly. “He’s the first generation(after herself).
“That’s the fourth,” she said, pointing to her great-grandson, who was held by his mother.
They travelled from Los Angeles.
Darin Williams started with PUP in 2012 shortly after arriving at San
Quentin. He’s wanted to graduate college since finishing high school.
“It’s been a lifelong goal,” he said. “It’s easy to stop, especially when you get older. But that’s part of the transformative process, to achieve the goals we set for ourselves.”
“I’m very impressed with the Patten program,” said Ron Broomfield, San Quentin’s chief deputy warden. “This is like the pinnacle of rehabilitation.”
Broomfield started working at the prison in December 2017. This was his first PUP graduation.
“This is another great day at San Quentin,” S.Q. Warden Ron Davis added.For entertainment, the all-inmate band San Quentin Blue performed for the audience. Richie Morris sang and played guitar on cover and original songs. He was backed by musicians Dwight Krizman, Charlie Spencer and Lee Jaspar.
“By any standard you can think of, these men are exceptional”
“This is about you,” Morris said to no one in particular. His song Sometimes Love appeared to situate the listeners in a reflective mood.
“You cannot talk about re-entry without talking about higher education,” said keynote speaker Jason Bell, who is
Bell earned his B.A. and M.A. in sociology after paroling from prison and is currently the director of Project Rebound at San Francisco State University.
He told the graduates, “I respect your hustle. Just like you, I had to figure out my way through the education process.”
Bell also encouraged the graduates to stay connected to people who will help them continue their education.
Angel Falcone, the PUP 2017 Valedictorian, introduced the 2018 salutatorian, Jose Rivera, to give a speech. The 2018 valedictorian, Jeffrey Williams, was not available to attend the ceremony.
“There was a stubborn refusal to let this opportunity pass us by,” Rivera said. “I learned in prison. I’ve had my eyes opened. I’ve been exposed to ideas and concepts that I couldn’t imagine.”
Rivera acknowledged all the help given to him by PUP volunteers and staff. He said they care and are “impossibly patient” with the students.
“We should continue to learn through words, books and instruction,” he said. “Give of yourself while doing it.”
Harry Hemphill has been enrolled in PUP on and off since 2011. When he enrolled in The Last Mile’s Code.7370 computer coding program, he said he had to back off from school. He graduated from coding in 2013.
“I continued my Patten education because I knew I needed both,” he said.
Although Jens Brazwell was not able to attend the ceremony, in the graduation program he wrote, “Don’t forget to be good to others, even when it pains you.”
Amy Jamgochian, Ph.D., PUP’s Academic Program Director, said her colleagues make it look like it’s not hard work and thanked volunteers and donors.
“Your generosity fuels this program.” She said, also offering some of the graduates’ own words to the audience. She said Nathan McKinney wants everyone to know “the race for a degree is not a sprint.”
“It feels good to graduate but the mission isn’t accomplished yet,” McKinney said. “I want to get an advance degree.”
Patten University president Thomas Stewart, PhD. told the graduates “Your accomplishments are impactful to your families and communities.”
Morgan had a lot of support from other family members in attendance beside his aunt, who said she “brought him
home from the hospital when he was born.”
“This made (my father) become a better person,” Gerald Jr said.
“He needed this.” Oreisha Morgan added, “He completed some things people on the outside don’t do. I’m honored to be his daughter-in-law.”
In closing remarks, Jody Lewen, Ph.D., Executive Director of PUP, acknowledged the graduates, teachers and PUP staff.
“I have no idea what it’s like to be you,” she said to the inmates’ families. “This is also your accomplishment.”