VANGUARD INCARCERATED PRESS: Mule Creek State Prison Hosts First Baccalaureate Graduation

Vanguard Incarcerated Press banner

By Earl Breckenridge 

“If you’re free in your mind, walls can’t really contain that,” said Dr. Mary Maguire, Dean of the College of Health & Human Services at CSU Sacramento on May 24. Mule Creek State Prison was hosting the state’s first baccalaureate graduation ceremony in honor of ten graduating students: Alexandro A. Baeza, Jesse J. Carson, Frederick D. Dew, Angle D. Gordon, Tony W. Johnson, Jerry. L. King, Michael L. Owens, Jacob G. Robles, Luke A. Scott, and Evaristo Toscano. “And so today,” declared Maguire, “this is really a celebration of the liberation of your mind, because you have done that. You have engaged in that process in a very real, genuine way… spread the love.”

Earlier that morning the ten graduates arrived in the Post-Secondary & Continuing Education (PSCE) classroom to receive final instructions from PSCE instructor Ms. K. Godwin. As the students put on ceremonial gowns, anticipatory and exuberant chatter filled the room. The pride and camaraderie, noteworthy among students of such diverse backgrounds and journeys, was evident in each smile and nod of recognition and mutual support. “I always saw this day coming,” said King. When the time came, they left the classroom, each in reflection of the upcoming events.

The procession entered the Ceremonial Hall (the facility visiting room) in cap and gown to “Pomp and Circumstance” and an audience of proud and cheering attendees that nearly filled the space to capacity. For family and friends incapable of attending, the ceremony was live-streamed by the prison to loved ones. In attendance were representatives from the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, prison administrators and educators, leaders of the Office of Correctional Education, reporters from the local KCRA news, and CSUS instructors and deans.

PSCE instructor and master of ceremonies Brett Stamer introduced Mule Creek resident Dawawn King, who opened the event with a performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” who was followed by Dew singing “America the Beautiful.” Musical accompaniment was provided by another resident, Tony Silva.

“The Transforming Outcomes Project at Sacramento State University has created a partnership with Mile Creek,” said Warden Patrick Covello after welcoming all in attendance, “creating an atmosphere dedicated towards higher education which promotes integrity, positive self-awareness, and personal commitment towards learning. This partnership between Sacramento State University and Mule Creek is thriving; creating unforeseen opportunities for students to be successful as they travel down their path of rehabilitation.”

The Transforming Outcomes Project at Sacramento State (TOPSS) is a four-year degree completion program administered and delivered inside two California state prisons through a partnership between California State University, Sacramento, and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said interim Director of the TOPSS Program Dr. S. David Zuckerman. In addition to Mule Creek, Folsom State Prison is also part of TOPSS.

Creekside Adult School principal Dr. Tammie Hollis-Prime gave a moving, preacher-ish address that raised the excitement of listeners. “Throughout this life, we’re always in the balance of choice. Sometimes we make the right choice at the wrong time. Sometimes other forces make the choice for us. It can be challenging to face obstacles and downturns every day, day in and out. Isn’t that right? However, some choices lead us to the path that we are meant to walk. It does not matter your wrongdoing. It does not matter your race. It does not matter your background. It does not matter what your past has told you. It is the choice you have made in the present that has led you here to be baccalaureate graduates.” Administrators acknowledged the PSCE instructors who got the TOPSS program started at Mule Creek and kept it going, namely, J. Traverso, S. Peterson, and G. Karr, who is currently the coordinator on Facility E.

Dr. Brantley Choate, Director of the Division of Rehabilitative Programs, acknowledged that public safety is an interest well served by increased education. He also noted that he is friends with a filmmaker who has made a documentary film of baccalaureate programs on the East Coast. He has invited her to come to California to document the educational programs offered in San Quentin, to which she has agreed. Choate also announced that laptops will be available for all students enrolled in college to help bring modernity in education into the prison system.

“So honored to be here at Sacramento State, Mule Creek,” commented Dr. Christina Bellon, who is an Associate Dean of the College of Arts & Letters. “This is an amazing place of transformation, of hope and of joy and of dignity and price. It’s incredible what you’re showing is possible. When you trust in yourself, and when you trust in others and when you have the support of family and friends and a whole community, what you can accomplish.”

The first student speaker was Angie Gordon. She pointed out that “of our graduating class there are nine life sentences, two of which lack the possibility of parole. Eighty percent of this graduating class are youth offenders, and of this group the average age at arrest is 22. It is one thing to push forward in life when you are told the world is waiting for you, that every possibility is open for the taking; it is another thing entirely to push forward when you are told that your possibilities are limited, that you are too broken and dysfunctional to live beyond the terms of your captivity. The breadth of character represented by this graduating class is humbling. It is in humility that I thank them, and that I thank all of you for the honors bestowed here today.”

Gordon’s sobering words settled on an audience all too familiar with the individual and collective hardships and trials associated with prolonged incarceration. The reflective mood was brief as Baeza, the next graduate speaker, reminded everyone of the joys of the moment. “We didn’t give up! When some of us were dealing with personal problems, perhaps a marriage falling apart, dealing with the traumas of incarceration, or even a death in the family, we made sense of it, found meaning, and we continued to move forward together… So peers, teachers, administrators, and family, join me, turn to someone next to you and say to them—loud and proud—we did it! Stingers up!”

Festive applause followed before the next speaker, Luke Scott, cleared his tear-filled throat reflecting on his mother’s admonishment to her young son so many years earlier. “Luke, you are special, and some may not like you because you are different.” (They didn’t call it ADHD back then.) “Do not let that stop you. Always get up and do better.”

The last student to address the crowd was Dew. “To all those families that remember your criminal thinking, manipulating, and hopeless family member. For all those nights you stayed up crying, for all those moments you did not know if they were coming home, and for all those prayers you never shared with anyone. Today is your paradigm moment. We may not have received freedom out of this institution yet, but many of us have received freedom from our criminal ways and failures of life.”

“I have had a long educational journey,” commented Owens. “I remember the quiet pride I felt when I earned my GED in Old Folsom at the age of 19, way back in 1994. I couldn’t imagine a bachelor’s then. Now I know the sky’s the limit!”

“Earning my bachelor’s degree has been a goal of mine since I earned an AA in 2008,” reflected Carson, “and this is a big deal for me. It can be hard to find things to be proud of in prison, but for me this was an accomplishment 15 years in the making.”

“Earning a BA represents so much more than a certificate of achievement,” remarked Robles. “It represents my change as a person.”

Shannon Swain, superintendent of the Office of Correctional Education, provided closing remarks. “By this time next year, we’ll have ten institutions in California where a bachelor’s degree is possible. We have a correspondence master’s program starting in the fall through another California State University. I had a bunch of really profound things I wanted to say, and then I realized that y’all said it already. So I just want you to practice with me three little words: Don’t stop now. Can we do it again? Don’t stop now!”

Zuckerman and Maguire presented the students as Dr. James German conferred a degree on each of the graduates. They were instructed to move tassels from right to left, and then shook hands with prison officials and CSUS professors and deans to jubilant applause and musical accompaniment.

“The graduation was remarkable,” exclaimed Jerry King. “It was refreshing to see the amount of people that showed up to support and celebrate our achievement. I am beyond grateful to have had this opportunity to pursue my higher education and I thank all those involved in making it a reality. It’s now time to pay it forward.”

The ceremony ended with “Lean on Me” sung by Dawaun King, who invited the ready and willing audience to stand and join the moving refrain: “Lean on me when you’re not strong. I’ll be your friend. I’ll help you carry on.” Refreshments of cake and punch were served as graduates mingled with staff, family, and faculty before ending the emotional and uplifting day.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

Related posts

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
Sign up for