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Lisa Deaderick: Where prison feeds into fear, education gives former inmates freedom

San Diego Union-Tribune - 7/2/2023

What began with a lot of fear, blossomed into something beautiful for Martin Leyva and a lot of students like him. After getting out of prison for the last time in 2007, and his criminal record hindering his employment, his niece suggested he try going to college. On the campus of Santa Barbara City College, he was nervous, scared, and didn't feel like he fit in.

"At that point, I had a ninth-grade education, got my high school diploma while I was incarcerated, and I had no idea about the rigors of college, but I loved school," he says. "I loved being there, even though I had some serious impostor syndrome."

At the time, the only program he knew of for formerly incarcerated students was Project Rebound at San Francisco State University. On the Santa Barbara campus, he recognized two Black students he'd also seen at the parole office. Back in prison, they couldn't be friends because Leyva is Chicano and they were Black, but he wasn't in prison anymore, he told himself. So, he approached them. Turns out, they were struggling in the same ways that he was, so they built their own little support group for each other. Then, other formerly incarcerated students began joining their informal meetings, but the cops on campus watched their group in ways that made them feel unsafe, so Leyva went to the administration about finding a safe space for their group to meet and help each other with homework, with working through their feelings. Eventually, that group became the Transitions Program, a cohort model of education with 20 to 25 formerly incarcerated students who start college together and build community.

"It was actually a program started out of fear because I didn't know if I fit in, I was scared of being in school, I introduced myself to certain peers who I knew were just like me and we created this program," he says. "Now, it's 16 years later and I think there's 85 out of the 113 community colleges in California have a program for formerly incarcerated folks."

Today, Leyva is the program coordinator for Project Rebound at California State University San Marcos, and an adjunct professor at CSUSM, MiraCosta College and Palomar College. The program provides support and resources for formerly incarcerated students. Leyva, who earned a certification in drug and alcohol treatment counseling, a bachelor's in psychology, a master's in sociology, and is on track to earn his doctorate in education, took some time to talk about his own experience navigating life after prison and how education gifted him with learning about the good person who has always been within. (This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. )

Q:Those of us who have not been in the prison system, we don't have that awareness of getting out of prison and seeing other people, but being used to not being able to cross that racial boundary and form friendships with people outside of your own race. There's a process there of having to reprogram yourself when you get out, to be able to build that kind of community and have that support. That's another thing that prison takes away from people when you're on the inside.

A:Yeah, fully. I think that there's a lot of misconceptions around that. People just think, 'Oh they come home from prison and everything's going to be different,' but prison institutes a lot of trauma, even for those of us who've gone to prison and never had an issue with somebody of another race, or gender, or sexual orientation. In prison, we got a gay population and trans women in the men's prisons, and we're all of a sudden faced with that. I never had a problem with that, but in prison, unfortunately, I had to put on the mask to survive. To come home, I teach that to men now, especially men. Talking about our feelings and emotions, I teach a lot of social and emotional intelligence, and dismantling patriarchy in my work. I'm also a professor. The main group of people I teach are Transitions or Rising Scholars students, and I'm able to mirror and role model what it's like to really let go of this thing that was given to us that doesn't serve us. I think it's important and it works really well…I started doing that work while I was in prison, but not knowing that I would end up doing this work in the university, so it is beautiful work and it's super meaningful every single day.

I love being a professor. I love being able to teach because I don't look like your traditional professor, you know? The professor walks in and they got tattoos on their head and their face and their hands, and people are like, 'Come on, now.' I love the new me. Frantz Fanon talks about becoming a new man and I feel like, in a sense, I have allowed the system to teach me in a way where it's like, I'm not who I used to be. I don't want to be that person anymore. Proactively, with maintenance, I continue to learn more and more about me, so I love teaching. Teaching is my passion.

Q:What brought you to California State University San Marcos?

A:My master's degree. I had gotten my bachelor's degree at Antioch University of Santa Barbara and after about a year and a half, I decided to get a master's degree that I applied to Cal State San Marcos because it's a critical program and it's a relatively small school. I was still nervous, even after nine years after I got out of prison, of big crowds, a big university. I knew a couple of really great professors out this way already who I considered mentors and it's a very critical department. Instead of teaching administration of justice, they teach justice studies, so it brought me out this way. Seven years later, I'm still here.

For me, seeking education has never been about, like, upward social mobility or an ego thing. It's to challenge myself and to complete something because, prior to education, I rarely ever completed anything unless it was a prison term or a jail sentence. Then, it's also the role modeling part. I learned, as an ex-gang member and somebody who used to commit crimes, the stuff I was role modeling, I would allow young people to see what I was doing and it gave them permission to do that exact same thing. So, when I started going to school, I remember doing homework in my neighborhood where I grew up in Santa Barbara, and in my backpack I'd have a laptop and a notebook and I'd be doing homework in the neighborhood. These young kids would come up to me and they'd be like, 'Hey G, what are you doing?' I'm like, 'I'm just doing some homework,' and they're like, 'What? That's weird.' It actually gave them permission to do that, so for all of the wonderful students I have the ability to be around, when they can see me go and get my doctorate degree, I know quite a few students are like, 'Now, I'm going to get it.' It gives us permission to do something completely different than what we're used to and I think that's important.

Q:In a CSUSM story you were featured in from 2017, you talk about some of your early experiences transitioning from prison to a college campus—including some of your fears around belonging and navigating the newness of a campus culture. What do you recall that you and the two other formerly incarcerated students you'd met needed most during those early months of that transition from prison to college?

A:I had a family who I didn't really burn a bridge with. I was sleeping on the couch, had a roof, had food, I had the basics of everything I needed from my family. Tyrone and Malik [the Black men he'd met at Santa Barbara City College], even though we had family, we all needed jobs and we all lost jobs. That's how Tyrone ended up in school because he's like, 'I ain't got nothin' else to do, I can't get a job,' and the same thing with Malik, and that's how I ended up there. It's the same thing 16 years later. I see students who are like, 'I need a job, I need a job,' so, it's still one of the biggest barriers, we need a job. We needed housing that's conducive to learning. Sober Living [facilities that provide housing for people leaving drug and alcohol treatment programs], they're great, but they're not conducive for learning for students. And, some Sober Living, unfortunately, are still inundated with drugs and alcohol. So, a safe place that is conducive to learning.

I'll tell you one of the biggest things, and this is my love for bell hooks, we need to learn about ourselves. I think that a lot of programs are all about the numbers, 'Let's get students in here, let's get them in and out,' but if you don't teach somebody self-esteem, self-worth, and self-value, you can give them a degree, but they won't know what to do with it. They won't be able to hold down the job, won't be able to hold on to our sobriety or recovery, won't be able to reconnect with our family, our kids, our parents if we still have them around when we come home. I think those are the biggest things you need and that's the beautiful thing about working with Malik. Malik always talked about feelings and emotions because men don't, and I learned so much from him. The jobs, the housing, some of the resources like food, we're still dealing with that 16 years later. Really, that emotional connection, that understanding of who we are and how we can grow to be better people. I always tell folks that the degrees are beautiful, but if you don't learn about yourself, you won't really be able to hold down the job. Learn about communication and how to express yourself. If we don't know how to ask for what we need in certain situations, we will go out and find it and, usually, that means in a negative way. Those are the things that we need the most.

Q:As those early needs were being met, were there new ones that evolved that you maybe hadn't expected?

A:I don't know why "treatment" keeps coming to mind here. I think I had a good grip on my recovery, and still do. I'm 20 years clean and sober, but as I talk about the emotional part that we needed, I would see parole, probation come after me and other people—come to the house, go to the job, or coming to school. The nervousness, the anxiety that would produce and we'd see people say, 'Man, I feel like drinking and using.' That was the beautiful part of having such a tightknit community because we'd be like, 'Nah, don't do that. Let's go for a walk on the beach' and just go for a walk with one of our folks to support them. But yeah, just everything that it produces—not having a job, not having a nice place or a decent place to live, not connecting to your family, your kids. All these big things that happen, the anxiety it produces, so I think our own mental health was a big barrier, and still is a big barrier to success. Even now, parole tends to be a little bit easier on the men and women, or the folks that come home, but it's still really hard for them. The stipulations of parole, curfew, distance. Somebody was recently offered a job that was 52 miles away from his home base, so it's two miles outside of the radius and parole denied him to access the job. He can't go two miles outside his radius. A different parole officer would've said yes, but this one said no. It's really an individual case and there's nowhere for us to file a grievance against it, so he's stuck without the job right now. It's little things like that, that were happening 16 years ago that's still happening today. I always say it's a case-by-case thing because some individuals will tell you they had a great parole experience where they found a place to live and food to eat, but there's a larger amount of people who would say that it's hard for them to survive. Recidivism right now is at an all-time low at, like, roughly 50 percent of the state of California, where it was upwards of 80 percent when I came home; but still, considering that one out of two individuals coming home will end up back in prison?

Q:The Project Rebound website has numbers from 2018 showing that the student retention rate is higher for the program's students compared to CSU students overall, and that the recidivism rate for Project Rebound students is zero, compared to a 50 percent recidivism rate for the state of California. From your own experience receiving this support, and from your role in coordinating this programming for others, what is it about these resources that seems to lead to these rates of success?

A:Honestly, I can tell you I feel it's the connection. When an individual comes to Cal State San Marcos, San Diego State, San Francisco State, Fullerton or whatever, wherever there's a Project Rebound. They're welcomed into the university by an individual who really understands his or her lived experience, who's also either going through education themselves or has already gotten a master's degree. When somebody says, 'I'm scared' and I'm able to say, 'Yeah, me too. I was, and this is how we're going to get through it.' We provide that mentorship, that guidance, then individuals feel safe. Also, I think it's when an individual finds themselves at the university, that student who was formerly incarcerated truly understands the opportunity that's in front of them because we've already been through the worst of the worst. We're not going to take for granted this opportunity we have. We also understand that, yeah, getting a bachelor's degree or a master's degree means lowering the fact that I will go back to prison and enhances the fact that I will probably get a better job, regardless of my record. I think people at this university and other CSUs where there are formerly incarcerated folks, we understand that responsibility and we give it our best. We're more disciplined, that's for sure. We want to be here. Nobody's telling us that we have to be. I love teaching students who are getting their bachelor's degree and they're like, 'Well, I'm here because my parents, this is what they did and they want me to be here.' I'm like, 'You're not here for yourself?' and they're like, 'Well, you know, if I could be at the beach, I'd rather be there.' You ask a Project Rebound student why they're at university and they're going to say 'Because it's a great opportunity and I want to be here.' There's a difference there. The only time we've lost a student in Project Rebound is because of housing, jobs, this job is asking them to work 40 hours a week, so they can't go to school right now. Those are the things that stop that student from coming, but the desire to be at school is always there.

Q:What has this journey—from the challenges of your youth to the restorative work you've been doing since leaving prison—taught you about yourself?

A:This journey, what it's taught me is really who I've always been. I remember, as a kid and as an adult, committing a crime and just knowing what you're about to do, or what you're doing, or what you just did is wrong. I always felt the guilt, the shame, but I also was the type of person who'd be like, 'Well, at least I got some props from the neighborhood' or my uncle or somebody is saying, 'Hey, you know what? You'll be alright' or 'Good job.' I was getting the positive reinforcement from a negative thing, but I've always felt that guilt and shame that I know what I did was wrong. Now, I use education in this positive way. I really did discover who I am. I know, for a fact, that I'm a good guy. I'm very empathetic, I'm very caring. I understand my position as a cisgender man, and education has really reinforced what I already knew about myself, and it's really allowed me to really be who I am and I don't have to put on a mask. There's still some masks we all wear, even in my healing process, of course. There's still masks I wear: I deal with high levels of anxiety, I deal with levels of depression, but I found a purpose and this journey has really, finally, given me a purpose. I feel good about waking up in the morning, I feel good when it comes to the relationship with one of my two kids because I'm still on the healing journey. I will never say, 'Oh, I'm healed.' No. It's a continuum, I'm always healing. I'll never say, 'My life has changed' because it continues to change and that's what this journey has taught me. The discovery of self is one of the most important journeys that I will ever be on. On top of that, everything that has been given to me, everything that this journey continues to give me, the most important part is that I give it away to other people. I cannot just say, 'I'm on this journey, I'm a better person.' No, I'm on this journey and I've got to do what I got to do to make the world better and that means starting with my life, the lives of students I get to be around, the life of my community, whichever community I'm in and so on. That I just give this better life away. So, being of service to others means being of service to myself, and loving others means being loving to myself. Care and empathy and respect of others means to be in care, empathy, and respect toward myself. It's just a transformative way of being now.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

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