From Prison to Phi Theta Kappa

Posted: June 7, 2013 in On Our Minds


From Prison to Phi Theta Kappa: How one Oakland youth is helping change the juvenile justice system

June 6, 2013

by Jon Leckie

When Jonathan Roach graduated from high school, he was thirsty for higher education, but as an inmate in Alameda County’s Juvenile Hall, the opportunity didn’t exist. Yet despite his lack of resources, Roach became the first person in Alameda County to begin his college career while still a prisoner of the juvenile justice system.

In 2010, Roach was arrested and charged with armed robbery. He was only 15, living life in poverty with his single mother and five other siblings.

“I made a mistake,” he admits. “I was on the wrong path, wasn’t going to school and ended up making a big mistake and going to prison.”

During the two years Roach spent in juvenile hall, he got back in school, attending daily classes and taking on independent study before accumulating enough credits to earn his high school diploma. But as Roach reached this major milestone in his life there were no caps, no gowns and he had little to look forward to except extended hours in his jail cell.

“After you graduate you’re just in your room because you don’t have to go to school,” he said, “and what you have is a lot of violent young men without anything to do.”

Roach, however, was not about to sit around letting time pass him by. Eager to continue his education, he sought out avenues that could lead him from his cell to college commencement.

On his search, he would eventually met Dr. Siri Brown, chair of Merritt College’s African-American studies department.

“The Department of African-American Studies at Merritt College has a long history of understanding the connection between academics and community organizing,” Brown said. “Two years ago we started offering college courses in juvenile hall. Students take correspondence or online courses, we use volunteer student tutors and try to create an environment where there is an intellectual exchange.”

Brown learned about Roach from Amy Cheney, the head librarian inside juvenile hall. After attending an event put on by Merritt’s African-American Studies Department on issues related to prison and death row, Cheney reached out to Brown about an inmate who wanted to go to college.

“I was looking for great speakers to talk with our youth. I had met Dr. Brown years ago and we had talked about her coming up and doing presentations,” Cheney said. “The situation taking place with realignment and the California Youth Authority shutting down created a situation in which there are kids here for a longer period of time.”

With the help of David Muhammad, Oakland’s former chief probation officer, Brown and Cheney developed a program to bring higher education to youth incarcerated in the juvenile justice system, and, in May 2011, Roach became the first inmate in Alameda County to earn college credit while inside juvenile hall.

“We want to teach them a sense of self and get them started in college so that when they get out they’ll consider coming to college instead of doing those things that may have gotten them into trouble,” Danae Martinez, a professor of African-American economics at Merritt College, said.

Martinez discusses concepts in her classes that not only put her students on the path towards graduation but that are also directly related to their current situation. She doesn’t shy away from teaching her students about the prison industrial complex and the roll they play as inmates, how the American system has affected African-Americans economically over time, economic means of resisting oppression and how their need for consumption affects people across the world.

“It’s particularly important for African-American Studies to be involved,” she said. “It gets academics involved in the community, specifically targeting the plight and needs of the African–American community and developing themselves no matter where they are: in prison, in neighborhoods or on campus.”

Of course, bringing a college education into the juvenile justice system is not without its challenges. For one, inmates are cut off from internet access, a vital component to contemporary education not only in completing assignments but also in accessing class materials. Students can also be subject to lock-downs at any time, forcing them to miss class sessions or important due dates, or leave juvenile hall in the middle of a semester.

“When Jonathan turned 18, he was transferred to an adult facility. We lost contact, but we made sure he knew Merritt was his home when he got out,” Brown said.

Despite the challenges, signs of success are not hard to find two years after the program began. With a total of 19 students who have taken 39 classes, the majority of them have earned A’s and B’s.

“This program has made me feel less limited because of my situation. It is one of the main reasons I refuse to become a victim of circumstances,” one student said. “This is about not letting where I am dictate who I am, and who I become.”

“The program inspires them, helps them focus and gives them a reason to live and do something positive with their lives.” Cheney said. “It really makes a difference in their attitudes and behavior.”

Now a 4.0 student and out of prison, Roach is vice president of Phi Theta Kappa and a recipient of the Fresh Start Scholarship.  He has his sights set on business school.

The students aren’t the only ones benefiting from the hard work of those around them.  “This program has changed me profoundly,” Martinez said. “To go in and get to know these young men, learn with them and teach them, it has been a blessing in my life. It’s not just helping them, it’s helping us too.”

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