Giving the incarcerated a shot at an education and a brighter future

Years ago 23 men committed offenses that resulted in their eventually being committed to R. J. Donovan Correctional Facility, which is a state prison for men in San Diego near the Mexican border.  But now those men have received a bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Irvine. Amazingly, they have graduated from a major university while incarcerated.

How did this happen?

Through the inspirational leadership of UCI’s Chancellor Howard Gillman and program director Keramet Reiter, UCI has become committed to providing opportunities for people  who are incarcerated to obtain their college degrees!  Their program is called “LIFTED,” which stands for “Leveraging Inspiring Futures Through Educational Degrees.” I think that all of our readers will agree that this is truly a wonderful thing.

It is even more impressive when we consider that all of these graduates had to compete for admission and grades in exactly the same fashion as regular students on the Irvine campus.  No special allowances were given to them.  AND, it is fully more impressive when we learn that three of them graduated Summa Cum Laude: Babak Gilani, Kelly Lucien McLeod and John Winkelman. At their graduation at the Donovan facility on June 20, 2024, at least 30 UCI professors attended. What a commitment! And many more professors have been making that journey for the past two years to teach the classes to these incarcerated students in person. Isn’t that what the United States of America stands for?

Many years ago I attended a conference entitled “Ban the Box,” which was sponsored by the Koch Brothers. The focus of this conference was upon the statement that “Most people cannot be defined by the worst thing they have ever done.” So give people a second chance. And what better way to do that than to assist them in getting a job after they are released from prison?

Unfortunately most employment applications have a box on them that must be checked if the applicant has been convicted of a felony.  So that almost universally results in those applicants being rejected out of hand. But if that question is not asked until later in the application process, frequently the potential employers know enough about the applicants that they understand these people really want to be strong and faithful employees, so they are offered a job.  And that is a good result for everyone.

History shows us that if people are able to obtain a job after being released from prison, they become optimistic about their futures and their recidivism rates are only about 10 percent.  But if they are not able to become employed they frequently get depressed and go back to crime or taking drugs or whatever got them into trouble in the first place.  So their recidivism rate is often above 70 percent.  What a waste, both for those re-incarcerated people and also for the taxpayers. Institutions like UCI are committed to reversing those results.

Were these UCI graduates appreciative?  The program for the graduation contained written statements from all 23 graduates.

Some samples:

Babak Gilani: “This program has been the greatest experience, as it has led me to my purpose and changed the course of my life.”

Sergio Guil: “Infinite thanks . . . to the entire UCI LIFTED staff for their endless kindness and deep humanity.”

Victor Lopez: “Growing up I hated school and struggled very hard to grasp anything that was put in front of me.  Being expelled from the 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th grades served as a self-fulfilling prophecy that school was not meant for me.  Now, everything is different.”

Azeez Momoh: “Through education, the lens through which I view the world today is a lot more accurate.  I once operated from a dangerous and distorted belief system, where blame and irresponsibility reigned.  Gone are the days of blaming others for my position in life.”

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Cedric Parker: “This journey taught me that I had a lot to learn. . . .  Today I am a critical thinker who understands that having others’ best interest is having my own best interest.  I will use this BA to pursue a career path in counseling and rehabilitative re-entry advocacy work.”

Albert Ybarra: “This experience has helped me realize that LIFTED wasn’t so much a dream come true but rather a blessing that I didn’t know I needed.”

Many junior colleges provide programs for incarcerated people to obtain Associate of Arts (AA) degrees.  And there are now five universities around the country in addition to UCI that provide programs to obtain BA degrees.  May there be more!

Changing human lives for the better is one of the greatest callings that anyone can pursue, and these administrators and professors at UCI are leading the way.  So I just thought that our fellow residents of Orange County would like to know about UCI’s commitment to changing these lives.  They all deserve our praise – and our thanks!

Judge James P. Gray is a retired Judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of “ALL RISE! The Libertarian Way with Judge Jim Gray,” “WEARING THE ROBE: The Art and Responsibilities of Judging in Today’s Courts,” and, along with his wife, Dr. Grace Walker Gray, “2030 KIDS: We are the Rising Heroes of the Planet.”  He has also written two musicals “AMERICANS ALL” and “CONVENTION: The Birth of America.” Please visit his website at  

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