From prison to risen

There are students on this campus who started to experiment sexually when they were 14 years old, others were raped at the same age. Some students have never lived without a roof over their head, others have experienced homelessness. Some students have never experimented with drugs, others have resorted to selling them to rent a room for the night for their seven children.

It may be surprising to learn that some students who’ve had a rough upbringing, are students with a 4.0 GPA, members of the honors program and recipients of the Presidential Scholarship.

These students are part of Long Beach State’s Rising Scholars, an organization that aims to connect formerly incarcerated and system impacted persons to resources that can help increase their scholastic success.

“Obviously there’s a stigma attached by being involved in the criminal justice system,” said Jennifer Cops, part time criminal justice lecturer at LBSU and Deputy District Attorney in the Los Angeles DA’s office. “They’re as smart as everybody else and as talented as everybody else and they made mistakes and they were punished for those mistakes and they’re living their lives and they’re capable of doing everything that someone who hasn’t gone to prison can do.”

LBSU’s Rising Scholars held a panel Oct. 15 entitled “My Sister’s Keeper,” of formerly incarcerated women, each with a story about their past, each succeeding in the university system.

“A lot of times when we talk about being system impacted or formerly incarcerated it’s sort of a male conversation right? Because incarceration statistically impacts men far more than it does women, but it does impact women,” said Rising Scholars faculty advisor James Binnall.

Of the 714,000 women incarcerated in the world, 212,000 of them are in the U.S. In California, 5,903 out of the 133,000 incarcerated people are women, according to Binnall.

Among the women on the panel were Taryn Williams, a double major in operations and supply chain management and recipient of the president’s scholarship; Bridget Cervell, sociology major and 4.0 GPA student in the honors program; Cynthia Blake, a 4.0 GPA student earning her masters in sociology at Dominguez Hills and Irene Sotelo who got her degree in sociology in May and now is working toward her master’s in social work. Each of them has been incarcerated, but each of them were able to turn their life around.

Blake’s journey began as young girl, when she was born into a very violent home.

“It’s very important for people to understand when you have children in the home, don’t sit there and beat the crap out of each other in front of your kids, because what happens to them as adults mentally and emotionally,” she said.

When Blake was 14, she was raped. When she was 16, she got pregnant. She was homeless for 15 years with seven children. She began committing crimes and selling drugs just to find a room for the night. She was arrested, and when she got out she had no high school diploma, no work experience and a criminal record.

“I hadn’t done anything but run the streets,” Blake said. “I didn’t know what to do, I couldn’t get hired anywhere. Walmart wouldn’t hire me. Nobody would hire me. So I went back to school and it saved my life.”

Williams was system impacted from a young age, after being placed into foster care when her mother was incarcerated. Williams became addicted to opiates, was in toxic and abusive relationships and eventually was incarcerated herself.

“I feel like my best purpose in life is to help elevate other formerly incarcerated people to a level in which they feel they can be successful,” Williams said. “That’s why I’ve chosen a kind of a different route other than sociology or criminal justice. I want to show that we can infiltrate every discipline in this university.”

Cervell came from a family with a history of drug addiction and mental health issues.

She experienced depression that she wasn’t able to alleviate, which gave birth to a drug addiction. Eventually she also was incarcerated.

“I started experiencing the things that a lot of women experience when they go in and out of jail. I was in a pretty horrific domestic violence relationship, which was probably the worst part of all of that experience, because it’s a really dehumanizing and soul-sucking experience,” Cervell said. “I experienced rape. I experienced a lot of things that I have never talked about in public before but I just figured that it’s important that I say them, because they’re very common experiences but not experiences that are commonly heard.”

At around 30 years old, amid the violence and jail time, Cervell decided to turn her life around and get clean, though she didn’t know how to do it on her own. She admitted herself into a rehab facility which allowed her to take junior college courses. She took welding, because she’d practiced welding in jail. She eventually found sociology and LBSU where she found a better sense of community and support.

“My whole time at junior college I very much felt like an alien, like I didn’t belong at school. And here I got to be a part of [Rising Scholars] with all these wonderful formerly incarcerated members, who are graduate students and who are doing all kinds of amazing things at school and in the community,” Cervell said. “Then we have a faculty advisor who is a lawyer and a professor and formerly incarcerated and incredibly dedicated to helping us pursue our dreams.”

Sotelo’s road to incarceration began when she was diagnosed with cancer. She became addicted to pain relieving medication that eventually ran out, leading her to street drugs.

“I did everything for the drugs. I left my home of 19 years, living in a riverbed, in parks, putting myself in danger,” Sotelo said. “And even being homeless did not make me change or give up.”

The thing that set her life back on a healthy track was being incarcerated, charged with three years by Cops, who ended up being Sotelo’s criminology professor. When she got out, and found out she was about to be a grandmother, Sotelo enrolled at LBSU, where she was able to embark on a compassionate and supportive relationship with Cops.

“She’s gone above and beyond her academic accomplishment … I’m so proud of her,” Cops said through tears. “Ideally, Irene’s case would be the norm; people go to prison and they turn their life around and they take advantage of resources and they come out better.”

Rising Scholars is dedicated to making these women’s experiences more common, as opposed to the revolving door that the prison system is usually known for. They will also continue to work to eliminate stigmas regarding formerly incarcerated people, not only helping them achieve great accomplishments, but by showing that their members are smart, capable and eager to contribute to society, have loving families and lead healthy lives.

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