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COLUMN ONE : School's Out for Convicts : Taxpayers have stopped paying for inmates' college degrees in a backlash against prison reform. Corrections officials decry the loss of a powerful rehabilitation tool.

September 14, 1995|SHERYL STOLBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"I see their point, wasting taxpayers' money, getting upset that I can't even afford to send my kid to college and why should we send those convicts to college," he said in an accent that lingers from his native Hong Kong. "Nowadays, you know, anti-crime sentiment. It's hard. Too much crime out there. People just got fed up. Plus the stereotype, you know, about criminals: Once they a criminal, always a criminal."

It has been 17 years since Yu and two other members of the Joe Boys donned masks and stormed the Golden Dragon, ending the lives of five diners and injuring 11 in a hail of bullets while the intended targets--a rival gang--ducked under the tables. Now 35, he has spent nearly half his life behind bars.

He has had plenty of time to reflect on his carnage; eight years ago, he says, he became a Christian. When he thinks of his victims, he says, he compares their families' grief with that of his mother's, who lost an older son to the same gang violence that got her younger boy seven years to life in prison--a sentence that might have been even harsher had his crime been committed more recently.

Like Walker and Trevino, Yu is hoping for parole; clearly, this is part of his motivation in educating himself. Talking to him, it is difficult to reconcile the old Melvin--the brash kid who murdered without a second thought--with the man who peers from behind round lenses encircled in silver frames, a man who enjoyed the study of algebra and communications and literature of the New Testament.

He is asked how he thinks his victims' families would feel if they knew their tax money had sent him to school.

"For those victims, I say: 'Well, I have nothing coming. I should have nothing coming,' to be honest with you. But on the other hand, life has to go on. I'm a person. Life has to change. Do they want me to be the old Melvin or do they want me to change?"

The old Melvin dropped out in the ninth grade; he had been in this country just two years, barely understood English and found school a waste of time. The new Melvin seems startled by the As and Bs he got in college.

"I look at what I do now, my grades, I say: 'Man, I didn't know I got some kind of intelligence.' "

A Bright Spot

It is easy to be skeptical of such talk, but Shirley Larson is not a skeptic. She believes that criminals can change--and that going to school is one means to it.

Larson directs education programs at the Deuel Vocational Institution. The bulk of her time is spent supervising vocational education--courses in welding and the like--and basic literacy classes. Most of DVI's inmates are hardly college material. English as a second language and GED classes are the meat and potatoes of her work.

The college program was her cherry pie. It was minuscule compared to the other courses; of more than 2,000 inmates, 60 participated. Still, Larson believed that the classes had a ripple effect: "It was an uplifting thing for a lot of people." To be certain, the DVI could use some uplifting. The 42-year-old prison is hardly as benign as its name. While the prison does have good vocational programs--it is noted for its aircraft engine repair shop--in the 1970s and '80s, it also had the reputation as the "stabbing capital of the world."

That has changed a bit in recent years, ever since the state began sending its most hardened inmates to the new, ultra-maximum security prison at Pelican Bay. Says Trevino, without the slightest trace of bravado: "The stickings are not that severe anymore. When I first came in, a sticking was a sticking--they actually put the steel into you. Now, all they do is scratch you."

Like prisons throughout California and the nation, DVI is overcrowded. With 2,387 inmates, it houses twice as many as its capacity. Half the gymnasium has been converted into a dormitory, with 320 cots spread across the basketball floor and an armed guard--the only one inside the prison--pacing a catwalk up above. The gym dorm was set up as "temporary housing." That was seven years ago.

Racial divisions, a fact of life in most prisons, are evident here. Latinos, blacks and whites shower on different floors--by choice. In the chow hall, there are unwritten rules. Blacks eat on one side. The other side is divided in three: southern Mexicans on one end, whites in the middle, northern Mexicans on the other end.

The college classes had a way of making this hard place just a little bit softer. One prison educator says she noticed a distinct change in Trevino, a rough-around-the-edges high school dropout who grew up "drinking beer and watching the grass grow" in the small Central California town of Porterville.

He came to DVI a tough guy, says Janis Sanchez-Jardim: "I had several run-ins with him as far as his attitude. After he went to college, he had a different perspective. . . . He seems more mature."

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