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Inmates Find a Degree of Pride on Graduation Day

June 07, 2003|Kristina Sauerwein | Times Staff Writer

From the audience of teary-eyed parents to "Pomp and Circumstance" blaring over the auditorium speakers, Friday's commencement at the Herman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility in Chino had all the trappings of a typical graduation ceremony -- plus a contingent of armed guards.

The graduates may have killed, raped, sold drugs, robbed or committed other crimes, but all of that was hidden beneath crisp blue and gray gowns and tasseled mortarboards.

The 106 men proudly marched onstage to accept their high school or college degrees, or General Education Development certificates, earned while in custody. For some, it was the first significant step away from crime.

Family and friends wore outfits adorned with neatly tucked handkerchiefs and polished shoes. They cheered and clapped, whistled and wept. At times, camera flashes blinded the graduates as parents strained to get a glimpse of their "baby" sauntering across the stage.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 12, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Youth correctional facility -- An article in Saturday's California section on a graduation ceremony for incarcerated youths and young adults incorrectly identified a California Youth Authority institution in Chino as the Herman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility. The correct name is the Heman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility.

Like most students in public and private schools, June is graduation month for the estimated 700 students in the California Youth Authority, which spends $48 million a year on education for criminal offenders under age 25. The agency includes schooling as part of its treatment and rehabilitation, and refuses to grant parole to wards without a diploma.

Stark's estimated 900 inmates have the opportunity to earn an associate in arts degree through the University of La Verne. The program has thousands of graduates, most of whom have not returned to the criminal justice system, university and state officials said.

The CYA's educational success "continues on," a gleeful Dave Crosson, the agency's superintendent of education, told the nearly packed auditorium Friday. "Today is a positive day."

It was a day on which Riley Hurtado, 20 -- the first in his family to earn a high school diploma -- brought honor to his mother and sister. The women sat in the audience, clutching wadded tissue to wipe the tears that streamed down their faces.

"I'm so proud of him," said Hurtado's mother, Leticia Hurtado of Rialto. "I'm so proud."

His 17-year-old sister called her big brother a role model.

"He's had some trouble, and he feels bad because he's supposed to set an example for me," Michelle Hurtado said. "But he has. Look at him. I love him no matter what."

Hurtado's rap sheet includes car theft, resisting arrest and assault with a deadly weapon -- a screwdriver.

"A couple of years back, three guys tried to steal my little brother's bike and he got scared," the former gang member recalled. "I shouldn't have done it. I've paid for it."

He believes his degree will help him set his life straight.

"It's time for me to grow up," said Hurtado, who entered Stark in 1999 and is eligible for parole next month. "What hurts the most is disappointing my family. I want to make my mom proud. I want to make sure my little sister doesn't get in trouble like I did. I want to make them proud."

Former Stark inmate Andrew Hua, Friday's keynote speaker, reassured graduates that if they embrace education and hard work, and believe in themselves, they will succeed. Hua, 32, earned an associate in arts degree in 1991 while incarcerated for robbery. When he got out, he earned a bachelor's in economics from UCLA and an MBA from USC. He married, had a child, and worked for the Times Mirror Co. , Toyota Motors Corp. and, currently, Kaiser-Permanente Health Organization.

"You've made it through gangs, violence, poverty, drugs, and you made it through prison," said Hua, whose speech was received with hearty applause. "What is there in life that you can't handle?"

For the first time in his 20 years, Llyod Stafford of Rialto felt smart when he passed the test for his GED.

"I thought maybe I could do something with myself," said the former gang member, whose crimes include using drugs, robbery, vandalism and assault with a deadly weapon. "I do know a lot of stuff. It made me slow down, being a bad boy ... I think of all the time I wasted on the streets."

Chris Long, 20, of Apple Valley, earned his associate in arts degree Friday. He isn't eligible for parole until October 2004, but while he's at Stark he plans to work toward a bachelor of science degree through the University of La Verne. He already is taking a high level of calculus and, ultimately, hopes to earn a PhD in engineering.

"I'm in here because of a bad choice, a bad thing that happened," Long said, declining to discuss his crime. "But I have a lot that I can achieve."

Jack Rancudo, 22, said studying for the associate in arts degree he received Friday helped him to be self-reflective. With little to do in his small room, Rancudo thought about the man he tried to murder during a 1998 drive-by shooting in San Diego. He concluded that the victim has feelings, a mother who probably loves him, and a right to live. Rancudo realized that the person who turned him in to the police five years ago, the guy he originally wanted to kill, did him a favor -- and for that, he is grateful.

He understands that he was angry, unhappy and responsible for creating his lonely, crime-ridden, gang-banging lifestyle, one that he believes would have taken his life.

"I learned about history and computers" at Stark, Rancudo said, "but without an education, I don't think I would have seen this stuff in myself."

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