Choosing Education Over Incarceration
How PROJECT REBOUND, a program for formerly incarcerated students, is changing lives
WORDS BY: EMILY AYERS
PHOTOS BY: WILLIAM ODIS MARTIN
It used to be his home. It used to be the place he escaped to when he was hungry or tired or worn down. The alleyway on Long Beach Boulevard was where Dale Lendrum spent nights sleeping on the cold ground or rummaging through the dumpsters looking for his next meal.
The sights and smells of the alley take him back to a dark time in his life. Standing there, he remembers the 28 years he spent in and out of jails and prisons, all while battling a drug addiction. But now, standing there with a bachelor’s degree and in pursuit of his master’s in communications, he’s managed to rewrite a life story that many believed had already been written.
Not everyone who escapes the throngs of jails and prisons is given the opportunity to use education to change his life, as Lendrum has done. But a handful of professors, staff and students at Cal State Long Beach, including Lendrum, hopes that will change with the introduction of Project Rebound on campus. The group has been working hard to make the program a reality by Fall 2017.
A rehabilitation program for formerly incarcerated individuals entering higher education, Project Rebound would provide tools and resources for students that include helping with the people skills necessary to interact with students and professors, assisting with registration and enrollment and gathering paperwork. Most of the resources will be on a person-to-person basis to provide them with exactly what they need to be successful.
“When that prison gate opens and you are free, that is when the real test hits,” said Lendrum. “And if an individual can have an opportunity awaiting them on the outside, the recidivism rate lowers, and they have an even better chance of continuing to turn that life around.”
Lendrum said talks of bringing Project Rebound to CSULB have been in the works for over a year and a half. In addition to Project Rebound, students have been working to create a student organization on campus for formerly incarcerated students called Helping Other People Excel (HOPE). The goal is to have the club established by the end of the Spring 2017 semester and coupled with Project Rebound they both aim to increase the chances that students finish with a degree in hand.
“Every time I went in, I wanted to change when I got out,” said Lendrum. “I wanted something different, but the moment I got out, the old ghosts haunt you, and if nothing is in place to help you change and assist you, then you go back to that old haunted house with the old ghosts.”
Breaking the Cycle
Professor John Irwin started Project Rebound in 1967 at San Francisco State University to help solidify the idea of education instead of incarceration according to the Associated Students at SFSU website. It has given students the confidence to aim higher and push themselves further. The program is quickly spreading to seven other CSU campuses, and the hope eventually is to make it a reality systemwide.
Lendrum was 46 years old when he decided to pursue higher education after realizing that the path he was on would most likely leave him dead by the age of 50, or in prison for the rest of his life. It was during his last sentence at the Orange County Jail that he spent three months in a dorm-style setting and eight hours every day attending classes to learn how to not be a criminal.
“That class setting solidified the fact that I was going to try to go to college,” Lendrum said. Once Lendrum’s mindset shifted and he no longer wanted to add onto the 20 trips to jail and the six prison sentences he’d already served, he mailed three different community colleges about financial aid. Golden West College sent him a reply, and once he was released from jail, he went to the community-based drug treatment program and enrolled at Golden West.
Lendrum knew getting an education was the best way to change his life, and he openly talks about his story now. That’s because a lot of the success from Project Rebound is rooted in the shared experiences from the people who lived through the dark times and came out on the other side. Lendrum said that for most formerly incarcerated students, it is vital to see that someone who was in their shoes turned from drugs and violence to finding strength in education.
“I remember my first semester at CSULB, one of my criminal justice teachers, Dr. Binnall, introduced himself to the class and let us know that he was an ex-felon,” said sociology and criminal justice student Irene Sotelo, who has been helping with the creation of Project Rebound and the student organization. “He told us about all of his accomplishments, and it gave me hope that there was more out there for me.”
Sotelo got out of prison in 2009 after serving a year and a half of her sentence for selling and transporting meth, as well as identity theft. After battling an addiction to meth that left her homeless, living in the riverbed and then having a heart attack and stroke, she knew she needed to change her life.
“I was 45 when I went back to school,” Sotelo said. “Sometimes I wish that I did this when I was younger, but once you get that first ‘A’ it changes you. Before I went to school, I was negative, but after I started, I have been positive, and I am now thinking about even going for my master’s.”
Changing the Stereotypes
Once people make it out of prison and onto campus, the process of disclosing that they are part of a stigmatized group is also challenging to navigate. Many people on campus might feel uncomfortable with the thought of having formerly incarcerated students on campus, but these students have served their time and are trying to change their circumstances by education.
Joe Luis Hernandez is one of those trying to change the stereotype of the ex-felon. He got clean at the age of 21 after serving a jail sentence for carrying a loaded weapon. After trying to go back to school at 22 and then dropping out to work for five years, he realized he wasn’t happy with a job that, for him, felt like there wasn’t a future. At 28, he returned to Mt. Sac community college, then transferred to Cal State University, Los Angeles, where he received his bachelor’s. Now, he’s studying for his master’s degree in education and working with Lendrum to bring Project Rebound to CSULB.
“Working on these two projects makes me feel like I have something to contribute,” Hernandez said. “When I was in the mindframe of gangbanging, I was willing to put in work to gain the recognition that came from going to prison. For me, county jail was like community college, and prison was a four-year university. But, when I finally stepped away from all of that and got clean, I saw a different life that I never imagined.
“In the beginning, I was afraid to say that I’m a recovering drug addict and a felon. When you think of a vet, you think of a war hero, but someone on drugs, you picture a bad and evil person. But, sometimes, we are just misguided, and our beliefs are warped. Today, I’m not the person who wants to stab anyone. I’ve been taught in my program about social justice issues and helping others, all while learning how to advocate for people like me.”
Although making people on campus feel comfortable might take time, the goal is that with programs, like Project Rebound, those stereotypes can slowly start to shift.
“One of the reasons this program has been able to happen now is that times are changing,” said Lendrum. “This generation and even my generation has come to understand that the war on drugs was not a war on drugs, but a war on stigmatized and marginalized groups for power and control. They are starting to understand that punishment as a model isn’t working; it is only making better criminals.”
Conversations about the mechanisms in place that are often perpetuating a cycle of criminality is critical for programs like Project Rebound that must combat those realities. It starts with breaking down the layers that have kept this demographic from feeling like they deserve to be seen and heard. But the real proof of its power is in the stories of changed and renewed lives, each a testament that there is hope.
“You know, when I was younger, I thought I was a ‘G,’” Hernandez said. “I thought that I was a gangster. But today, that letter has changed. I’m still a ‘G,’ but today I am a graduate student. I am a graduate student, and I am here to help anyone who, like me, was formerly incarcerated.”