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These Students Were Once Incarcerated. Now They're Helping Each Other Navigate Community College Life

Four students --two men and two women -- stand arm in arm with a lime green background that says CORE.
From left to right: Joseph Boucher, Jessica Leeth-Young, Adolfo Garcia, and Monica Gonzalez of the Pasadena City College CORE Club.
(Jackie Orchard
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At 27 years old, Joseph Boucher has “lived a lot of life.”

LISTEN: These Students Were Once Incarcerated. Now They're Helping Each Other Navigate Community College Life

“I was an addict for 12 years,” Boucher said. “I started very young. By the time I was 13 I was using methamphetamine and in and out of juvie.”

Boucher grew up in Placentia. It’s a tiny, suburban neighborhood bordering Anaheim. In a town where you’re either very rich or very poor, Boucher said he fit in nowhere. He found his sense of community among people living outside the law.

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“It is a central hub for a lot of criminal activity,” Boucher said of the Orange County town.

Activity like the armed robberies, drug sales, and residential burglaries that landed Boucher in jail and prison, and the drug use that upended his life until he got sober two years ago. About one year ago, he started to consider school again.

To help combat recidivism, particularly for those like Boucher who fell into trouble at a young age, California has been developing educational programs to help formerly incarcerated people enroll in college. One of these programs, called CORE — Community Overcoming Recidivism through Education — is helping Boucher and other students at Pasadena City College get their lives back on track.

I spent an afternoon in the on-campus club lounge speaking with its members to learn more about the path from childhood, to prison, to the classroom — and what it takes to start your life over.

Starting over

Boucher’s story is not so unique when compared to the nearly 2,000 children who are arrested every day in the United States.

According to the Office of Justice Programs, 75% of people who are incarcerated are illiterate, and around 60% don't have a high school diploma. Studies have shown repeatedly that education acts as a powerful catalyst for launching people out of the cycle of incarceration and back into society, and that the higher degree level attained, the lower the chance is that the person will reoffend.

In 2018 the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office awarded $5 million to 44 community colleges throughout the state to create on-campus programs for formerly incarcerated students through its Rising Scholars Network.

Pasadena City College used its allocation of more than $100,000 to launch CORE. Boucher is among its nearly 100 members.

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A young man in a beanie and flannel shirt laughs in front of a mural that says CORE.
27-year-old Joseph Boucher, a formerly incarcerated student in Pasadena City College's CORE Program, is on track to graduate with a 4.0 GPA.
(Jackie Orchard

CORE offers emotional and social support and its staff helps people get enrolled, apply for financial aid and scholarships, apply for expungement of their criminal record, get tutoring, and apply to jobs before they graduate.

“I was always told that felons can't get financial aid and I knew I couldn't afford it,” Boucher said. “But somebody had all of a sudden told me that they changed the law, where now we could.”

According to the U.S. Department of Education, being incarcerated used to give you limited access to federal student aid, but starting July 1, Federal Pell Grant opportunities will open up to those incarcerated if they are enrolled in a prison education program. (Correctional facilities have to partner with a school to offer a qualifying program.)

Boucher said CORE walked him through the complicated process of filing a Free Application for Student Aid, also known as FAFSA, which he thought would never be approved because he couldn’t file a tax return from jail. His FAFSA was approved, and he’s making ends meet by working as a server at BJ’s.

I spend hours every night that I'm up late before work, after work, during work — I carry my tablet in my apron at work and in between tables I'm reading textbooks.
— Joseph Boucher, student in Pasadena City College's CORE Program

Boucher isn’t sure yet what he wants to do when he graduates, but he feels called to help others. In his free time, he works for a nonprofit called End Overdose, which distributes fentanyl test strips and Naloxone to the unhoused, people in bars, clubs, party-goers — anyone whose life is in danger from opioid use.

“I myself, I was a heroin addict and I overdosed six times,” Boucher said. “I've been pronounced dead six different times due to my overdosing, and this is the drug that saved me.”

Boucher now has a 4.0 GPA and is on track to graduate with his associate’s degree in business next year.

Learning to talk all over again

In addition to earning credit, school has given Boucher something else: a new way to communicate and speak with people.

“The only things I knew how to talk about were crime and drugs,” Boucher said. “I didn't know how to have a real conversation.”

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In the classroom he is learning how to talk to people who haven’t experienced a life of violence or drugs, and he’s catching up on world events from the last 10 years when he was in and out of the justice system. He said school has given him a space to interact with new people from different walks of life and, as he calls it, “blend back into society,” while the CORE club has given him a safe space to be himself, among those who understand his past.

“I mean, I used to hang out with a bunch of drunks and drug addicts,” Boucher said. “And now I still hang out with a bunch of drunks and drug addicts we're just sober and we all talk the same way.”

Labels, labels, labels

One of those pals is 47-year-old Jessica Leeth-Young. With a voice and laugh that fills the room, she tells me her pronouns are she/her/homegirl.

“I was incarcerated at a young age,” Leeth-Young said. “I picked up a charge. And if anybody knows the system, once you pick up one charge, forget it. It's just a continuous cycle of incarceration for minor offenses and you can never get out of it. So, as a juvenile, I was already in the system.”

Growing up in Boyle Heights amid violence — her father was an abusive alcoholic and drug addict — Leeth-Young was 14 years old when she first came into contact with the criminal justice system. “I was told I was on my way to prison,” she said.

Leeth-Young is a CORE alumni now — she graduated from Pasadena City College and is enrolled at Chico State University. She graduates next month with a bachelor’s in sociology. She’s applying to USC for their social work program so she can open her own practice in Pasadena and serve more people who are formerly incarcerated and system impacted.

“I want my community to be able to come to people like myself and not feel judged,” she said.

Leeth-Young has an issue with the labels applied to the system, because she feels it’s an unfair diagnosis of their situation. She said people fall into the justice system at a young age, and it’s designed so that you can never really get out.

It's kind of like if you're a rat on the wheel ... there's no end to it, you know? And then they throw all these conditions on you and once you screw up, you're just right back in jail. And it seems as if they set you up for failure anyways. And it's not rehabilitation.
— Jessica Leeth-Young, alumni member of Pasadena City College's CORE Program

Leeth-Young believes education is a critical part of getting people out of the cycle of incarceration.

“I'm a big believer in second chances and in showing people that they deserve more, that they're worth more than what the system gives to them,” Leeth-Young said.

Quick to judge

Another believer? The CORE club’s faculty advisor, Nicholas Hatch. Normally a nutrition teacher, Hatch was asked by the students to advise the club and he agreed — fully knowing he had a lot to learn.

“I've never been incarcerated,” Hatch said. “My grandpa was an English professor, my parents both went to college. I grew up on a college campus.”

A man with a beard smiles wearing a CORE t-shirt in front of the CORE mural.
Nicholas Hatch, faculty advisor for the CORE Club at Pasadena City College, said many students are not given a fighting chance as kids. "You deserve to have been treated better in the first place, so that you didn't feel like a gang was the only family that you had, your only chance to survive. You deserved to have been encouraged and loved."
(Jackie Orchard

Hatch said the CORE program changed the way he viewed students.

“I had certain expectations because of the way that I was raised, because of the privilege that I hold as a white male,” Hatch said. “Since coordinating this program, I've learned that I was very oblivious to a lot of things. Students have a lot of external stuff going on and that affects how much they can focus on their school.”

Hatch said when he first came to teaching, if a student wasn't turning in assignments or participating in class, he assumed they weren’t motivated or didn’t care.

“I didn't realize that that student might be carrying with them [things] that made it very difficult for them to just show up in the first place.”

'Second chance' is actually the first

Hatch now feels that no student is more marginalized than the one who has been incarcerated.

They have been shoved to the very furthest margins, to the point that society says, ‘We don't even want you around us. We would rather lock you away and forget about you.’
— Nicholas Hatch, CORE faculty advisor at Pasadena City College

People who are well educated and afforded reasonable opportunities in life may judge the formerly incarcerated as simply “bad apples” and think they don’t deserve a second chance. But Hatch said these kids simply weren’t given the same start as others.

“From a very early age, they have been told, ‘Oh, you're just gonna end up in a gang anyway. Oh, you're gonna end up dropping out anyway. You're gonna end up incarcerated anyway. So why should we spend our time on you?’ A child has been told that all their life. And then, when they go home, maybe they don't have somebody at home telling them any different. Maybe they don't have anybody at home, period.”

To the people who think those incarcerated got what they deserved, Hatch has one simple message:

“They deserved better,” Hatch said. “And they don't just deserve better now that they have paid their price — their ‘debt to society’ — you deserved a chance. You deserve to have been treated better in the first place, so that you didn't feel like a gang was the only family that you had, your only chance to survive. You deserved to have been encouraged and loved.”

Boucher agreed that for those who have been involved in the justice system, it’s common to doubt yourself daily about going to college. Change is scary.

“If I change in order to do something right, I have to give up everything I've been doing, and that's scary. You think in your head, ‘What if this doesn't work? What if what they're telling me is wrong and I don't actually have a chance,’” Boucher said. “The fact of the matter is you'll never know unless you try.”

What questions do you have about local community colleges?
Community colleges act as a gateway for first-generation students and adults seeking a second start. LAist reporter Jackie Orchard wants students — and those who support them — to have the information they need to thrive in the California Community College system.

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