DELANO — Antoine Williams was 15 years old when he murdered someone in a gang-related homicide, getting revenge for a friend who had been killed.
After being convicted of murder and given a life sentence in 2000, he has spent the past 18 years in various prisons, most recently at Kern Valley State Prison in Delano. For many years, anger was what drove him and kept him going, until he found a new purpose: education.
Williams was one of the first group of inmates at Kern Valley to participate in a new program that Bakersfield College started in spring 2015 called Inmate Scholars. As part of the program, BC professors teach classes directly to inmates in various prisons in Kern County.
Williams will graduate with an associate’s degree in transfer studies and communication next year, along with other students participating in the first year of the program.
“This is one of the best accomplishments I think I’ve had in my life,” he said. “For me, it’s changed my life. I was heading in the wrong direction. It taught me that if I put my mind to something, I can achieve it.”
“I applied all that negative energy I was having into this and turned it into something positive.”
Williams said he wanted to participate in the program because he wanted to do something he could feel proud of.
“I wanted to show my parents and the people who love me that I can do something positive,” he said. “I wanted to give them something to smile about, something to feel proud of me for.”
Bakersfield College created the program after Senate Bill 1391 passed in 2014. Prior to the bill’s passage, colleges could not provide in-person education to inmates. They could only offer courses through mail-based correspondence or video courses. That’s because colleges were prohibited from receiving funding for programs not accessible to the public.
Now, colleges across the state are free to partner with prisons and seek funds to pay for that. In Bakersfield College’s case, it is a California College Promise grant that pays for the inmates’ education.
There is no cost on BC’s part, according to Chelsea Esquibias, director of the program.
“Higher education is a proven way to reduce recidivism and provide opportunities for better jobs,” she said. “If we’re able to go in while they’re incarcerated and provide that education, then when they come out ideally they are more prepared to get a job, not reoffend, and ultimately have a better quality of life. It keeps our community safer.”
Esquibias knows there are people in the community who believe inmates don’t deserve education or it won’t make a difference for them. But she thinks they should look at the bigger picture.
“Around 95 percent of people who are incarcerated are coming home sooner. Do you want the person to have no opportunity, no taxpaying ability? They’re ultimately going to be a bigger stress on our economy. With this program, they can set themselves up for success.”
A growing program
When the college first started the Inmate Scholars program, BC only had a partnership with Kern Valley State Prison, with one faculty member teaching around 20 students in one classroom. Now, the college has partnerships with 10 prisons for a total of 60 classrooms with 26 teachers participating, Esquibias said.
Enrollment has also significantly increased, with around 2,300 students enrolled in the program last academic year.
“We have more prison partnerships than any other college in the nation because there are so many prisons here in Kern County,” Esquibias said.
The warden at Kern Valley Prison, Christian Pfeiffer, said the program fits perfectly with the prison’s goal to provide opportunities for inmates to develop skills they will need to integrate back into society.
“That is why we are so excited to partner with Bakersfield College,” he said. “Our experience has been when the inmate population participates in higher learning, they are far more likely to participate in other rehabilitative programs and far less likely to have disciplinary issues.”
There have been no instances of assault, of a teacher or other students, during instruction since the program started. On the contrary, everyone is treated with kindness and respect, and shares an eagerness to learn, Esquibias said.
“They take the classes very seriously. They do really well,” she said. “Around 95 percent of our students pass their classes.”
Christopher Herrera has been in the program since the beginning. After first arriving in Kern Valley in 2014, he was looking to find a sense of purpose in his life.
“I was just tired of sitting around in a cell doing nothing and letting time waste. I needed to help myself make better choices,” he said. “I knew if I did this, I could make a big change in my life and my family’s lives.”
Upon graduating with his associate’s degree, Herrera said he wants to pursue bachelor’s degrees in communication and business. Students who get their associate’s degree are able to transfer to other prisons that offer bachelor’s degree programs, Esquibias said.
Fellow inmate Rico Bell said he also intends to get a bachelor’s degree. He already received an associate’s degrees in social and behavioral science and business from a correspondence program and is set to graduate next year through the Inmate Scholars program for another degree.
Bell said he’s enjoyed his time with the education programs, especially Inmate Scholars, as he is able to learn in a classroom, ask questions and be with other students.
“It’s like we’ve formed our own little family,” he said. “It’s a beautiful thing. It’s giving a lot of people opportunities, it’s changed mind frames, it’s stopped a lot of bad activity.”
Looking to the future
Going through the program has made many of the inmates think about their future, after they get out. Herrera wants to be a motivational speaker for schools. Williams wants to be a youth advocate. Bell has always wanted to be a pastor.
They have one thing in common: They want to speak about their experiences and get those at risk to go down a different path than they did.
“I think a lot of kids nowadays have been desensitized to how important it is to be educated and how one mistake, one bad decision, can really mess your life up forever, and not just your life but the lives of the family of someone you may hurt,” Williams said. “I want to try to help others from going through what I’ve been through.”
It may be some time before many of the inmates in the program can realize their dreams outside prison.
Some don’t have too much longer to go, such as Herrera, who had his 10 years to life sentence for attempted murder commuted by Gov. Jerry Brown and could get out as soon as this November.
“In a way, I was glad to be sent to prison because it’s made me reflect on my choices in life and see that everything I did before was wrong,” he said. “I want to be a productive member of society again.”
Others, like Williams, won’t be up for parole for at least several years. However, Esquibias said what’s important is that the inmates have a sense of hope about the future.
“They have to have hope that if you keep doing the right thing you’ll make it,” she said. “I’m a big believer in second chances, and I’m a big believer in human beings. If we want things to get better, we all have to put energy toward making that happen.”