JPay Blog

A Prison Sees Reform

Three men from Merced, CA graduated this week, but it was a graduation unlike any other. There was no pomp and circumstance, no graduation music. There was no speech from the first lady, like in UC Merced’s recent graduation night. There were no limos, no parties, no dressy clothes.
They wore dark blue caps and gowns, and flipped their tassels from left to right. But they were standing in prison, surrounded by the warden, some corrections officers, and a handful of inmate friends in folding chairs.
These three men proudly received their GEDs, the official equal of high school diplomas, on the complex of cement walls and barbed wire that makes up the U.S. Penitentiary Atwater. No photographs were taken, the commencement speaker was frisked upon entrance. But they graduated.
Miguel Chavez, the education director at the prison, says they have now achieved an accomplishment no one can ever take from them, something that will last them a lifetime. The Chaplain, Hussain Sheikh spoke about the struggle and toil that the men went through to earn those diplomas. Hector Rios Jr., the Texas-native warren, took the diplomas as a sign of good leadership on his part, that he was beginning to turn the troubled prison around after just seven months. The 48-year-old, built like a linebacker, with a thin mustache, strolls about the grounds, chatting in English and Spanish to inmates and using their first names. They call him “Rios” or “Sir.”
The prison had recently seen a death of a corrections officer at the hands of two inmates, and was in turmoil when Rios assumed his tour. The prison was in lock-down for months, the surrounding community was up in arms about safety, the old warren was transferred away, and Rios began reform. The prison is now safer, with tighter security, a place that community activists call ‘completely changed’. 
Rios says, for him, it’s all about respect and safety- for the inmates, the staff, and the community.  He is a disciple of the theory of MBWA- “Management by walking around”. As he walks around, a black inmate in a special unit for those with good behavior explains how convicts are trying to change for Rio. “It is a challenge,” he says, “our attitudes have to change, how we deal with each other has to change, and how we deal with our past substance abuse has to change. We’re trying to go into this with an open mind.”  All of the prisoners have their shirts tucked in and their shoes well-tied.