Jimmy Lopez-Valdez’s high school graduation was not unlike others happening around this time of year. He wore a burgundy robe and mortarboard, and walked in as “Pomp and Circumstance” played from a loudspeaker.
But behind the usual graduation trappings of gold-foil stars, sheet cake and Costco pizza, the massive windows in the room looked out on endless spirals of concertina wire and imposing guard towers. The three dozen or so graduates earning their diplomas on Wednesday afternoon were doing it all within the walls of the Northern Nevada Correctional Center, a medium-security prison in Carson City.
“I apologize for the venue,” Lopez-Valdez joked as he began his speech.
The 29-year-old, who is serving a sentence of 7 to 21 years in prison for a 2015 drive-by shooting, was among the 50 percent of inmates who have not finished high school when they enter prison in Nevada. School districts in counties with prisons are charged with providing classes to inmates, and last school year, more than 800 of the nearly 14,000 prisoners in the state completed the program and more than 1,400 vocational certificates were granted.
Advocates say the coursework can be life-changing for inmates, giving them a sense of purpose during their time on the inside and preparing them for success on the outside. A 2016 study by the RAND Corporation found that people who participated in any kind of educational program in prison were 43 percent less likely to reoffend.
In his first try at high school, Lopez-Valdez said, he ditched class often, viewed himself as someone with no skills or smarts and had few goals aside from getting high. He recounted the drug-dealing that followed, the exchange of bullets with another car on the freeway that almost cost him his life and the disciplinary issues he faced even after going to prison.
“I didn’t care about the consequences. All I cared about was having fun and hanging out with my homies,” he said. “I knew that with this path I chose, prison or the grave would be inevitable.”
His change of heart came after the friends he held so dear didn’t so much as visit or write a letter and it was his family who showed him unconditional love. His mother sat weeping in the front row of the graduation, and he slipped from English into Spanish when he told her he loved her and promised to do better.
“It’s not your fault I am this way,” he said, brushing away a tear. “Forgive me for all the harm I’ve done to you and for all you have suffered.”
Lopez-Valdez said he has since learned he has an aptitude for math and history and that he loves the feeling of getting the final Jeopardy question right. He has learned to play the guitar, and his post-prison plans include studying art, music and automotive engineering.
“Throw me a book and I’ll read it,” he said. “I’ll never stop learning.”
The Nevada Correctional Education Consortium, a group of school districts and agencies involved in prison school programs, had urged lawmakers before the legislative session to bump up spending for the initiatives back to 2011 levels of $7.9 million. Spending on prison education programs was cut by 26 percent between 2012 and 2018, resulting in cutbacks to English as a Second Language programs, certain certificate programs and high school courses.
“Currently, NCEC is working at full capacity (classes are filled and waiting list are growing every day),” the coalition said in a January report. “NCEC cannot accommodate the need for additional correctional education services without an increase in funding.”
Sam Santillo, head of the Carson City School District’s adult education division, said he was excited that Gov. Steve Sisolak included an extra $1 million for adult education in his budget. Although about two-thirds of that will support adult programs outside of prisons, one-third will flow toward prison programs, and the NNCC staff hopes to buy equipment so inmates can practice trades that will help them find jobs upon release.
Also during the legislative session, lawmakers expanded a pilot program launched in 2017 that connects community colleges to prisons. The pilot program with the College of Southern Nevada, seeded with $300,000, has so far granted 201 college credits and 90 employment credentials.
In the latest budget, the Legislature approved $757,377 over the biennium for such programs. The funding will help Western Nevada College — which had focused its funding on veterans — to expand its scope to the general population. It will also help Truckee Meadows Community College make their program, previously backed by grants, sustainable when the grants go away, according to Nevada System of Higher Education lobbyist Mike Flores.
Graduates on Wednesday included men in their 20s as well as John McCullough, who said the ceremony was a make-up for when he should have walked across the stage — in 1969.
“I have filled a hole that has torturously haunted me for decades,” McCullough said in his speech. “Here I now stand triumphantly.”
It’s not always easy. Barriers include the logistics of prison life, such as disruptive lockdowns and loud housing units, and pressure from other inmates who are unsupportive of their peers’ academic pursuits.
Many say they blew off school when they were teenagers but have found a renewed sense of purpose. It also helps that getting a diploma can help inmates shave 90 days off their sentences and earn other privileges, such as a prison job.
“It makes my family proud,” said 25-year-old Cody Shaw, who expects to get out this year and dreams of becoming a diesel mechanic. “It’s a step forward.”
Andrew Emerich, also 25, said he wanted to get his diploma for his mom. She has a picture of him for each year he was in school — and he wanted her to finally have the one of him in a cap and gown.
There’s also another plus: With his early release, he’ll be home in time to see his first child born in August.
Graduate George Lovell, 57, said he’s been in and out of prison for decades and most recently came back on a parole violation. This time, a prison administrator told him he wouldn’t be sitting around anymore and prodded him to enroll in class.
“I’ve been a criminal my whole life,” said Lovell, whose next goal is to own his own trucking business. A graduation “is something I never thought I’d experience.”
In spite of some new gains, there’s still much work to be done, inmates say.
They think the state can help them by expanding vocational training programs in the trades and by offering them more of a “hand up” once they’re released. Lovell said when he was released from an earlier prison stint in 2010, he was handed a list of phone numbers where he could access services but two-thirds of the numbers were disconnected.
“In Nevada, it’s not about rehabilitation, it’s about punishment,” he said. The high school program he just completed was “the first place in the Nevada prison system where they’re actually trying to get people on track.”
With a diploma in hand, and new goals on the horizon, he’s trying to pay it forward by encouraging younger men not to make the mistakes he did.
“I look for the sponges and see if I can’t impart some knowledge,” he said. “The road of life is slippery. The ditches have addiction, heartache and misery if you can’t stay on the middle of the road.”