Finding Higher Education Within the Prison System

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Photo by Emiliano Bar

When Allen Burnett watched the coverage of the Rodney King riots from his jail cell in 1992, he had no idea how familiar the scene would be when, as he was preparing to leave prison 28 years later, he watched footage of similar protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd.

Allen Burnett (Photo courtesy of Megumi Nakazawa, a 22-year-old photographer. Her photos are featured on and on Instagram @facesofmassincarceration.)

At 18 years old, Burnett participated in the carjacking death of a college student, and two years later, after a trial and the resulting conviction for aiding and abetting a homicide, Burnett was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Early Life
Born to teenage parents and raised in Orange County, California, by his mother and an abusive stepfather after his own father died when he was only five years old, he was slow to read and struggled with both academics and the law.

Expelled from high school after multiple juvenile detention center sentences for participating in gang activity, he found himself in an alternative education program with an inspiring teacher, Dr. Grant Loomis, who pushed him to succeed.

“He gave me the idea that I was college material,” says Burnett.

He worked hard and graduated in 1989 with a high school diploma and the goal of attending college, hoping to someday work in the same juvenile detention system where he had been. Soon after graduation, he enrolled in community college.

His first college course was in criminal justice. Burnett notes the irony of sitting in a classroom with law enforcement and probation officers when “I still considered myself a gang member. I wasn’t out doing crime at that time, but I was hanging out with my [gang member] friends.”

The push and pull of living two completely different lives made staying in college difficult. Gang involvement, with its ready-made community of people who knew and understood him, was an appealing alternative to the lonely prospect of chasing an education without any family support or mentorship to guide him.

“In gangs, you don’t have to know how to read, write, you don’t have to go to school, any of that,” Burnett said.

He turned away from education, gave his life over to the gang, and made a series of choices that resulted in the worst possible outcome: a life was taken.

Inside Out
The 1990s were the heart of the punitive era. The country’s attitude toward incarceration was heavily in favor of the deterrence and incapacitation of people convicted of crimes. Congress rescinded Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated people. For many types of federal and state criminal charges, mandatory minimum laws were “in” and discretionary parole was “out.”

Burnett recognizes it clearly, in retrospect. “I was [in prison] at the apex of this mass incarceration movement.”

Aligned with national trends, California law did not allow for those sentenced to “life without” — as Burnett was — to participate in the kinds of rehabilitation and education programs available to those with time-defined sentences. “What’s the use, right?” he said. “You’re basically condemned to die.”

But without the distraction of outside influences or the pressure of being on a college campus, his desire to learn reignited, and he began reading books that were available inside the prison walls.

While Burnett was doing vocational landscaping work at California State Prison, Sacramento (also known as New Folsom), his supervisor noticed he always had his nose in a book.

“He came to me and said … ‘We have to have this mandated literacy program.’ And a lot of these men, some of them [spoke] English as a second language, and they couldn’t read. ‘Can you sit with the men … and just read these books to them, and try to get them to read to you?’ And so, I did.”

Burnett would spend hours each day in one-on-one sessions with inmates reading basic children’s books, or novels like “Devil in a Blue Dress” and “A Little Yellow Dog” together, and he found both “comfort and purpose” in those interactions.

“Spending time with other men, reading with them, being safely isolated in a space where we could just be ourselves,” said Burnett, was invaluable.

Pursuing Education
In 2009, Burnett was transferred to California State Prison, Los Angeles County, at Lancaster, where he joined hundreds of other men who shared his prison sentence. Within “A Yard,” which housed the Progressive Programming Facility, he was surprised to discover a calm environment, free of the racially segregated and violently charged atmosphere he had navigated previously.That he also had access to associate degree correspondence courses through Coastline College was a dream come true. Inmates pooled their resources to buy and share books and packs of Scantron forms, and GED instructors proctored their exams.

“It literally changed my whole experience in prison,” Burnett said. He went on to earn associate degrees in social and behavioral science; arts and humanities; and American studies.

More change was on the way.

California State University, Los Angeles (Cal State LA), professors came to Lancaster with the goal of initiating a bachelor of arts program, and they selected a few dozen men to be in the inaugural cohort. When prison administration didn’t want to “waste their money on the education of men with our sentence, the professors started raising money to pay for it,” explained Burnett.

In the beginning, Cal State LA professors volunteered their time to provide instruction through a correspondence program. When Pell Grants were reinstated as a funding pathway for inmates, the school was able to transition to in-person instruction, and in 2016 it began offering the courses to earn a bachelor’s degree in communication studies. The pace was slow; few teachers were available, so inmates couldn’t take many classes at once.

But, said Burnett, “we were becoming educated.”

The program exposed him to more than literature. “That was the first time in my life that I had Black professors, these two women, and it was unbelievable to see someone who looks like me overcome challenges and succeed. It was so beautiful,” he said. “They would discuss the work in a voice that was familiar to me as a human being.”

‘An awakening’
Burnett underscores that taking college courses and earning degrees won’t erase or make up for what he did. “The right to an education doesn’t negate the fact that someone has caused harm,” he said.

These years were marked by a distinct mingling of educational advancement and personal growth, to such an extent that it seems one without the other wouldn’t have had the same profound effect on his perception of himself and how he might fit into the world.

As he began to identify with literature and find his voice as a writer, he also learned to take responsibility for his choices. Through self-help classes, inmates were given a safe space to focus on the root causes of their decisions to engage in gang activity, drugs and alcohol, and harmful or criminal behaviors, while “being vulnerable and extending our understanding of community,” Burnett said.

As part of the classes, people who lost loved ones to violent crime would be escorted to the prison to talk about their experiences. Burnett is grateful for their willingness to share their stories. “For me, that was an awakening, and I had to sit with the understanding of the ripple effect of harm I had caused.”

Professors were opening up the possibilities that existed for him after he earned his degree, and self-help classes were “helping us walk back to why we made the decisions we made,” said Burnett, and it was this combination of experiences that changed the course of his future.

Commutation to Graduation
In 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom commuted Burnett’s sentence of life without the possibility of parole to a sentence of 27-years-to-life. At that time, he had been in prison for almost 28 years.

In 2020, he was able to appear before a parole board — a meeting more than three hours long that included family of his victim, who opposed his release. Burnett recounted his time in prison, educational achievements, and personal growth, and recognized the serious impact of his crime.

When the parole board agreed to recommend his release to Gov. Newsom, Burnett wasn’t sure he was worthy.

A letter arrived soon after from one of the survivors of his crime who — struck by his sincerity at the parole hearing and believing his regret was genuine — chose to forgive him for the sake of their own well-being. Burnett was deeply moved by the gesture.

“They hoped I would live a valuable life and at the time that made it feel possible for me [to leave prison].”

His parole plan included completing his bachelor of arts in communication studies and continuing his education to earn a master’s degree. Pell Grants, financial aid from Cal State LA, and a small student loan made it possible for him to achieve these goals. He also worked while finishing his degrees, doing advocacy with Human Rights Watch’s National Life Without Parole Leadership Council and also consulting with Parole Justice Works.

Beyond Prison Walls
Last year, Burnett graduated with a master of arts in communication studies, with an emphasis on organizational communications. He is the co-founder and director of The Prism Way, a nonprofit dedicated to restoring civil and human rights for justice-impacted individuals, a goal that “arises from a profound belief in the fundamental worth of each human being.”

This work gives him purpose, he says, and allows him to pull from the educational, emotional, and social skills he amassed while incarcerated. The significance of this opportunity is not lost on him.

“I’m not just trying to ‘give back’ … I’m trying to make a real difference, because I am the first person in California sentenced to life without parole to earn a master’s degree.”