SFSU Public Affairs Press Release
Published by the Public Affairs Office at San Francisco State University, Diag Center.
SAN FRANCISCO, CA--May 4, 1999--Leo Vasquez never dreamed he'd go to college.
Quite the opposite. After years of drug and alcohol abuse, depression and a nearly successful suicide attempt, he found himself behind bars - doing time on and off for seven years in city and state prisons for drug and battery charges.
"I was out of control for ten years," he says.
Vasquez is in correctional facilities now but only when he wants to be. He visits them several times a week as an ambassador for higher education and a role model for rehabilitation.
A full-time student at San Francisco State University, Vasquez serves as director of a unique program, Project Rebound. Emeritus professor John Irwin started the program at SFSU thirty years ago to help ex-offenders go to college.
The program offers special admission to SFSU for parolees or probationers who might not normally qualify for university acceptance because of application deadlines or academic requirements.
Project Rebound offers support and counseling services for those in prison, inspiring them to make college a goal and tutoring them in the admissions process and in how to get financial aid.
As the current director, Vasquez has made 15 visits to prisons already this semester, including six to San Quentin. He plans to work there this summer in the prerelease department.
"When I go into the joint, they don't think I know what they feel, but I do know," he says. "I was afraid of change. We're all afraid of change. In prison, you get used to 'three hots and a cot.'
"But I tell them about my life, and what school has done for me. I have a new vocabulary. I had to start with the most elementary English. I didn't know what a noun was, what a verb was," he recalls.
Vasquez grew up in the Mission District of San Francisco. "All I knew was Army to Sixteenth Street, a pretty small universe," he recalls. Today, he is married and on his way to a career as a prison prerelease counselor. He is enjoying the expanding horizons of his life.
"I just walked across the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time - at age 36," he says. "I love life now!"
Vasquez's experiences mirror those of the hundreds of ex-cons who have been the beneficiaries of Project Rebound since 1969. In fact, they mirror those of the program's founder, John Irwin, whom colleagues call "the poster child" for convict rehabilitation.
Irwin, the author of five books, has just finished writing his memoirs, "The Life of a Rogue." It is a book that, no doubt, reads like a novel.
Irwin had a middle-class upbringing in the San Fernando Valley. Smart enough to scrape through high school despite missing a lot of classes, Irwin slipped into a life of crime that culminated in his spending five years in prison for armed robbery.
When he got out in 1957, Irwin applied to San Francisco State and made the mistake of revealing that he was an ex-con on parole.
"They made quite a fuss," he recalls. "They didn't have a policy and didn't know what to do with me. They set up a committee and admitted me."
After he went off parole, Irwin went to UCLA and finished his undergraduate degree, displaying a discipline and appetite for knowledge that would presage his career in academia. The tall, rugged Irwin went on to graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley where he earned a Ph.D. in sociology. His thesis topic: "The Felon."
Irwin started working at San Francisco State in the fall of 1967 as a lecturer in sociology, eventually working his way into a tenure slot. In 1969, mindful of his own experience, he approached his colleagues about setting up a program to get prisoners into school, and the university came through, granting seven admission slots to ex-prisoners.
Now retired, Irwin notes that the program is remarkable in its longevity.
"I did a study in 1972 of prison college education programs and they were all over the place. Today, there are practically none left," he notes. Support for them has dried up.
"I am very proud of the students who have kept the SFSU program going through the years. I gave it a jump start and then stepped back," he says with undue modesty.
Irwin attributes the program's success to it's fairly low-key, informal nature and to the fact that it is run by students for students. Though advised by faculty members in the department of sociology, it is supported entirely by the Associated Students, Inc. There is no state or federal money involved.
"It is exceedingly rare these days for convicts to go into college," notes Irwin's former student, SFSU criminal justice lecturer Dennis Bianchi. "Project Rebound is a very important program since the government seems to have given up on rehabilitating prisoners."
Bianchi, who spent 28 years on the San Francisco police force, says there is little if any rehabilitation available for the 160,000 prisoners now incarcerated in California.
"Just because someone's locked up, you shouldn't write them off. John Irwin was onto the right idea when he started Project Rebound," he adds.
Bianchi remembers being in Irwin's class with ex-offenders, and he remembers Irwin drawing them out and showing them that they were as capable intellectually as other members of the class.
Many former Project Rebound students have gone on to have productive careers as writers, counselors, teachers - even college professors. Irwin says at national criminology meetings, he gets together with a group of ten ex-cons who are all now college professors.
But Irwin points out that this is a rarity. "Many ex-cons have difficulty landing jobs after college," he notes. "It's disappointing."
Bianchi feels there is an acute need for more programs like these, given that there are two million men and women now in U.S. prisons, and that once released, at least 70 percent of ex-cons go back to prison if there is no intervention.
"We owe it to ourselves to reclaim some of these lives."
Vasquez and his fellow Project Rebound students agree, and are engaged in discussions with students at San Jose State and UCLA who are interested in starting similar programs on their campuses.
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