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Former Donovan Inmate Takes His College Degree Beyond The Barbed Wire

John Schimmel walks on campus at Los Angeles City College, April 18, 2018.

Photo by Megan Burks

Above: John Schimmel walks on campus at Los Angeles City College, April 18, 2018.

On a recent Wednesday, 43-year-old John Schimmel met with a counselor at Los Angeles City College — his backpack slung over a crisp dress shirt.

It's a far cry from where he was this time last year: serving time at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa for voluntary manslaughter and attempted murder. A dispute earlier in life had gone awry and guns were drawn.

“I just have questions about some of the classes — see what else I need to transfer over to a university,” Schimmel told Mario Escalante, his counselor.

Schimmel is hoping to transfer to Cal State Long Beach next fall to earn a bachelor’s degree in sociology, and eventually a master’s that will let him do the kind of work Escalante does. He coordinates a program for former inmates enrolled at LACC, called Break It To Make It.

That’s the kind of outcome Southwestern College and several other state schools were hoping for when they started bringing more college programs to state prisons. A statewide focus on rehabilitation, necessitated by legislation beginning in 2011 to shrink the prison population, has taken prison education programs from correspondence courses, to face-to-face classes, to full-fledged degree programs.

Southwestern began offering the latter at Donovan in 2016, when an Obama administration program extended some financial aid to select prisoners, which helped cover its costs.

Data on these programs are beginning to trickle in, and the results are promising.

Schimmel’s transcript may hint at why. It’s awash in check marks for completed credits — in other words, he has a place to start.

Photo by Megan Burks

John Schimmel sits on the campus of Los Angeles City College, April 18, 2018.

Many of the credits are from correspondence courses through Coastline Community College that he took on his own before the Southwestern program started.

“At first when I decided to go to college, it was something for me to just try to occupy my time in prison. When you’re dealing with all of the things that go on (there), it was something positive for me to take up,” Schimmel said. “And at the same time, it was to see if I could actually do it.”

Schimmel barely passed the first course. He was routinely kicked out of schools as a child and earned his high school diploma at a continuation school. He said he was just passed through; he didn’t really know the material.

But Schimmel got better, and he eventually earned four associate’s degrees through correspondence.

“After awhile, it just became a habit,” he said. “And then when I realized the opportunities that I could actually take with education, and use that to apply to my life and make something of myself later on, it became an something of ambition.”

That ambition is hard to miss, but Schimmel said it alone wouldn’t have been enough to sustain him outside of prison. Toward the end of his time at Donovan, he began taking classes alongside other inmates with in-person professors through the Southwestern College program. He said that’s when he learned to ask for help.

RELATED: Donovan Inmates Work Toward College Degree Through Obama-Era Program

“A lot of times, being incarcerated for so long, we don’t like asking for help. We become real (macho), where we’re like, I’ll figure it out on my own,” Schimmel said. “So I think developing that habit, as far as going to school and asking professors for some kind of guidance or help, I think it becomes a natural thing where you don’t feel embarrassed or feel prideful.”

Now, Schimmel’s days are structured around asking for help.

Video by Matthew Bowler

From LACC, he drives downtown along streets that have changed a bit since he was convicted 18 years ago. He rolls the windows down and turns the music up. The booming bass is periodically interrupted by Siri, who helps him along.

Schimmel visits a nonprofit there called Chrysalis for regular check-ins with a job specialist. Marleen Munoz has already set him up with a transitional job doing roadside work for the city. She supplies Schimmel with other job leads and, really, anything he needs, like dress shoes for interviews.

They also apply for jobs online, which reveals just how important — and difficult — it can be for the formerly incarcerated to ask for help.

“So we’re going to send an email. So hit ‘compose,’” Munoz instructed. “Right there at the top.”

The silence dragged a few beats too long and she reclaimed the mouse.

Like a lot of former inmates, Schimmel missed out on years of using computers. It’s just one hurdle on a long list of disadvantages that help explain why many former inmates fall into old habits. More than 60 percent of people released from prison during the 2012-2013 fiscal year were arrested again by 2016, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. About 50 percent returned to custody.

While opportunities like correspondence courses have been shown to reduce that rate, a recent study by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center and a partnering nonprofit shows face-to-face programs like the one at Donovan may have an even bigger impact. They cut the recidivism rate for participants in half.

Schimmel is doing his best to keep busy and on track. After his meeting with Munoz, he went home to study — not for an LACC class, but for a test to become an electrician apprentice. After that, he was planning on a late-night gym session.

“My mom always said I was a child with so much energy, so at least now I’m using that for the right purposes,” he said.

On a recent Wednesday, 43-year-old John Schimmel met with a counselor at Los Angeles City College — his backpack slung over a crisp dress shirt.

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