Oakland Local: From prison to Phi Theta Kappa: How one Oakland youth is helping change the juvenile justice system

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20130528_212916-659x497June 6, 2013
By Jon Leckie

When Jonathan Roach graduated from high school, he was thirsty for higher education, but as an inmate in Alameda County’s Juvenile Hall, the opportunity didn’t exist. Yet despite his lack of resources, Roach became the first person in Alameda County to begin his college career while still a prisoner of the juvenile justice system.

In 2010, Roach was arrested and charged with armed robbery. He was only 15, living life in poverty with his single mother and five other siblings.

“I made a mistake,” he admits. “I was on the wrong path, wasn’t going to school and ended up making a big mistake and going to prison.”

During the two years Roach spent in juvenile hall, he got back in school, attending daily classes and taking on independent study before accumulating enough credits to earn his high school diploma. But as Roach reached this major milestone in his life there were no caps, no gowns and he had little to look forward to except extended hours in his jail cell.

“After you graduate you’re just in your room because you don’t have to go to school,” he said, “and what you have is a lot of violent young men without anything to do.”

Roach, however, was not about to sit around letting time pass him by. Eager to continue his education, he sought out avenues that could lead him from his cell to college commencement.

On his search, he would eventually met Dr. Siri Brown, chair of Merritt College’s African-American studies department.

“The Department of African-American Studies at Merritt College has a long history of understanding the connection between academics and community organizing,” Brown said. “Two years ago we started offering college courses in juvenile hall. Students take correspondence or online courses, we use volunteer student tutors and try to create an environment where there is an intellectual exchange.”

Brown learned about Roach from Amy Cheney, the head librarian inside juvenile hall. After attending an event put on by Merritt’s African-American Studies Department on issues related to prison and death row, Cheney reached out to Brown about an inmate who wanted to go to college.

“I was looking for great speakers to talk with our youth. I had met Dr. Brown years ago and we had talked about her coming up and doing presentations,” Cheney said. “The situation taking place with realignment and the California Youth Authority shutting down created a situation in which there are kids here for a longer period of time.”

With the help of David Muhammad, Oakland’s former chief probation officer, Brown and Cheney developed a program to bring higher education to youth incarcerated in the juvenile justice system, and, in May 2011, Roach became the first inmate in Alameda County to earn college credit while inside juvenile hall.

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