When Demitrius Herron arrived at the Young Offender System almost six years ago he was determined to spend his time behind bars to get a degree, but was told there was no chance he could because of curricula cuts .
On Wednesday, Herron was among nine students at LaVista Youth Prison and Women’s Prison who received associate degrees — the state’s first class through the new Second Chance Pell Grant program.
The Second Chance program allows incarcerated individuals to receive federal funding for higher education courses offered by local colleges and universities.
In this case, Trinidad State College has expanded its prison-based offerings to help make the dream come true.
Herron jumped at the chance to take college classes after spending nearly five years in Pueblo Youth Prison. He owed it all, he said in his opening speech, to a “disheveled-haired woman with a maniacal look in her eye”, who told him about the program.
This woman, DOC teacher Leigh Burrows, “is one of the most dedicated people I have ever met,” he said. Burrows later told him, “Damn Demetrius, you brought tears to my eyes.”
Burrows said she had been considering such a program which would give inmates a second chance since her first day on the job as a teacher at Limon prison 22 years ago.
Among the DOC officials on hand to congratulate the students was Dean Williams, executive director, who said he believed any form of higher education “is the most promising thing we can do with people who are with us, because it increases their chances of success when they are no longer with us.
Williams admitted that when he was 14, he was put on probation after he and a few friends were arrested for underage drinking.
“Yes, I was a juvenile delinquent. I can see I already have some street cred with some of those YOS guys,” Williams said with a laugh.
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“The problem with making a mistake is that you think it defines who you are going to be or what you are. I lived with that thinking I messed up my life, but now I’m in front of you the most unlikely director in the country,” Williams said.
Williams said the crime that landed the graduates in jail may be a motivating factor.
“Sometimes mistakes somehow do something to change us in some way,” he said.
In the Williams case, he later worked as a counselor and later supervised juvenile detention centers.
“Getting this degree today is a hell of a deal. It’s a step on the road to redemption,” Williams said.
Graduate Ruben Martinez said he wants to pursue a degree in psychology and would like to become a behavior analyst when he graduates.
“When we go out, it helps a lot that our prerequisite courses are already finished,” Martinez said.
For Herron, who is currently taking classes at Colorado State University Pueblo and plans to continue in sociology or psychology when he graduates in December, it has made some discoveries.
He said he discovered he was “a writer, I love to draw and sing and dance and I’m very proud to stand up and tell the world that we did it”.
“I’m the first of my mom, dad and grandparents to graduate. It hasn’t been spoiled. We’re almost home.”