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Crime & Justice

Pitchess Detention Center has its first graduation ceremony

Chaplain Samuel Meza, right, walks pass a group of Latino inmates Thursday, Feb. 9, 2006, at the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic, 40 miles north of downtown Los Angeles.
Chaplain Samuel Meza, right, walks pass a group of Latino inmates Thursday, Feb. 9, 2006, at the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic, 40 miles north of downtown Los Angeles.

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The L.A. County Sheriff's Department marked a milestone Thursday, the first time the facility has had enough participants in educational programs to stage a graduation ceremony. 

For many of the 59 men completing 12-week programs in things like computer training and art, it was their first time experiencing the classic graduation ceremony: music, inside jokes that only the students understand, and of course, walking across stage to receive a certificate.

"Actually, it meant a lot," said Mario Munoz, graduating from computer class. "It kind of feels good. I'm proud of myself."

Munoz, 20, says he was in and out of juvenile halls and jails throughout his teens. When he was in the general population in places like Twin Towers, Munoz says, he was doing what most jail inmates do: "pretty much, you'd just be in your boxers, watch t.v., you play card games, you tell your little war stories. It's a waste of time."

Transferring to Pitchess, he was put in a dorm that's exclusively men participating in educational programming, and Munoz said it feels completely different.

"We try to keep it as respectful as we can," Munoz said. "You bump into somebody, you say 'excuse me,' little respectful things you just got to have in mind."

If L.A. Sheriff Lee Baca has his way, the entire jail system will someday look like these educational wings—it's the cornerstone of Baca's philosophy of jailing.

For the 150 years or so that the sheriff's department has been responsible for incarcerating people in Los Angeles County, said program Director Brant Choate, that philosophy has changed.

"We’ve had chain gangs, we’ve had honor ranches, we’ve had maximum security facilities," he said. "And now, we have EBI.

Currently, such programs are up and running in each jail, with over 40 percent of the jail population participating in some manner. 

James Beard, a life skills instructor at Pitchess, says that's unusual for a jail system.

"It's unheard of," he said.

That's because it's typically difficult to start programs in jails, which have highly fluctuating populations. But as more inmates are serving longer sentences in jails, there's more and more interest in finding positive ways for them to spend their time.

Jesse Mejia is in on a 17-month sentence. He said when sheriff's deputies approached him about taking classes, he said yes, but only because  he thought he’d get access to paper and pencils, and other things that are coveted behind bars.

“I was thinking of ways to manipulate the system to get free things so I could sell it, make it through here and whatnot," Mejia said.

Mejia says at first, he didn’t adapt well to the full day of classes, sitting still, and taking directions from deputies. But he says he realized he couldn’t just sit around wasting years behind bars.

“To be able to learn something and accomplish something daily is another important thing to me," Mejia said. "And this place has helped me to realize that.”

Mejia gest out in May. He says he’s "a little nervous" about getting out, with no job and no place to live lined up. But, he says he’s sure that this time, he’s not coming back.