Allen Burnett was serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole when he sought the opportunity to earn a bachelor's degree in communication.
"Never thought I was going to get out of jail, you know," Burnett said.
Gov. Gavin Newsom commuted Burnett's sentence, and in 2020, he was released. Burnett enrolled at Cal State L.A. to finish earning his degree, earning a master's and co-founding a nonprofit - the Prism Way.
"It was literally one of those things that really changed my life," he said.
Since 2016, almost 40 students have graduated through Cal State L.A.'s Prison B.A. Graduation Initiative. It is offered at the California state prison in Lancaster, and a similar program was launched at a women's prison in Chino.
"It was an opportunity to change not only my life but those around me," said Deon Whitmore, who earned a B.A. in communications from the initiative. "There's a lot of guys, this program has benefited. And I'm just glad to be the representation of just one of them."
However, even with a degrees, many formerly incarcerated graduates have trouble finding a job. Burnett and Whitmore understand first-hand those real-life limitations.
"Scary to come out and know that your degree is not enough," Whitmore said. "I didn't qualify for a lot of things based on experience, and I that was challenging for me."
Now, through a $900,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, Cal State L.A. created the Prison to Careers Equity Pathway Program.
"The grant allows us to provide them with coaching, mentoring, paid internships, you know, leadership skills, all the kinds of things that a lot of other students may already have a little bit of a leg up," explained Taffany Lim, executive director of the Center for Engagement, Service and the Public Good.
The pathway program is one of several programs at Cal State L.A. to support formerly incarcerated students.
"I feel like it's gonna pay dividends in the end," Burnett said.
Through support from the grant, Whitmore - who was released from prison a few months ago -- received coaching and landed a paid internship. He will be starting a new full-time position soon.
"For a lot of guys who are and will be going through the same thing that I'm gonna do, is definitely like stay the course," Whitmore said.