Gabe Rosales, a student at UCI and mentor to currently incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals in the community, knows the impact of education on a human being. Rosales did county time while he was struggling with addiction, and after his experience, he began to engage with higher education and get sober.

As a criminology student, Rosales personally understands interactions with the criminal justice system and the circumstances around incarceration.

“This whole idea of crime is very subjective and people need to be educated on what it actually means, who’s in prison, what the circumstances are, how hard it is to be in a for-profit justice system to get somebody released sometimes… If the prosecutor’s job is to uphold their record, then they have a vested interest in making sure the victim’s family is always angry, so they’ll keep doing this. It’s like we’re fighting these uphill battles but I feel like, in some ways, we do win, and if we can help a few people, that’s a way to prove to the community that these kinds of different resources and ideologies of helping people work,” said Rosales.

Rosales began his involvement with rehabilitative classes and in-prison education by teaching a rehabilitative songwriting class in a general yard and a non-designated programming yard. This experience allowed him to connect with incarcerated people and witness how programming changes lives. In addition to songwriting, Rosales is also involved with sobriety efforts for incarcerated individuals. As it impacted his own journey in life, he wants to help others struggling with similar addiction-related issues.

“I want to help the people who will get out because they’re going back to these communities, and they’re going back to my family members who live on the outside. It’s this huge family, and to do the work and to be involved with it is hugely emotional, it’s hugely inspirational. It’s tiring but it’s very, very rewarding in terms of seeing people succeed and so many people getting into higher education and me being able to help them navigate these systems they’re totally not familiar with.”

Rosales believes that in-prison programming is helpful to those inside because it gives addicts a purpose and also shows that they matter. Through his experience as a mentor, he has seen the impact providers have on incarcerated students. He believes that part of the pivotal impact education has is because it is provided by community members outside, like donors to the LIFTED program.

“What makes the difference is the one-on-one communication that we have, the camaraderie, the socialization, the learning how to work through issues together in real-time, face-to-face without violence. And also, for myself and everyone else I’ve worked with inside, it’s them understanding — when programs provide us to come in and someone is funding that — education or whether it’s rehabilitative. It means that the community or somebody is investing in you. For a lot of my students and stories I’ve heard from foster home youth, it’s like nobody has ever invested in them. They didn’t have parents who cared about them. So, when you have people who invest in you, and they invest a little bit, it is this mutual reciprocal thing. That’s where the real rehabilitation starts because people are invested in the community and the community is invested in them. You wouldn’t want to mess up, like why would you? So, I pick the brains of many of my students who got out of prison and ask them what made them change and it’s always pretty much the same thing — somebody in the community cared enough about them to provide some services for them to get better and they felt invested in and then there’s like no need to be doing the same stuff because you know there’s another way, and you’ve learned there’s another way, and you’ve seen there’s another way. Also, people care about you enough to see you succeed and they want to see you succeed.”

Rosales is excited to see the impact UCI’s bachelor program has on the students inside, as he knows they are really excited about the amazing opportunity of being a UCI student. He has witnessed many changing their lives due to the programming they receive and gets seriously emotional every time he witnesses them being released or achieving various milestones in their lives. Many also leave gangs and harmful dynamics after receiving higher education because they have found other pathways to success and achieving their needs.

The community that Rosales has helped create is close-knit and an incredible support system for people who have been newly released.

”Working with the family inside is probably the most important thing I feel that I do. When my class participants tell me that they are now sober and inspired to contribute positively to their communities, whether they are getting out or will stay inside for a while, I am reminded how important it is to lead by example. We still have so much work to do for those returning though. It’s tiring but it’s very, very rewarding in terms of seeing people succeed and seeing so many people getting into higher education, and me being able to help them navigate these systems they’re totally not familiar with. I had a guy, for example, who got out after 42 years for a nonviolent bank robbery and when they picked him up from getting released, he didn’t know how to open the car door. It’s been 42 years since being in a car. He doesn’t know how to roll a window down. Like there are simple things people don’t know.  I mean the fact he was released without any kind of education of how the world is now, that’s why we’re there, that’s why I’m there. It’s like call me up — here’s my personal phone number. Literally tomorrow I am going to take a check to this guy for 2,000 bucks that one of my old student’s parents gave me to give to this guy. So it’s like the whole community rallies around these things, and the more you do it, the bigger community you get, and the more you educate people on the issues is really important,” said Rosales.

While he is excited, Rosales knows that there are many logistical problems LIFTED has to overcome, as they are trailblazers in this domain. Rosales wants to work on creating a pipeline from the prison to campus in order to make sure that the students who matriculate during their time in the program are well taken care of and have jobs and a place to live once they are released. Rosales acknowledges that there are claimed benefits about an increase in societal productivity; however, he also believes that there is a more important benefit to programs like LIFTED.

“There are other, more human reasons why we can be facilitating things like LIFTED and rehabilitative programs and welcoming people back. It’s not just about productivity, money, and jobs. It’s about healing and understanding and really collaborating with people on the planet as a species. It’s a broad way of looking at it, but I believe that education can do all of these things, and if we facilitate education, we can look forward and move toward all these societies we’re looking to become.”