Story and photos by Ike Dodson, CDCR PIO
Office of Public and Employee Communications

Crisp, deliberate and beaming in a gown, shirt and tie, 20-year-old Jabin Villarreal exhibited the calm confidence of a merited valedictorian Oct. 20.

Speaking inside a crowded auditorium at O.H. Close Youth Correctional Facility, Villarreal challenged his fellow Class of 2017 graduates of Johanna Boss High School to continue striding the trail of success.

“We are defined by more than our (Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) number) or the crime that brought us here,” Villarreal said. “We are defined by the choices we make and the actions we do, and we all have the potential to become something great.

“Fellow graduates; we stand here today changed men on the path to our future. Let us begin the next step of our journey together and celebrate our achievements with those we love and those who have given so much. The world won’t be easy, but we have demonstrated we can meet the challenges because we have graduated high school.”

Villareal also addressed the host of loved ones and O.H. Close staff in attendance. Behind Villareal on stage was a bevy of DJJ staff who played big roles in the rehabilitative process.

After opening remarks by instructor Larry Hammond, Johanna Boss Principal Susan Harrower welcomed the parents and commended the students for their new accolades. She passed the microphone to DJJ Superintendent of Education Troy Fennel.

“I would like to congratulate you and encourage you to think of today as the first day of your future,” Fennel said. “Always think intensively, critically, show true character and above all, be a blessing to society.”

DJJ, operating with a population of around 620, has handed out about 166 new diplomas or GED certificates each year since 2012. The 2016-17 school year was especially prolific, as 47 percent of eligible students (182 of them) received their GED or diploma.

According to the RAND Corporation, incarcerated people who participate in correctional educational programs are up to 43 percent less likely to reoffend. Numerous studies show that, in general, the more education received, the less likely an individual is to return to prison.

It’s why DJJ celebrates graduations so emphatically.

Clay Rojas, a former federal inmate, was the keynote speaker for the Oct. 20 ceremony. He admitted angst in entering a secure perimeter for the first time since his incarceration, but he delivered an important and powerful message.

“Healing is not about forgetting that bad things happen, but about the bad things no longer controlling us,” Rojas said. “I think about my journey from the life I used to live and the life I live now and I know it’s possible for your life to look completely different.”

Rojas is a decorated U.S. Marine veteran who was wounded in Iraq and later became a peace officer. The Auburn pastor is the executive director of Prison Families Aftercare and is an active speaker and advocate for youth.

He garnered a strong reaction from youth and their loved ones when he took a diploma from the auditorium lectern and theatrically brandished it above the graduates.

“This diploma right here is an instrument ― a tool,” Rojas said. “When you wake up tomorrow morning and you brush those teeth and look in the mirror, you are going to see a graduate.

“I want you to look in the mirror and see value. I want you to know that you are valuable, you are our future and everything you need is already in you.”

It was the same sentiment echoed by Villarreal, who heartily embraced his family and friends after the ceremony.

The teachers, administrators, counselors and officers at O.H. Close all received special thanks from the valedictorian. He also gave a shout out to the facilities’ “foster grandparents” ― senior volunteers who attend classes and provide critical assistance to both teachers and students.

“I’ve learned a lot from the treatment staff, from the teachers and from foster grandparents who helped me become the man who now stands before you,” Villarreal said. “I could be here all day thanking special teachers and correctional staff and I’m sure my fellow graduates feel the same.”

“We want to show our family, friends and our community just what the students of Johana Boss High School are capable of,” he added. “We can show people in the outside community that we have the potential to shine and become so great.

“It takes a lot of strength and courage to change our lives, and today we have achieved a major goal – to graduate from high school.”