From prison to purpose: Joe Blackburn proves it’s never too late in life.
Statistically speaking, Joe Blackburn probably shouldn’t be here talking to me on this spring afternoon in Santa Clarita, Calif. But, as he’s proven through an unwavering commitment to finishing a bachelor’s degree at Brandman University, he is determined not to be just another statistic.
The 64-year-old has spent more than two decades of his adult life in prison for a variety of serious criminal charges, all rooted in his participation in drug and gang activities in the San Gabriel Valley. According to California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) data, 67 percent of inmates return to prison within three years of being paroled – among the highest recidivism rates in the country. Blackburn wants to change that.
He was paroled 10 years ago after his last felony conviction and in that decade, he has persevered in his mission to turn his life around. That wouldn’t have happened had he not received the mental health care he so desperately needed, he says.“I was born bipolar, but I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 51 years old and incarcerated,” he said, recalling the afternoon stroll that would ultimately help change his life. “I was fortunate. I was walking the [prison] yard one day and saw a big poster announcing that as part of a legal settlement, there would now be free mental health care for inmates in California. I signed up for it right away.”
The poster he saw was referencing the 1995 case Coleman v. Wilson, a federal class action suit filed against then-California Governor Pete Wilson, which resulted in federal oversight over CDCR’s mental health and medical treatment. Without mental health care, Blackburn says he would’ve probably wound up right back in prison.
“I would go through huge shifts in emotions and didn’t understand why. There’d be some days where I wouldn’t even want to get out of bed because I was so depressed, followed by weeks where I would never stop or slow down – not even to sleep,” he recalls. “When I was finally diagnosed and properly medicated, it was like being born again – like a complete restart on life.”
Through the wild mood swings and fits of depression, he started to self-medicate by using street drugs, falling into the life of a gang member.
“I stumbled through high school, but all along my teachers were constantly telling me that I was very smart and could do anything I wanted with my life; but I was only focused on drugs.
“Once my head cleared up with treatment I formed a new game plan for my life. I remember sitting in that prison cell determined that I would not fall back into the drugs, the gang life, the guns …” he said.
After he was released from prison, Blackburn was living at a Christian ministry facility for rehabilitation. A counselor recommended he pursue college and helped him enroll at the College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita.
“I had no idea what I was doing. I had never touched a computer before and had no idea how to use one,” he said.
In spite of that steep learning curve, he tackled an associate degree and transferred to Brandman, which offers programs on-site at College of the Canyons.
Blackburn says the culture of support for students at Brandman was vital to his success and credits Santa Clarita One Stop staffer Suzy Mix for being his strongest advocate. “Suzy took me by the hand and walked with me through the whole deal – she got me going and has had my back ever since,” he said.
“I could tell that he was on a mission to turn his life around, do some good for future generations. He has such a sense of purpose. To me, Joe is an inspiration; he is truly a brilliant, kind and giving soul,” Mix said. “I’m so proud to know him and to have played a part in his educational goals.”
Adjunct faculty member Daniel Randolph, who also serves as a police officer in the LAPD, said “Joe is truly an inspiration on so many levels. By his own voluntary divulgence, he battled many of life’s obstacles, yet he was my best student at an age where people take up golf lessons and retire, not go back to school for a degree. He is a statistical anomaly. Ex-cons don’t become top of their classes in their mid-60’s…do they? I share his pride.”
“Joe took my Corrections class and basically co-instructed it because of his experience. His contributions were voluminous and substantive. He was candid about his criminal history and prior prison stays with the class. Needless to say, I was taken aback by his story and not sure what to expect after being candid about my real job as a Los Angeles police officer. I could tell by his self-introduction that he was serious about being in the class, serious about having made recent positive life changes and he wanted to learn. Joe and I hit it off instantly,” Randolph added.
Blackburn is completing the final two courses of his bachelor’s degree in sociology and will graduate this May. But he won’t stop there.
“I’m seeing my education all the way through to the highest level,” he said with a smile. Blackburn has already enrolled in the master’s in psychology program at Brandman and hopes to complete a doctorate degree after that.
His vision for life beyond the university? Dedicating his life to helping curb the number of parolees returning to prison. “I have a unique perspective – I have a view of both sides of the prison system. I know what the administration is thinking and I know what the inmates are thinking.”
“Basically what they have right now is … if paroled they hand you 200 bucks, open the door and say, ‘see ya later.’ What are you going to do after being locked up for seven … eight … 10 years, and then it’s welcome back to the world?
“I’ve written a few papers about the support that parolees need when they are released and I want to open a guidance center that will help these guys coming out of the system so they can turn their life around.”
Nothing beats leading by example.