Fourth grade was the last year Benito Gutierrez finished a full year of school. He got his GED diploma while in juvenile hall and has never tried to peruse an education, up until he landed at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla.
"I've been incarcerated or on some type of supervision, probation or parole, continuously since the age of 12. I'm 41 now," Gutierrez said in a speech during a graduation ceremony at the prison. "I've been to 14 of California's 33 prisons and I haven't exactly been a model prisoner let alone student of the month."
"But, that's the old me."
Last month, Gutierrez, who moved to Modesto when he was a toddler, became the first student at Valley State Prison to be awarded Student of the Month at Merced College. He has a 4.0 GPA and is working toward building his transcript and getting an associates degree.
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Before hitting fifth-grade, Gutierrez was a honor role student, constantly brought home A's and his mom though he would be headed to college, he said. After moving to a rougher neighborhood, the people he started to seek acceptance from, Gutierrez said, were gang members and dealers who were in and out of prison.
Everything changed for Gutierrez when he arrived to the prison in Chowchilla, he told the Sun-Star in an interview. It was a challenge because he used to identify himself as a gang member and drug dealer, Gutierrez said, and "If I'm not that anymore, then what am I?"
"It took a long time to find myself," he continued. "There's something about this place. It's an environment that actually fosters real change."
Unlike other prisons he's been in, Gutierrez said, VSP had orientation leaders that told him of all the opportunities he could take advantage of. He said he saw people who had intelligence and integrity, and he wanted that for himself, "because the goal is to get to the point of being successful."
Now every Saturday morning Gutierrez is an orientation leader guiding other inmates to classes and programs. He's studying braille, part of a creative writing and screen writing group, works in the Masonry program and helps organize a charity for the American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life.
"Everyday of the week I am doing something positive with my time, because I am determined to leave this place a different person than the one who came in," Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez, who will be released in about a year, is doing six years for first-degree burglary and for having sex with a minor under 16, according to Krissi Khokhobashvilli, public information officer for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
"I know I can't change or take back the things I've done," he said. "I feel I owe the universe a huge debt. Wherever there's a need, I want to be able to give back."
When he's out, Gutierrez said, he wants to continue his education "for sure" and do community work.
Gutierrez also won first place for his fiction writing in the national PEN America writing contest for inmates. He edited an anthology of poems written by various inmates that can be read at Merced College's library, titled "Out of the Blue."
Enlgish professor Jennifer McBride said Gutierrez “produces some of the best writing I’ve ever read” so she nomitaed him for the student of the month honor.
"I really saw he embraced education as a way to change his life," she added. "He has sharp insight and intellect. He's a role model in the classroom."
There are currently 120 inmates at VSP working toward an AA in classes taught by six professors, Khokhobashvilli said.
On Wednesday more than 100 inmates graduated from one of the education programs offered at VSP.
"I'm not unique here at all, there's a bunch like me," Gutierrez said. "Good things are taking place in prison and many of us have the intention of giving back to society."
Monica Velez: 209-385-2486, @monicavelez21