This essay is by James “Sneaky” White as told to Charlotte West. 

James “Sneaky” White, 80, spent nearly four decades incarcerated in California. His nickname “Sneaky” comes from his days as a helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War. While he was incarcerated, he helped create a college program that has since graduated more than 1,500 men. At the time, San Quentin was the only other prison in the state where incarcerated people could earn degrees. 

In 1997, I was transferred down to Ironwood State Prison, which is in Blythe, Calif. in the desert near the Arizona border. 

I was a pretty prolific reader and I read a study from McGill University in Canada, and it showed that those who participate in education programs have far lower recidivism. At that time in California, we were at around a 65% recidivism rate. 

I was in pretty good shape with the administration. So I went to the warden and I said, ‘I want to do a college program for veterans.’

The counselor there was Bill Hobbs, who retired from the Air Force and then went to work for Corrections. I told him we want to try and find a college that’ll take on some vets to do correspondence. Bill Hobbs said he knew somebody down at Palo Verde College, the two-year school there in Blythe. 

The big issue was funding. At that time, in 2000, there were no Pell Grants that could help cover tuition. The only option was for guys to rely on their G.I. Bill benefits.

Hobbs talked to a lady who was involved with the Educational Opportunity Program, a program for low-income students. So she was also able to get some funding from the state level. 

One of the neat things about veterans is that at one time or another in their lives they had a mission. They’ve taken on something that was tough and they did it. So higher education is just like that, except it’s not physical. It’s mental and emotional.

Sneaky White

And so we came up with a plan and presented it both to the warden of the prison and the president of the college, a guy by the name of James Hottois, who happened to be retired military as well. 

The warden had said several times that he would not allow it, but he went on vacation. The chief deputy warden, who was also a veteran, came to me and asked if I still had the paperwork. He said “Let’s do it” because his boss was out of town. We lucked out. 

And so I got 53 inmates on one yard who were veterans. One of the neat things about veterans is that at one time or another in their lives they had a mission. They’ve taken on something that was tough and they did it. So higher education is just like that, except it’s not physical. It’s mental and emotional.

Out of the first 53, 52 graduated from the program with associate’s degrees. Over half of them got honors. 

What was amazing was the first graduation. It was something to watch these guys talk to their kids or younger brothers or sisters and tell them, ‘Look, if I can go to college, you can do it.’ So it passed on to their kids or their siblings that were on their street. 

And I went back to the warden. “Let’s do this for the whole yard.”

I kept track of if the inmates that were in the program got written up for infractions. They didn’t. Truthfully, part of that is because they spent so much time in their cells studying. The other thing we noticed pretty quickly was that the racial barriers were broken down. You would have known gang members, Black, white and Mexican men sit down together and help each other.

There’s a major gang in LA called the Playboys. And while I was in prison, they were one of the more active groups that were causing problems. Anyway, one day, I’m in my office and a guy comes and says, ‘The shot caller wants to talk.’ And I knew who he was, but I didn’t share ice cream with him, I’ll tell you that. 

So I go out on the yard and I went up to him and two other guys standing there. And he said, ‘See these two guys here, I want ‘em in college.’ 

I talked to Bill Hobbes and another captain. At first, they said ‘absolutely not.’ I said I wanted to see what happens if you divert two very active gang members into the program. They said ‘Okay, we’ll try it. You know, but we’re gonna be watching.’ So the two guys went through the program and did very well. And there was never again any acts of violence on the yard with any of the Playboys.

I think one of the reasons we were successful is because we had a group of inmates working for me that really bought into the program. We had an education building and the administration gave me one classroom. And so they could come in any time that they were not at work. They can come in, check in and sit down. Along the way, I used inmates like myself, for clerks and tutors, some who already had degrees.

And I had on board a guy, we called him Uncle Mo, who had a degree in English, and he was a stickler in English. He’d been a school teacher in the LA public schools. I had myself and another guy doing math. I had another guy doing the business courses.

I spent more time in prison in the college program as a cheerleader trying to build these guys up. And they really needed a mentor. They needed to find somebody that’s going to come in and say, “Come on, you can do this man….This is a cakewalk to someone in the military. Nobody’s asking you to do push ups or jump out of a plane.’

This was an inmate-run thing. What usually happens is someone gets off the bus and he goes to his counselor. Even if he says he wants to learn how to weld, the counselor tells him they are going to send him to learn how to paint because there are no open spots in welding. And the guy doesn’t want to learn to paint. 

Whereas, I can say, ‘Look you have to take English, or you cannot go through school.’ I could get away with telling an inmate ‘you got to do this.’ If a CDCR counselor tells them they have to do something, immediately, they’re gonna say, ‘Screw you. I’m not doing nothing. You’re not telling me what to do.’

When I started, I mean, it was an upward climb. When I first mentioned it to a couple of staff members, they nearly laughed at me. And the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) actually picketed in our first graduation. We got 52 Guys graduating and the CCPOA was out with signs as their families are coming in, “Why does your son in prison get free college and I have to pay for my son’s college?” The thing is, that first group of guys were all vets. So it was all paid for by the GI Bill. But that shows, you have to get not only the staff, but also the inmates. And that was pretty difficult at times.

Education departments from other prisons in Californias, politicians, even congressmen visited to see what we were doing and learn how to start a program. The warden would bring them down to my office and say, “This is Mister White. He runs it. Any questions you have, you ask him.”

James “Sneaky” White and his dog Rosie. Photo courtesy of James White.

I kept track of the students. I kept a copy of their transcripts. I kept good records. Some of my early graduates ended up going and getting MBAs. One kid got a master’s in microbiology for UC Davis. What’s amazing is how many guys got that one degree and then went on to get to another one. And I always say this: Education is addictive. 

My end game was to eventually get it where we could have professors come in and teach right there. And that we could do stuff online, which was a dream of mine in the early 2000s. Well it came to pass, we had to get the law changed and do some politicking and as an inmate to get the law changed in California. The law stated that a college professor could go to county jail and teach a class, but they could not go to a prison. Anyway, it took three years but we got the change with Senate Bill 1391 in 2014, which allowed face-to-face classes. So at one time we ended up with 600 guys on a yard that had 1200 inmates. It was a college campus – and this was not a minimum security institution. All in all, by the time I left Ironwood in 2017, 1,500 guys had gotten their degrees. 

I got a lot of recognition, but I used to tell everybody that they’re the ones that did the work. They’re the ones that changed their lives. All I needed to do was to say, ‘If you want to do this, here’s the opportunity.’

And today, I get a lot of texts from kids — they are still kids to me even though they are in their 30s — they tell me how they’re doing. And a lot of them call me Grandpa. They look at me and they say, ‘You’re the guy that cared about me. You’re the guy that said, ‘you can do it.’”

I like to say I changed the current California prison system two ways. One goes back to 1985 and San Quentin, we had the first incarcerated veterans group and we became statewide. And the other thing, of course, is the college program. Now there are college programs in all 35 prisons in the state. 

My sentence was life without the possibility of parole. I did 38.5 years before Governor Brown commuted my sentence, because of three things: my veterans activities, the college program, of course, and I was involved in a dog program, Paws for Life. I’m the first inmate in California to parole with his dog. I walked out of Vacaville with my dog Rosie in January 2020.

Lewis Waters is a formerly incarcerated artist who spent almost two decades in the federal system. Follow him on Instagram.

Open Campus national reporter covering the future of postsecondary education in prison.