Prison to Law School: How Education Turned a Former Gang Member’s Life Around

Prison to Law School: How Education Turned a Former Gang Member’s Life Around

Angel Sanchez has spent much of his college career helping those who, like him, yearned for a second chance.

He’s mentored previously incarcerated students, and through his position as president of Moot Court at UCF, an organization that gives pre-law students practice at arguing cases, he helped collect more than 300 books to donate to the Orange County Jail’s inmate library. He knows firsthand how books can give hope to those behind bars.

That’s because Sanchez, a political science and legal studies honors student graduating May 6, spent much of his young adult life in Florida’s prison. He was given a 30-year sentence at age 16 for attempted murder and possession and usage of a firearm. Sanchez grew up in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood and got wrapped up in a gang as a pre-teen, although his father had always tried to guide Sanchez toward education.

“My dad was an instrumental force on me getting an education,” Sanchez said. “But by the time I was a teenager, my peers had more of an influence over me than my dad.”

While Sanchez was behind bars, his father’s words of encouragement to get an education really sank in. With access to the prison’s library, Sanchez picked up an Introduction to Business textbook – his first college-level book – and read it cover to cover. He was shocked when he found he could answer the questions in the review section afterward.

“I thought textbooks were for people smarter than me,” he said. “That opened my eyes and inspired my appetite and craving to learn more.”

He would go on to earn his General Education Development diploma and a paralegal certificate through correspondence courses while in prison. He also earned college credit via College Level Examination Program exams in American History 1 and 2. From reading a book by a former inmate, he learned that even prisoners could take CLEP exams, just not many knew of the opportunity.

Sanchez later landed a clerking job in the prison’s library, where he read numerous law books and discovered his passion for the field. He would listen to National Public Radio and would practice to himself what he would say if he were given the chance to be part of the conversation. He also would read Florida Supreme Court cases, and that’s when he learned something that would change his life: The guidelines of which his own prison sentence was created were ruled illegal. He filed a motion, got lawyers to mitigate his case and got his sentence cut in half.

“There was such validation and empowerment that I felt,” Sanchez said. “To some, I seemed to just be an ignorant Latino kid, but it felt so good to know that wasn’t true. Education became my personal shell and I just kept wanting to build it.”

Sanchez began planning for his release. He wrote letters to numerous community colleges, including Valencia College, which mailed him back a student course catalog and a Post-it note that said “Come see us when you get out.”

Sanchez was released from prison after 12 years at age 28. His father had passed away years earlier, and returning to his home in Miami where he got in trouble in the first place didn’t seem like a good idea, he said. He instead moved to Orlando, with Valencia College’s note in hand, enrolled in the Salvation Army homeless shelter and began searching for jobs – a requirement to stay at the shelter. After numerous rejections, he finally landed a job flipping burgers at a hamburger stand on Orange Blossom Trail. With a job secured, he could then focus his energy on getting into college.

Staffers at Valencia were so impressed with Sanchez’s determination that they not only accepted him, but offered him a job in a work-study program in the financial aid department. He would go on to graduate from Valencia with a 4.0 GPA and be the 2014 Distinguished Graduate. He became the first in his family to earn a college degree.

Everything was going smoothly for Sanchez when another hurdle popped up. To transfer to UCF, he had to complete at least half of his 10-year probation period that he was given in exchange for being released from prison early. It’s a common practice among state universities to have applicants with court-ordered requirements show they’ve made significant progress toward completing those requirements before being admitted.

He wouldn’t let that stand in his way. He returned to Miami to go before Judge Maria Verde with a plea to shed a few years off his probation sentence so he could continue his education.

“No,” she said. “I’m getting rid of your probation entirely.”

Sanchez was shocked. On top of it, she offered him an internship for that summer. Within 30 days he went from being a defendant in her courtroom to an intern. Two years later he returned to Miami to also intern with Circuit Judge Miguel de la O.

He has since received UCF’s highest student award, Order of Pegasus, the 2017 UCF Founders’ Day Student Award and has received a competitive Jack Kent Cooke graduate scholarship – one of the most prestigious in the country. It will pay up to $50,000 a year for Sanchez to attend law school. He’s already been accepted to the University of Washington and the University of Miami, and is waiting to hear from a handful of other schools.

“He’s the hardest working student I’ve ever taught,” said Cynthia Schmidt, UCF legal studies lecturer and coach of the Moot Court at UCF. “In his first year of Moot Court he didn’t make it past the first day of the regional competition. But in his second year, he went to nationals and placed fifth in the nation. He’s re-identified himself as a scholar.”

Sanchez aspires to be an attorney for public-interest law and help marginalized communities such as inmates and the homeless who often want an education but don’t know how or where to begin. While in prison he created a handbook for inmates about how to further their education, including what CLEP exams are, how to take them, who should be contacted and where they can find study materials, but he knows that’s not enough.

“I grew thankful for my father’s guidance, but also sadness for those who didn’t have the blessings I did,” he said. “That’s developed my passion now for creating better access to education.”