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Project Rebound helps formerly incarcerated students rebuild their lives

Jon Hernandez, who spent three years in prison, is now working toward his college degree and rebuilding his life with the help of Sacramento State's Project Rebound program for formerly incarcerated students. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

After losing his freedom in 2018, Jon Hernandez mourned the life he once took for granted: college student, star wrestler, mentor to his younger brother.

“I thought I had thrown it all away,” said Hernandez, who had been sentenced to six years in prison for robbery in a scenario he describes as a drug deal gone awry. “I wondered how I would ever be able to fix the things that left a hole in me.”

Today, with the help of Sacramento State’s Project Rebound program for formerly incarcerated students, Hernandez is rebuilding his life, pursuing a degree in Computer Science, and looking toward a brighter future.

“I’m blessed,” he said.

Project Rebound, launched in 1967 at San Francisco State University by a former prison inmate who became a college professor, has satellites on 19 CSU campuses and last year enrolled 566 students. The program helps students prepare, apply, enroll, and succeed in college. Participants can access counseling, mentoring, tutoring, and career development assistance, among other services.

Since 2016, Project Rebound students have earned more than 500 degrees. While nearly half of California inmates overall return to prison, fewer than 1% of Project Rebound participants do.

Since the launch of the Sac State program in 2016, 225 students have participated, and the number of participants has nearly tripled over the last two years, according to director Aaron Greene.

“We have a 93% retention rate, and the average GPA is 3.4,” he said.

“It’s a grind right now. But I’m getting it done. It’s definitely a privilege being here. I don’t ever want to go back to where I was before.” -- Project Rebound student Jon Hernandez

To better serve those students, the University is opening a new Project Rebound Student Center in Sacramento Hall, which will feature office space, a conference room, a common area with kitchen items and snacks, and study and computer stations.

In addition, Sac State last year purchased two homes near campus for formerly incarcerated students, who typically struggle to find safe and affordable places to live. The housing program is the second in the state and the first in Northern California.

President Luke Wood has made Project Rebound and other programs focused on traditionally underserved students a top priority.

“Programs like these are important to me because we are serving people who may have been negatively affected by the system, and who are trying to reclaim their lives,” said Wood, who grew up in a foster home after his biological mother was sentenced to prison.

“Often, systems are set up to punish, not rehabilitate,” he said. “Project Rebound and our Transforming Outcomes Project demonstrate that we can do the exact opposite.”

Greene appreciates Wood’s support for the programs.

“His backing and emphasis on Project Rebound here at Sac State through office space, our new student center, and housing has made me feel like we are a program that the University can be proud of,” he said.

Among the residents of the two newly purchased houses is Hernandez, who was living in a converted garage before Greene offered him a spot in a tidy ranch-style home in a quiet residential neighborhood about three miles from campus. The house is a refuge where he and his three housemates, all of whom spent time in prison, can focus on earning their degrees without the distractions and negative influences of the streets, Hernandez said.

Jon Hernandez cooking in a kitchen.
Jon Hernandez lays out food items in the kitchen of the Sac State-owned house he shares with three other Project Rebound students. Hernandez serves as house manager, making sure rules are followed and the property is neat and orderly. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

“It’s a grind right now,” said Hernandez, who typically wakes before dawn to get ready to attend classes, study, complete homework, and keep the Project Rebound house neat and organized. “But I’m getting it done. It’s definitely a privilege being here. I don’t ever want to go back to where I was before.”

At the time of his arrest, Hernandez was an academic scholarship student and wrestler at Sacramento City College, a key member of a team that won a state championship in 2015.

When police pulled him over on suspicion of armed robbery in January 2017, they found a weapon in his car. “I put my hands up. It was game over,” Hernandez said.

In November 2018, he became a state prisoner at Duel Vocational Institution near Tracy. Later, he was transferred to the California Correctional Center in Susanville, where he received training for placement into a conservation camp. He was sent to Ben Lomond, where he and other inmates battled wildfires in the Santa Cruz mountains, including the destructive August Complex and Dixie blazes.

In prison, Hernandez witnessed violence and gang activity, and fought other inmates to protect himself, he said. “I was living with people who had been sentenced to life and had nothing to lose. It was all about survival.”

After he was paroled in September 2021, he returned to college and wrestling at Sac City before learning about Project Rebound through the nonprofit Anti Recidivism Coalition. Greene helped Hernandez transfer to Sac State.

He has completed his first two semesters at the University and is thriving after fighting through severe anxiety and PTSD following his release from prison.

Hernandez, now 27, serves as house manager at the Project Rebound home, making sure rules are followed and the property is neat and orderly. He cooks healthy meals and is friendly with neighbors. But mostly, he is concentrating on finishing college and starting a career in computer science.

“I’m not going to clubs or anything like that,” he said. “I’m completely focused on school and coding.”

Hernandez has also reconnected with his younger brother Adrian, who lives in Texas, and is working toward regaining his trust and respect. “I put him through so much,” he said. “We talk about family. We talk about God. I won’t let him go in the wrong direction.”

He is grateful, he said, for the many people who have helped lead him out of a dark place, including Sac State faculty members, Greene, and the Anti Recidivism Coalition.

“Being here is a great opportunity that not everyone has,” Hernandez said. “It’s a life changer for me. I’m so thankful. I feel like I’m going to prosper.”

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About Cynthia Hubert

Cynthia Hubert came to Sacramento State in November 2018 after an award-winning career writing for the Sacramento Bee. Cynthia believes everyone has a good story. She lives in East Sacramento with her two cats, who enjoy bird-watching from their perch next to the living-room window.

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