NY & S

Two lifers on the role of college in prison: ‘I found a new habit. Education.’

By Charlotte West | October 20, 2022

David Luis “Suave” Gonzalez was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole when he was 17. In many states—including Pennsylvania, where Gonzalez was sentenced—there are few, if any, college opportunities for people with such lengthy sentences. 

Still, Gonzalez eventually fought his way into Villanova University’s privately funded college program at Graterford Prison, the maximum security facility where he was incarcerated. There he earned a bachelor’s degree in education and marketing.

While incarcerated, Gonzalez developed a decades-long friendship with journalist Maria Hinojosa. The two would later work together to document his time in prison and subsequent release, in 2017 after a Supreme Court decision that ruled automatic life sentences without parole for juveniles as unconstitutional, in an eponymous podcast, Suave, which won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize

Now, Gonzalez is a support coach with I Am More, a reentry program for formerly incarcerated students at Philadelphia Community College. He also co-hosts Death by Incarceration, which will be featuring episodes this fall focused on the various ways people in prison get an education. 

In August, journalist Rahsaan “New York” Thomas called Gonzalez from a phone booth on the ground tier of San Quentin’s North Block. Thomas, who was sentenced to 55-years-to-life in California, is the inside host of the Pulitzer-nominated podcast Ear Hustle

Like Gonzalez, Thomas was able to earn a degree behind bars. As he wrote for Open Campus, it was one of the factors cited in the commutation he received from California Gov. Gavin Newsom earlier this year. At the end of September, Thomas got word that he is suitable for parole following Newsom’s clemency and he expects to go home sometime in early 2023.  

Thomas and Gonzalez talk about fighting the system and the role of education in prison when you think you’re never getting out.

Read New York’s interview with Suave here. We co-published the story with Slate.

To listen to the entire conversation between Thomas and Gonzalez, check out this episode of Death by Incarceration.

Attribution: This article originally appeared in Open Campus, College Inside on Oct. 20, 2022.  Photo/Rahsaan “New York” Thomas and David Luis “Suave” Gonzalez both graduated from college while serving a life sentence in prison. Illustration by Charlotte West/Open Campus. Photo of Thomas by Eddie Herena. Photo of San Quentin by Shutterstock.