Longtime faculty member and English department chairman at the University of La Verne David Werner has not only made a lasting impression on past and present students here, he has also impacted the lives of the youth in correctional facilities in Southern California.
For the past 33 years Werner has been involved with correctional education, and is now the director of the Educational Programs in Corrections at the University of La Verne.
The EPIC program offers college courses at the Heman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility for inmates. This allows a higher education and a better opportunity for inmates to succeed in life when they are released.
“Everybody has all sorts of misconceptions about the prison system,” Werner said. “Most of what one knows about the prison system is what we get from Eyewitness News at 11.”
Werner teaches a class on campus called The Literature of Incarceration, which he has developed from his experiences as a prison educator. The class covers the history of the prison system and how it originated.
“The prison system is a goofy, absolutely insane and just a peculiar system,” Werner said. “(It) is not a rock solid institution. It is in fact the opposite. It is chaotic and promises to present situations that are problematic in ways that have never been seen before.”
The problems stem from the fact that nobody wants to take responsibility for anything.
Because of this and other factors, the prison system remains costly and ineffective.
“I don’t know how one would survive as an inmate in such a system,” Werner said.
This negative trickle down theory has set the return-to a prison rate of about 70 percent, which Werner attributes to, “the lack of anything,” meaning that released convicts do not have any opportunities because of their record.
The return to prison rate and the miniscule opportunities presented to those who have served programs such as EPIC critical in our society today. The program has shown itself to be very successful indeed, boasting that 80 percent of the men in the University EPIC Program do not return to prison.
There have been many success stories about men who have participated in the EPIC program. One in particular named Rick who was in Werner’s classes from 1993 to 1996, was able to transfer his units to the University of La Verne upon his release from prison. Here he majored in accounting and graduated with a bachelor’s degree.
“The program had a tremendous impact on me, I would have to say that joining the program was a definite turning point for me,” said Rick, who asked that his full name not be used because of the stigma of having been in prison.
The program is also of considerable benefit to California taxpayers, not only saving on the costs of future incarceration, but the potential social and economic costs of future criminal behavior as well.
Reports have shown that the EPIC program saves California taxpayers well over three-quarters of a million dollars per year.
Werner believes that the approach that he and his colleagues take is the reason that he is able to get through to the students in the program.
“We take these guys seriously,” Werner said.
“David is completely different than any other person that I dealt with in the prison,” Rick said. “He never acted as if he was afraid. It was like he was one of the guys,” Rick said.
Many of the students from the EPIC program have completed bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from schools such as the University of Southern California, UC Los Angeles, UC Riverside and UC San Diego among many others.
Rick and others credit Werner for the program’s success.
“If it were not for David and the program I do not know where I would be today, I owe that man a lot,” Rick said.
“Most people are smart if given the opportunity,” Werner said.
Werner said he remains inspired to help misled youth who need a second chance
“I like watching people change, I like watching people succeed, it’s the most rewarding thing that there is” Werner said.
Aaron Braunwalder can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.