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Former student continues education from behind bars

Special to The Connection

Special to The Connection

Williams receives a scholarship at a luncheon from the Northstate Building Industry Association in Fall 2011. From Left to Right: Danny Williams, Adjunct Faculty Bob Visger, President Deborah Travis, lead faculty of construction Ryan Connally, construction management major James Dupree and son.

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Behind the barricades of concrete and barbed wire circling the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Facility on Bruceville Rd., Danny Ray Williams is on his sabbatical.

A former Cosumnes River College student, the 45-year-old spends his time in lock-up improving his vocabulary through books like “Verbal Advantage” and learning about the African American experience in Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” On his breaks from literature, he digs into his math textbooks.

“It is imperative that I stay in college and get as much knowledge that I can in order to have a decent shot at life,” Williams wrote in a letter to communication studies professor Christine Wagner.

Wagner, who saw Williams as a student of “hope and promise” when he attended her introduction to public speaking course in the fall 2012 semester, corresponds with him regularly through letters, and when she is able, mails him books and learning materials.

“We could do more to serve our students if we knew them better,” Wagner said.

Williams said that before he decided to attend college, “struggle” was a word that encompassed his development. He grew up in Oakland, an environment that provided more dangers than opportunities to progress. Alcohol consumption became an overwhelming coping mechanism for many years as Williams tried to hold a job with minimal qualifications.

“I began to accept that I would die as an alcoholic,” Williams said. “But I didn’t want to be remembered that way. Everything I had tried didn’t work out, and so I decided that that I would have a better chance at life If I had an education.”

He moved to Sacramento and enrolled in a carpentry pre-apprenticeship program at CRC for the fall 2011 semester. There he was mentored by lead faculty of construction Ryan Connally, who said Williams thrived in all of his courses.

By summer 2012, Williams earned both available scholarships awarded to building trade students at CRC, one from the Building Industry Association of Northern California Women’s Council and the other endowed by the American Building Supply Foundation.

“I think he kind of used the structure of school to give structure to his life,” Connally said. “A lot of other students just come here to be here sometimes and they put forth the minimum effort. He was very disciplined. I wish I could package that and give it to everyone, but I can’t. “

Wagner referred to Williams as someone who had just awoken from a coma when describing his devout appreciation for learning and fresh perspective of the academic landscape. Wagner also remembers Williams always meeting her after class to discuss the material post-lecture and visiting her office often for clarification.

“I guess I just like teaching that kind of student, where they’re in the moment and they just want to learn,” Wagner said.

That year, Williams claimed to only have “picked up the bottle twice.” But, an outstanding warrant for a DUI a year prior would have law enforcement searching for him at home and on campus.

“I think our whole society gambles on the edge of the brink with alcohol,” Connally said. “It’s such an undeniable part of our social fabric. I’d warn people to be aware of that underbelly that seems to be so popular in our culture. It can have long lasting impacts on people who’ve spent years trying to get their life together.”

After a semester of perfect attendance, Williams missed class on the day his final speech was scheduled to be presented. Unable to enroll into courses for Spring 2013, Connally and Wagner advised that he turn himself in. On January 23, Williams checked into the Sacramento County Jail to serve his sentence.

[singlepic id=256 w=300 h=300 float=left]“Although it could be seen at a setback that he had to go, in his mind it was a success that he chose it, it didn’t choose him,” Connally said. “Now that he’s there, with foresight and planning, and with all of his accolades that he’d built, it’s got to seem like the light at the end of tunnel must be close.”

Wagner allowed him to make up his final speech in the visiting quarters of the county jail. Speaking through the telephone behind the glass, he delivered a speech reflecting on his life up to the arrest.

“You could just tell he was someone of experience,” Wagner said. “Someone who had a couple of rough patches in his life that were tougher than giving a speech.”

Williams was recently transferred from the Sacramento County Jail to Rio Cosumnes. On May 14, he will meet with a judge who will decide whether or not he will be granted admission into a residential treatment program for alcoholism in the Bay Area. His defense consists of an outstanding academic performance, several accolades, and the support of his professors.

“He’s a perfect example of the phrase ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’,” said Connally. “You can look at him and make any kind of assumptions you want, when in reality he was a very mature, level headed and respectful leader among his peers.”

In a letter to professor Wagner, Williams said he intends to return to the classroom to finish his pursuit of a degree after his sentence has been served.

“I’m a strong believer that if I stay in college my life will get better,” Williams wrote.

*Story Updated 5/18/2013: Error in year in picture caption. Change of title from “Letters from Bruceville jail” to “Former student continues education from behind bars”.*

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Former student continues education from behind bars