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Collegiate Recovery: Breaking Through the System

Students in recovery share stories of overcoming obstacles within the criminal justice system and how to lead by example.

In partnership with THE 50 and in support of “Second Chance Month

Reimagined Futures

Within the criminal justice system, there are more than half a million people who are struggling with mental health or substance use disorders. To address this issue, SAFE Project has partnered with “The 50,” a film that documents the journey of 50 men who decided to challenge expectations and overcome the status quo. They each became certified substance use counselors, paving the way for others to do the same.

Our Collegiate Recovery Leadership Academy is comprised of fellows from different backgrounds, each with a unique story of recovery and advocacy for resources on campus. Let these incredible stories of second chances and changing circumstances inspire you today.

Meet Chico

My name is Jason Anthony Chico. I grew up in a single-parent household raised by my mother and grandmother. Unfortunately, the only male role models I had were my uncles, who were heavily addicted to substances and gang-affiliated. As a child, I witnessed my uncles frequently overdose, which resulted in me having to call 911 quite often. While waiting for the ambulance to arrive, I would hold them, hoping that it wouldn’t be my last time seeing them. My uncles were always on parole, so when the paramedics arrived, a sheriff’s officer would also show up to take them back to jail. Seeing all of this made me realize that I didn’t want to end up like them.

However, when I turned 18, I tried meth for the first time, and I was off to the races. Despite my addiction, I enrolled in college and was able to complete some community college courses. I was a functioning addict, so I was still able to attend school and work while maintaining a place to stay.

At the age of 26, I got incarcerated and was released when I was almost 30. When I returned home, I fell back into my old habits of getting high. Looking back, I wish my college had a collegiate recovery program to help me with my struggles. I later decided to attend Mount San Antonio College, where I was accepted into the Rising Scholars program, a program specifically for previously incarcerated students. During this time, I was still getting high, and my grandmother’s passing only made things worse. A few months after her death, I had a massive stroke, meningitis, and inflammation of the brain and spine. I almost didn’t make it.

Since that day, I have been sober. Although my disability has made me slower, I am grateful to be alive and happy. I have no idea what my future holds, but I take comfort in knowing that I am an individual in recovery.

Meet Brian

My story is one rife with poor decision-making, selfishness, resentment, and fear. From a young age, I felt as though I did not fit in with the people around me. I remember often thinking that I was not good enough in looks, ability, or personality. However, these aspects were outweighed by the overarching fact that I was very loved by my family and friends. I wanted for nothing as a child and experienced very mild bouts of what could be considered trauma. I grew up in an upper-middle-class family, attended one of the better public school districts in rural Ohio, and had every opportunity to succeed.

My priorities and where I placed value for my corresponding behaviors early in life were often in search of some form of recognition from others. I discovered that turning situations into jokes in the company of others not only helped me hide my honest self (which I considered to be not enough), but it often won me favor and false acceptance from those around me. I also found that if I acted in a manner that I thought someone wanted me to act in, I would often be accepted by them. A recurring theme for me was to set my true self aside in gaining the recognition of others throughout my youth and adolescence. This theme would later manifest into a core influence of my young adult behavior and make it difficult for me to accept myself for a long time.

If addiction can be viewed as a group of criteria including selfishness, resentment, compulsive behavior, and an obsession with instant gratification, I fulfilled them all. My addiction began long before I put any substance in my body. The first time I used a substance, I viewed the consequent result as freedom, an exhale, a false sense of the “real” me. I noticed right away that the feelings I experienced from substances were not the same as those of all those around me who were using substances. I used until I could no longer physically put any more in me, whether that was due to a blackout, loss of consciousness, or being physically stopped. My only desire was to continue to experience a state of consciousness where I did not have to think about my selfish past behaviors, I did not have to worry about what other people thought of me or what I thought of myself, and I experienced a sense of false confidence.

When my addiction was at its peak, there were no substances I had not experimented with or used to excess. I had experienced the loss of every person in my life who cared about me, multiple incarcerations, multiple inpatient and outpatient treatment programs, the loss of everything material including my home, and countless overdoses, emergency room visits, and revivals with pharmaceuticals by first responders. Over the course of eighteen years using primarily opioids and other anesthetics, it is estimated that I had to be revived somewhere between twenty and thirty times.

When I had lost all hope in both myself and the world, it had come down to a decision rooted in willingness to try something different. Facing yet another felony, I checked myself into an inpatient rehab for the third time. My only intentions were to avoid the felony, have a roof over my head, and eat regularly scheduled meals. I experienced love and acceptance from a group of people in the throes of addiction and in recovery, something unexpected. Over the next few months, I learned more about human behavior and the priorities in life that should matter than I had in the previous thirty-eight years. I learned that love and tolerance were far more potent than the purest substance. I learned that my desires and attachments were the cause of all of my suffering. I learned that fear is a construct of my thoughts about uncontrollable circumstances and serves nothing positive. These are tenets I do my best to live by today. I try to remember that I have the ability to live a good life today and that it is also my responsibility to do that to the best of my ability for the sake of myself and others.

Recovery, to me, is an ever-evolving opportunity to provide an example to others through my actions today that change is possible, and it can be phenomenal. I can mention all of the material things I have gained, the quality of the relationships I have built and rebuilt, the opportunities I have been extended, the experiences I never thought were possible that I have had, but those are byproducts of hard work and consistency. The most valuable gift of recovery has been the ability to, through patience and self-awareness, accept and work through situations in life that I previously could not face in the same way. I am human, I still have expectations and desires and attachments and build resentments.

But today, I do not have to prioritize them in my thoughts and not use introspection and connection with others to improve my reactions to them. I have the opportunity every day to better myself and the world around me, a premise that for a long time was very foreign to my life.

Meet Leandro

Growing up in my generation meant growing up without guidance from my parents. This was not because they were bad parents, but because they were busy working to provide for my siblings and doing their best to make ends meet. I had grown up in poverty, and the only thing green were the walls of the ghetto and the boogers running down my sister’s face. I learned at a very young age that if I wanted something bad enough, and if it wasn’t tied down, it was going to be mine. Along with those actions came consequences. I guess you can say I was a bad thief because I always got caught, and I ended up in the juvenile hall system with all the other gladiators who were trying to make a name for themselves in the system. For those individuals who chose to be soldiers for the barrio, I give mad love and respect to my comaradas doing life and to the loved ones that they left behind. My life was headed in that direction of criminal behavior without fear of having any consequences, and this is my story.

I had to grow up fast because I had a reputation to protect. Twenty-five years in the California Department of Corrections and six prison terms later gave me respect from the homies. “At that space and time, it was very important to have clout.” I was what you called a habitual criminal who stemmed from an active heroin addiction. I had a gorilla on my back (addiction), and there was no such thing as drug diversion or probation during the generation from which I’m from. Judges would hand out prison sentences like candy during the elections, and because I was already seasoned in the criminal justice system, it was more convenient for the DA to put me away so that I could pay for the crimes that I got away with. I didn’t know I had become public enemy #1, and every time that I was charged with petty theft and burglary to support a drug habit qualified me as a possible three-strikes candidate. I was given enough rope to hang myself. Pete Wilson was the governor of California in 1990; little did I know that his three-strikes campaign would change many lives forever. This landed me an extended stay in the city of no pity, for life on an installment plan, “Not all 25 years at one time.” Somehow, it had struck a nerve and helped me realize that I needed to make some changes and think my way into a better living.

In my heart, I wasn’t anything like these other people who were doing time for various felonies. I had to make all of this go away and find another way out as this wasn’t my destiny. I was determined to make changes so that I wouldn’t become another statistic in the California Prison system and spend the rest of my life regretting bad choices. I have come a long way, and I’ve come too far to stop now. As a result, I put my best foot forward and did everything I had to do to become a law-abiding citizen again. I was finally discharged from parole in 2008 and stayed out of trouble. I found jobs that were willing to hire ex-cons, and that meant working long hours for little pay. The fact was that I was an ex-con who didn’t have a high school diploma, which made it twice the challenge. The stigma of being formerly incarcerated was a border that I needed to cross if I was going to be successful in reintegrating back into the community.

Through hard work and a tenacious mindset, I finally accomplished one lifelong dream and graduated from Adult School at Mt. San Antonio College, earning my high school diploma in June 2021. I wanted to make my parents proud of me and dedicate this achievement in their name. I also graduated with three degrees in 2023 from Mt. Sac in Walnut, California, and transferred to Cal Poly Pomona in California as an undergrad. I have been out of the prison system for over 17 years. I remain abstinent from drugs and alcohol and live life as a responsible and productive member of society. The re-entry was not a walk in the park; it had a lot of ups and downs, and that meant I had to continue facing life on its terms. It wasn’t simple but was doable, and the more I put into it, the more I would get out of it. Currently, I sponsor men who have viewed life on their terms and shared personal experiences of living life without the use of drugs and alcohol. This has inspired me to give back to the community. I learned so much from attending school and aspire to get my MSW so that I can teach inside of classrooms.

Just recently, I have also obtained my credentials from CCAPP, and I am currently working as a CCII Counselor for BHS in Pomona, California. I spent decades behind bars for misbehaving. During that time, I didn’t have a strong structure or a belief system other than running with a crowd of people who had no future. I experienced the hardship that comes along with a prison sentence and the repercussions of life after parole. This is the reason why I’m determined to achieve my scholastic endeavors and make a complete 180-degree turn. I wouldn’t be writing about my achievements and striving for continuing education today if I were still locked up behind bars. At this time, I want to take a moment so that I can give thanks to my gracious and loving God for sparing me. Today I live a life beyond my wildest dreams and continue to remain teachable in this game of life. I have a 3.70 GPA and continue fulfilling my education goals. I will forever be grateful for those who kept the faith and helped me realize that together we can make it; today I lead by example.

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The 50 Trailer

Following Cameron, Al, and Randy—all members of the program—The 50 mirrors this process, weaving the past and present with impressionistic re-enactments of each member’s past, present-day studies, and overarching explorations of how their stories challenge society’s expectations for them.


Watch The 50 on Amazon Prime

Watch The 50 on Apple TV

Additional Resources