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“I had always thought, ‘What’s in it for me?’ But seeing these volunteer teachers inspired me to give back.”

By Dmitriy Orlov

I was eighteen when I got arrested for the first time. It was a carjacking offense. Over the span of a year, I was put in two county jails and a reception center in Deuel Vocational Institute. I served some time there and got out on probation. Then I got caught for possession. I was sent to San Quentin to finish the remainder of my sentence.

When I was in jail, I managed to maintain my sobriety. I didn’t even realize I’d been sober that long until someone at San Quentin asked me. I think I got cocky then. I relapsed into drug use.

That was always my biggest struggle. I continued to fall into my old ways.

When I met Gagik, my perspective changed. He was a lifer at San Quentin. We ended up spending a lot of time together and found common ground. I was fascinated by his love for God. I’d grown up in a Christian family, and we shared our stories. He pushed me to strive for more. I wanted to make positive decisions.

Once I had momentum, it was easier to do better. I stayed busy by working. I felt motivated to do my best in every role. I worked in the kitchen. I worked in the library. I worked in the machine shop. But even with work, cutting drugs out left me with a lot of time on my hands. That’s when I found Prison University Project (PUP), a program in San Quentin that provides inmates with access to higher education courses.

I developed a hunger for learning—one I never had when I was in school. I’d always felt discouraged when I was younger. I didn’t think I’d be anything more than a felon. But through PUP, I realized I could thrive academically.

I attribute my success in the program to my teachers. Almost all of them were volunteers. That made a huge impact on me. I started to think about what I had been doing up to that point—I had just been taking. I had always thought, “What’s in it for me?” But seeing these volunteer teachers inspired me to give back.

I ended up becoming a clerk for the program in San Quentin. When I got out, they asked if I wanted to continue to be involved. Today, I’m a program assistant. I’m also enrolled in physics, microeconomics, and English reading courses. And I’m working toward my associate’s degree with the hopes of transferring to a four-year college. I’m leaning toward becoming an engineer. I can only say that because of the PUP volunteers who helped me get here. 

Without them, I would never have gotten this far.


Dmitriy lives in Sacramento. He has a passion for learning, which was ignited by the Prison University Project. Currently, he is taking classes at the local college and plans to transfer to a four-year university. In his spare time he enjoys entertaining his taste buds with new cuisine, chilling at the ocean, listening to music, watching movies, and relaxing with his family. 

Image Credit: Norman Jean Roy


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