Reformal education

Steven Green

Once sentenced to life without parole, Steven Green now working on his Ph.D.

Through his late teens, Steven Green had no aspirations of going to college. Born to “a child who had a child,” he bounced between the often-changing Long Beach addresses of his drug-addicted and -dealing mother and a grandmother who bounced between Anaheim and Garden Grove.

Green says matter-of-factly that he did not find any semblance of stability until he joined a street gang.

Now, however, he is in his early 50s and completing his first year in the criminology, law and society (CLS) doctoral program at UC Irvine, which is even more surprising when you consider that his teen life and current life bookend a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The circumstances that led to Green spending 28 years behind bars — 21 of them at Calipatria State Prison in the Imperial Valley and seven more at Ironwood State Prison near Blythe — are detailed in the Commutation of Sentence that then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed in November 2018.

On January 26, 1992, Steven Green and Frankie Aragon picked up 16-year-old Elizabeth Lozano and 13-year-old Tayde Vasquez. At some point during the evening, Ms. Lozano became upset with Ms. Vasquez and told Mr. Green that she wanted to assault Ms. Vasquez, steal her jewelry, and shoot her. Ms. Lozano asked Mr. Green for a gun, which Mr. Green provided. Ms. Lozano initiated a fight with Ms. Vasquez, then shot her twice, killing her. On August 7, 1992, the Los Angeles County Superior Court sentenced Mr. Green to life without the possibility of parole for first-degree murder plus a one-year firearm enhancement.

Green is very remorseful and says he never could wrap his head around why his then-friend Lozano slain her friend Vasquez. When the incident happened, he was an 18-year-old senior in high school, which he only viewed as a great place to meet girls.

“From 18 to 21 or 22, I felt comfortable in prison because that’s what I was used to growing up with,” he says. “I was used to being around gang members. I was used to how we interacted with one another.”

He found two worlds coexisting in prison. One was ruled mostly by gangs, which had their peculiar ideas of right and wrong, meting out punishments that could range from beatings and stabbings to maiming and killings. The other world was occupied by the less-effective prison administration and staff.

“The corrections officers are kind of like the mediators.” Green says. “They became their own gang. It’s just not a good environment, and you have to grow up in that environment.”

He did not think much about it when he received a letter shortly after entering the prison system stating that Pell Grants would no longer be available for incarcerated students.

“I didn’t really understand what the gravity of that was,” he says. “I was like, ‘Well, I don't know what this is. Who cares?’”

That changed as he started to mature. The Department of Corrections placed him on an educational support list to make sure that he obtained a General Educational Development (GED) high school equivalency, and when he got it about six months later in 1993, he figured he was done with coursework as no higher education was offered at his institution.

That all changed 16 years later, in 2009, when Calipatria started offering college courses. Not that Green was initially aware.

“A young cellie who I lived with heard rumors college was being offered somewhere in the prison,” he explains. “Later, I noticed a buddy going into a room with a free person who I did not recognize. I asked my buddy one day what he was doing in that room and he said, ‘Oh, I’m just chilling.’ When the free person came out, I asked what his job was at the prison and he said, ‘I help sign you guys up for college courses.’ ”

The college coordinator gave him an application packet for the program through Coastline Community College in Fountain Valley, “and then I ran 1,000 illegal copies and passed them out at the yard,” Green says with a laugh. Once he completed his first college class in prison, he was hooked. Since he was in for LWOP, and figured he wasn’t exactly going anywhere, he decided to apply for every degree Coastline offered to the incarcerated.

Between his studies, he found love. His middle school girlfriend, Sutina Preto, began a correspondence that was platonic as she was married and had a child. The marriage dissolved after she gave birth a third time. The letters continued, and Sutina would confess that Steven had always been the love of her life. He was wary of taking the relationship further because of his circumstances and what he figured would be an inevitable “Dear John” letter.

It never came. Sutina would visit Steven, they married in 2004 and had daughters Jaidyn and Jenesee while he remained incarcerated. Throughout it all, Sutina fought for her husband’s release. She is the co-founder of Families United to End LWOP and the LWOP project manager with the Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch in Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, Steven remained committed to higher education.

“We continued to help grow the college course program at Calipatria, and then when I transferred to Ironwood, they had Coastline Community College and Palo Verde College,” Green recalls. “They had some live instructors coming inside the prison to actually teach. I had never seen that before. It was just the book and you had to answer all your questions and figure it out. But then we started having real-life professors. I thought that was incredible. So, I took more classes through Palo Verde College, and by the time I came home, I was like a couple classes short of getting four more associate degrees.”

He particularly liked his speech class, which was a prerequisite to transferring into higher education. One day his speech instructor brought packets of photocopies and told each student to pick one and make a speech from the documents inside.

“I just randomly pulled this packet out of the pile and the photocopies were about Romarilyn Ralston and Project Rebound at Cal State Fullerton,” Green says.

In 1952, John Irwin robbed a gas station in Northern California and was later convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to five years in prison. During his time at Soledad, he earned 24 college credits through a university extension program. After his release, he obtained his B.A. from UCLA and a doctorate from UC Berkeley before serving as a professor of sociology and criminology at San Francisco State University for 27 years. In 1967, he created Project Rebound as a way to matriculate people into SFSU directly from the prison system.

He passed away in 2010, but Project Rebound expanded and now operates at 14 Cal States, including Fullerton, where Ralston is the executive director. She was incarcerated at the age of 24, served 23 years in prison and went on to receive her bachelor’s degree in gender and feminist studies from Pitzer College in Claremont and her master’s in liberal arts from Washington University in St. Louis.

“I just was blown away by learning about who John Irwin was,” Green says. “He was one of us, running around in these prisons like we were, and then he created this whole program meant for the formerly incarcerated. I just thought that was incredible, but I still had life without parole and was like, ‘Well, it's not probably me,’ and I just put the packet away in my locker for inspiration. Whenever I needed inspiration to keep going, I just pulled out the packet and re-read it. Then when I got commuted by Governor Brown, I grabbed that packet and told my wife on the phone that I wanted to go to Cal State Fullerton’s Project Rebound. I told her there's a lady named Romarilyn Ralston and she was like, ‘Oh, I know Romarilyn.’ The rest is history.”

He was paroled from Ironwood on a Saturday and within four hours was at the doorstep of the Project Rebound CSUF’s John Irwin Memorial House. By that Monday, he was on campus, learning. He was also a research fellow at Cal State Long Beach’s Project Rebound Research Lab Consortium, where his work led to being published and giving conference presentations.

On the way to earning his CSUF bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, he floated the idea of going on to grad school with a faculty member “who was open to me being formerly incarcerated. She helped me sign up for McNair Scholars.”

The Ronald E. McNair Post-baccalaureate Achievement Program is a federal TRIO program designed to prepare either first-generation college students with financial need or members of underrepresented segments of society for doctoral studies.

“It is one of the best programs out there to prepare anyone for grad school,” Green says. “It really helped me with the support and the information that they gave me.”

He credits Ginny Oshiro with helping put UCI on his higher educational radar. Incarcerated as a juvenile, Oshiro also took the route to Cal State Fullerton’s Project Rebound and UCI’s criminology, law & society doctoral program. “She’s a really good friend of mine, and I really admire her. She helped me by saying, ‘This is what you need to do to try to get in,’” Green says.

“I’m a Southern California kid, I really don’t want to go anywhere else,” he adds. “UCI also happens to be one of the top schools for criminology. Growing up as a kid, I probably would have been more prone to wanting to go to UCLA but you know, for where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do, it was like a foregone conclusion coming to UCI. When I started getting my heart set on where I wanted to go for my doctoral degree, I scoped out the school for a year before I even applied. I was already emailing professors, asking for Zoom calls where I could ask, ‘What do I need to do?’ ‘How do I get in?’ I was talking to all my professors at Fullerton, too, asking if they knew anyone at UCI who could put in a good word to about me. I don’t know if any of that helped, but I definitely wanted it to be known that that’s where I wanted to go.”

He joined the CLS doctoral program in the Fall of 2023 and works under Assistant Professor Christopher Seeds, author of Death by Prison: The Emergence of Life Without Parole and Perpetual Confinement (UC Press, 2022).

“Steven is already making great contributions to CLS,” Seeds says, “and we are delighted to have him in the department.”

Green aims to obtain his Ph.D. in 2028.

“My research interest currently is around the process for discretionary decision-making of people on parole boards,” he says. “Parole boards are meant to give people a second chance on one end, and then the second end is they’re meant to keep people who they would call dangerous from re-entering society. I’m interested in looking at the discretionary process and what it is parole board commissioners are looking for as indicators. What are the verbal cues?

“Hopefully, we can remove the biases that can prevent people from having the opportunity to come home, restart their lives and reintegrate back into society—instead of doing an extra three to five to 15 years. We’re trying to bring some equity and fairness to that system.”

A start, he says, would be acknowledging that young people change.

“We know that most people who commit or make those decisions to commit egregious harm are usually 18 to 25. Science backs it up that the brain does not finish developing and maturing until the mid- to late-20s. That’s looking at it more academically, but my personal experience is that you can already see it in the thousands of people who have been released by parole boards. They were all in that same age group, about 18 to 25, when they entered the system, and they’re doing just fine right now. They have jobs, they are going to school, and some are just average people, living their lives.”

He figures his brain change happened around 22 or 23.

“I really felt like I could start to see the world as a different place, in a different way. But I have friends who didn’t really start changing until they were almost 28. Trauma and drug use also suppress that part of the brain and could even extend that age even further than 25. But, I don't think society is ready to accept that fact, because they believe that when someone commits an egregious harm, that’s it. They should never be out, no matter how young the person was. We’re the only country that does this to our children. I know some people don’t consider those 18 to 25 children. I think it’s crazy because, on campus, there’s nothing but kids running around.”

Green was part of a panel discussion titled LWOP & Lifers, “From the Streets to Degrees: The Transformative Power of Higher Education” on April 28, when formerly incarcerated speakers were invited to share their journeys as Phoenix Arise and UCI Underground Scholars presented “Voices of Redemption: Amplifying the Voices of Second Chances” in the UCI Student Center.

“My mission is to bring humanity and reform to the correctional system, and I am always eager to connect with professionals who share this vision,” says Green, who is a National LWOP Leadership Council member at Human Rights Watch and serves on the CARE Grant Steering Committee at the Board of State and Community Corrections.

It has impressed him during his first year at UCI how “everybody here lifts each other. That’s mainly what our community does. That’s what you want. You want people around who are going to help you, provide opportunities and help guide you to resources and show you there is a different way of life. You know, here it is and watch me do it. That’s what we do.”

Learn more about the amazing Steven and Sutina Green family at and the Incarcerated and Ear Hustle podcasts.

— Matt Coker