There are two schools of thought toward doing prison time:
Some do theirs merely by biding it, hanging out in the yard and letting the days tick away until their parole date arrives. Others work on bettering their education and skills, knowing it will take that and much more to overcome the stigma of having a prison record once they return to civilian life.
Joseph McCarty chose the latter path. On Thursday, the 30-year-old Turlock resident will walk the stage at California State University, Stanislaus, to receive his master’s degree in English. Then, it’s on to a doctorate program, still to be finalized.
He’s an entirely different person than the 20-year-old who walked, in shackles, into Soledad prison in 2003 after being convicted of manslaughter in the death of a Modesto woman more than two years earlier.
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McCarty walked out of Tracy’s Deuel Vocational Institution in March 2011 a few classes shy of an undergraduate degree he began in prison. He walked out with no tattoos or gang affiliations. He walked out into a society that doesn’t exactly embrace those who check yes on the job application’s “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” box, fully aware of the damage one horrible decision he made as a teenager will forever loom in his foreground.
“It will keep coming up for the next 40 years,” McCarty said. “But life could definitely be a lot worse.”
Indeed, as it is for so many ex-cons who do nothing to prepare for life on the outside.
McCarty graduated from Downey High in June 2001. He had enlisted in the Navy and was preparing to head off to basic training in Illinois. The mistake that altered his life forever was made weeks earlier. Just 17 at the time, he and several others were at friend Robert Weston’s home in Modesto in April 2001. While others were outside, Weston beat his ailing mother, Joanne Noack, with a baseball bat. She died, and Weston and McCarty hid her body. It was found in a shallow grave in the backyard three months later.
McCarty went on to the Great Lakes Naval Station, only to be arrested and brought back to Modesto by police detectives roughly three months after Noack died. He initially confessed to finishing what Weston had started by killing Noack, but during his trial testified he confessed only to save his friend from prison. He said he passed a polygraph test taken at the prosecutor’s suggestion. Lie detector test results aren’t admissible in court.
Initially charged with murder, McCarty and Weston both were convicted of voluntary manslaughter a year apart. By the time McCarty’s trial ended in 2003, he’d been in the Stanislaus County jail for nearly three years. Sentenced to 11 years less time served, he served 85 percent of the remaining time and was released in 2011. Weston was released before he was, McCarty said.
“I feel awful about what happened (to Noack),” he said. “I should have called the police (when he first saw what Weston had done). I should have gone to prison. I made a mistake that merited prison.”
Once there, it’s up to the inmate to decide how to do the time. I’ve written several columns after sitting in on parole hearings. Each time, the commissioners take into consideration whether the inmate truly regretted his actions and has taken steps toward fixing the behavior and improving the person.
Bill Sessa, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said more than 6,400 of California’s 120,000 prison inmates are enrolled in college courses. The vast majority of them take community-college-level courses. Four-year degrees are rare because inmates generally can’t afford tuition costs.
McCarty was fortunate. His parents never wavered in their support. They visited him in prison, except when the state outsourced his custody to a privately owned facility in Arizona. They helped pay his fees. So did other relatives, he said.
He began taking classes while at Soledad through a community college that offers courses in the prison system. Then he transferred his credits to Ohio University, taking classes through proctors at the prison. Only a six-month lockdown, followed by being outsourced to a contract prison in Arizona, prevented him from completing the degree behind bars. He spent as much time as possible studying while avoiding what he termed “the prison politics.”
After being released in March 2011, he worked in construction and began taking courses at Stanislaus State. He then transferred the credits to Ohio U. to complete his undergraduate degree and began his master’s program in fall 2012. He informed his professors of his past, and many classmates as well.
He is clean-cut. He doesn’t look like an ex-con. The lack of body art defies the stereotype.
“I had to fight over it a couple of times – arguments,” he said, referring to other inmates who tried to get him to get tattoos to identify groups or towns.
Yet, the prison stigma is there, as he learns when he is upfront about his past to people at the college.
“They’re surprised,” he said. “I get all kinds of unique reactions from ‘that’s interesting ...’ to looking at their watch and saying, ‘I gotta go.’ And eyebrows, I get lots of eyebrows.”
It’s impacted relationships, too.
“Every girl I’ve dated, after the first week or so I’ve explained everything,” McCarty said.
Some couldn’t deal with it.
“If the relationship got more serious, and I shared that knowledge with her family, that’s usually the breaking point,” he said.
When he applied for the master’s program at Stanislaus State, he happened to approach John Wittman, an English professor who isn’t easily, well, conned.
“My father was the Tulare County sheriff,” Wittman said. “When (McCarty) came to me and said he’d been in prison, I’d been around guys like that all my life.”
Just not any applying for graduate programs, though.
“I don’t know of anybody else,” said Wittman, who has been at the school for seven years. “He came to me as a B.A. (bachelor of arts) student and was convinced he’d be in grad school. He told me he wanted as much grad school experience as possible. So I gave him that experience.”
McCarty taught freshman composition courses. He won regional and statewide awards for research projects. He did some grant writing.
“He was openly confident he could do the work,” Wittman said. “He’s pretty impressive. Oddly enough, he looks like every other grad student. He looks and acts like someone who is excited to be here.”
Last week, McCarty passed his comprehensive exams. He’s clearly defied the odds – the very odds he created for himself by making one horrific and defining mistake in 2001.
Next up, the doctorate program. Then what? Strangely enough, he’d like to return to prison to teach college-level courses to inmates, which he did while one himself. The experience more than prepared him to instruct college freshmen.
“Two years of standing in front of 80 gang members teaching them algebra,” he said. “So standing in front of 30 19-year-olds was pretty easy.”
And he believes his time in prison gave him a purpose and the direction he needed. He had time – about a decade’s worth – to rethink his life.
He used it well.