Journalism / New Haven Register

From jail to Yale Law: 1 man’s inspiring story

By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff
June 17, 2008

When Andres Idarraga appeared before a parole board in Rhode Island in 2003, he had a powerful argument on his side: an acceptance letter to the University of Rhode Island.

The board granted his request for early release, and four years after leaving the Adult Correctional Institute in Cranston, R.I., Idarraga is a Brown University graduate headed to Yale Law School this fall.

Idarraga, who transferred to Brown following his freshman year at URI, served more than six years of a 14-year sentence for extortion, blackmail and possession of a controlled substance, according to the Rhode Island Department of Corrections.

Now 30, he is getting ready to attend the top-ranked law school in the country.

“I received a call and I had to sit down for a second — I was in shock,” he said of learning he had been accepted at Yale. “I really did not know how to react. I had to think, ‘This is my life, this is me.’”

He became interested in attending law school during his junior year at Brown, he said, when he studied a 2007 Supreme Court decision dealing with school segregation. Yale was his first choice for law school, in part because of its Education Adequacy Clinic, which works to ensure equal educational opportunities for children.

Applicants to Yale Law School are asked whether they have been convicted of a crime, and if so, to explain the circumstances. A previous conviction “is not an automatic rejection,” Director of Public Affairs Jan Conroy wrote in an e-mail.

Ashbel Wall, the director of Rhode Island’s Department of Corrections, graduated from Yale Law School in 1980 and said he had a classmate who had also served a drug-related sentence in a state prison. Wall got to know Idarraga after his release, and wrote a letter of recommendation for his Yale application.

Idarraga’s story has proved to be a strong example for others incarcerated or out on parole, Wall said. Last week, Idarraga spoke at several graduation ceremonies for inmates who had completed GED or other degree programs.

“I have a chance to watch the inmate audience — they are rapt with attention and inevitably give him a rousing standing ovation,” Wall said. “He represents hope and the possibility that if you do the right thing, the future can be brighter.”

But Wall said that Idarraga’s trajectory is remarkable. He noted that 60 percent of the inmates at the ACI have not completed high school or a GED program, and 68 percent can only read at an eighth-grade level or lower. About half of the inmates are back in police custody within three years of being released, he added.

“It’s an enormous triumph for an inmate even to earn the GED,” he said. “Andres’ accomplishment is the equivalent of shooting the moon.”

Idarraga was a smart kid growing up in Pawtucket and Central Falls, R.I., earning a scholarship to a prestigious preparatory school in Providence. But, he said, the lure of the quick cash available through drugs proved to be too strong a temptation.

“Instead of hitting the books a little harder, which I should have done, and saying, ‘This is the way to get through it,’ I saw the rewards of education so far off and so abstract,” he said. “I saw the rewards of the street and doing some hustling so much more concrete, and being a young kid I said, ‘I want the rewards now.’”

In 1998, when he was 20, he was sentenced to 14 years in prison. After serving some of his sentence, he began using the time to educate himself and tutor others working toward their GED.

He applied to college from prison — asking friends and family to call colleges and request applications — and was accepted at the University of Rhode Island. In 2005, he transferred to Brown, where he pursued a double major in literature and economics.

While at Brown, Idarraga became deeply involved with RI Right to Vote, an effort to restore voting rights to people on probation and parole. A constitutional referendum on the issue won voter approval in November 2006.

Ariel Werner, a friend from Brown who worked with Idarraga on the effort, called him “more than a poster boy” for the cause.

“He was a spokesman and an incredible spokesman, and he was juggling his academics during his first year at Brown with that role,” Werner said. “I was immediately incredibly impressed with him, and I came from a D.C. suburb where I was too sheltered from a lot of the issues that I’m now principally interested in, so Andres’ story was sort of groundbreaking for someone like me.”

Friends and mentors described Idarraga as a genuine, motivated person with strong intellectual ability and curiosity. Angel Green, a professor at URI who encouraged Idarraga to apply to Brown, called his scholastic ability “outstanding.”

“He was able to develop a very introspective view of himself that said he wanted to be his very best and in order to be his very best, he had to have access to the very best,” Green said. “For me, he possessed a very rare intellectual capacity that was very indicative of an inquisitive, imaginative, logical genius.”

Oscar Beltran, a childhood friend, said Idarraga was “a bright kid.” Beltran visited Idarraga while he was in prison, and his friend always asked him to send books.

“When your family is struggling financially and you can see a way of making a quick buck here and there, sometimes your nearsightedness can cause you to lose track,” Beltran said. “Even though it’s a tough lesson to learn being locked up, I said (to Idarraga), ‘You had 6½ years to mature mentally and learn from the mistakes that you made when you were younger.”

Like Idarraga, who emigrated from Colombia when he was 7 years old, Beltran has a Colombian background.

“He learned a tough lesson, and now he’s in a position where he can be a positive example for millions of Latin American people in the community, and as well for felons,” Beltran said.

Wall said he believes Yale Law School will be a good fit for Idarraga because of the intellectual community that is formed by members of the small school.

“It really provides its students with an atmosphere that encourages creativity and very broad thinking about the role of law in society,” he said. “I’m proud that my alma mater has the confidence to accept someone like Andres. I think that he will reflect great credit on Yale Law.”

Idarraga said that he found the Brown community very supportive when some students and professors learned of his experiences.

When he moves to New Haven later this summer, it will be the first time he has lived outside Rhode Island.

“It is a new beginning,” he said. “I’m very much looking forward to it. I’m nervous, but it’s a good nervous.”

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