Youthful Offender Program makes a difference

Two men sit at a red table.
Emil Luke Alpoonarian, left, speaks with Alfredo Gonzales.

By Joe Orlando
Office of Public and Employee Communications

Emil Luke Alpoonarian will tell you that when he was a teenager, he experimented with drugs and had no real direction in life. When he was 19, he hit rock bottom and was sentenced to six years in prison for voluntary manslaughter.

Alpoonarian was a broken young man looking for direction. He knew there were a couple different directions he could go. He could turn his life around or he could succumb to becoming a hardened criminal.

Five years later, parolee Alpoonarian is attending Fresno Community College. In his second semester, Alpoonarian is taking 17 units — 15 is considered a full load. Last semester he had a 4.0 grade point average. The Fresno native wants to eventually end up at Fresno State and study either communications or marketing.

He’s also working several hours each week.

Alpoonarian’s turnaround was driven by the Youthful Offender Program at CSP-Solano. Incarcerated mentors Gerry Cypert and Steven Spruill were key players in helping him turn his life around.

When I got to prison, they told me about the Youthful Offender Program, the YOP, they told me I have an opportunity to enter into lower custody level, and if I stay with it, help reduce the amount of time I’d have to do,” Alpoonarian said.

He said he thought, “Heck yeah, why wouldn’t I want to take advantage of this?”

The YOP was established through Assembly Bill 1276 in 2014 and provided CDCR with the authority to afford special classification consideration for youthful offenders received into CDCR on or after July 1, 2015, who were under the age of 22. In other words a second chance for young offenders who have made mistakes and want to begin turning their lives around.

Alpoonarian was received by CDCR on Aug. 26, 2015.

“At the time, the YOP was just getting started, and the counselors were trying to figure out what classes we should be taking, who they could call on to mentor us, and how it would be viewed by the older guys, the lifers, those who had been in prisons for years.”

He found out quickly how the guys doing long stretches would react.

“This six-foot-six skinhead comes up to me and I’m thinking, uh oh, what’s he want? But the guy flipped it and said, what are your goals, what do you hope to get out of this program? He really wanted me to succeed and make the most of this because he saw it was giving the young guys hope,” Alpoonarian explained.

He went on to explain that at CSP-Solano where he was housed, all races came together and supported the YOP and the young offenders who were really trying to make the most of the program and hopefully begin turning their lives around.

One of the people he leaned on when he got to Fresno City was Alfredo Gonzales who was serving a life sentence at Salinas Valley State Prison before being paroled in 2018. Gonzales is a semester away from Fresno State.

The two met through their parole officers and Gonzales was instrumental in helping Alpoonarian acclimate to life outside the prison walls.

“People don’t realize how hard it is to transition from prison to regular life. I committed my crime in 1994 at 17, and got out of prison 24 years later. It’s so important to have people you can talk to when you get out,” Gonzales said. “Heck when I went in, they were using those big brick phones, now look at the cellphones people have today.”

Life has changed. So have Alpoonarian and Gonzales.