Formerly incarcerated at LAC, Keaton is now writer, speaker
A clean-cut, soft-spoken professional who patiently responds to every question, Jason Keaton approaches each day as a learning opportunity. A Compton-raised former gang member, Keaton is now a writer, public speaker, and lifeline for those struggling with addiction. Now he uses his voice by speaking directly to troubled youth, crafting his autobiography, and advancing his education.
Making change possible
While serving a 21-year sentence at California State Prison, Los Angeles County (LAC), Keaton earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication Studies. This achievement was possible thanks to an LAC educational partnership with California State University, Los Angeles. He crossed the commencement stage in October 2021 at LAC with 24 other incarcerated students. Their graduation marked the first time a four-year degree was conferred to incarcerated students from a public university in California.
He was released to parole supervision five months later, in March 2022. His first order of business was a pancake breakfast with his oldest brother, who had been a supportive pillar during his incarceration. Keaton’s grandmother raised him with his siblings in Compton when his mother passed away following a struggle with substance use disorder.
Keaton says disappointing his family was one of the worst days of his life. He wants to make them proud, and education was the way to achieve that dream.
“Change is possible,” he said. “Especially through education.”
Making every day count
While adapting to a world that had changed almost as much as he had, Keaton completed an 8-week paid apprenticeship with Careers for a Cause (C4C) through East Los Angeles Community College.
C4C is a job training program created by the Los Angeles County Department of Economic Development offering:
- career assessment
- job shadowing
- and potential entry-level job placement in the social services industry.
Ready to advance his career, Keaton attended a job fair where he connected with the nonprofit Homeless Outreach Program Integrated Care System (HOPICS). The organization provides services to over 4,000 individuals and families, assisting with:
- mental health treatment
- substance abuse treatment
- and reentry.
Education, he says, prepared him to make professional connections.
“It provided me a fighting chance for a great career, not just a job,” Keaton said.
HOPICS hired Keaton to coordinate housing placement and services supporting a person’s successful transition to permanent housing. “I used my experience to understand people have trauma and issues that they may not have identified,” he said.
In July 2022, he accepted a position with the Los Angeles Centers for Drug and Alcohol Abuse (LA CADA). As a care coordinator, he assists new patients with data entry as well as connecting people struggling with addiction to long-term professional assistance.
“I enjoy interacting with patients and professionally, sharing that I, too, suffered from addiction,” Keaton said. “I can tell by the look on their faces that my story registers with each patient I go in depth with.”
Finding his voice
While incarcerated, Keaton self-published his autobiography, “Rough around the Edges: My Journey” in 2020. In it, he used his experiences from childhood and young-adulthood to explore what happened to him as he matured in his community.
He’s now writing part two, discussing what he’s learned about himself since his release.
He is also developing plans for a documentary about his journey and charting a speaking tour to motivate men, women, and children to make better decisions with the tools he has learned.
Keaton volunteers to speak to children, teens, and young adults through a Compton-based group called Children Striving Together, which provides skill building and social development programs for youth in Los Angeles County. Attendees receive copies of his book and words of encouragement from the writer.
Keaton says he started to dismiss education when he was in ninth grade due to a number of outside distractions that would ultimately define the next two decades of his life. Since earning his degree, he has discovered a life-long learner in himself, planning next to work toward a master’s degree.
Keaton is grateful for support he’s received from former Compton Mayor Aja Brown, her husband, Van Brown, and Councilwoman Michelle Chambers. He also credits Taffany Lim, Ed.D, Executive Director of the Center for Engagement, Service & the Public Good at CSU-Los Angeles, and Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy for his college education.
“I really want to thank them for my education and everything they mean to me and my classmates,” he beamed.
“Jason stands as an example of a man for whom education has been the vehicle for re-writing his story, freeing himself from destructive narratives and identities of gang life, and becoming the human being of which all of us who know him are proud,” said Dr. Roy. “I am so proud of who Jason has become and honored to be part of his journey.”
Keaton says he gets up every day, ready for work, knowing he has been blessed to have a second chance. “I better make every day count,” he said.
By Tessa Outhyse, Public Information Officer
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