Arnoldo Treviño spent 25 years in state prisons; now he ‘returns’ to prison with a master’s degree

Arnoldo Treviño, 53, served 25 years in state prisons after he was convicted of second-degree murder. He has earned his master's in social work from Fresno State and plans to continue to help prisoners like himself to get an education.
Arnoldo Treviño, 53, served 25 years in state prisons after he was convicted of second-degree murder. He has earned his master's in social work from Fresno State and plans to continue to help prisoners like himself to get an education.

Arnoldo Treviño, who walked out of Soledad State Prison in 2011 after serving 25 years in state prisons for second-degree murder, is ready to head back to prison.

This time, however, the 53-year-old grandfather of two aims to use his master’s in social work to reach out to prisoners and tell them that they too can change their lives around.

“Looking at life through an academic lens really changed my whole perspective on living,” said Treviño, who spent time in Folsom, New Folsom, Vacaville, Solano and Deuel Vocational Institute in Tracy.

“The more I learned, the more I found out I didn’t know anything. And, the more I found out I didn’t know anything, the more I wanted to learn. I was just so hungry for knowledge.”

Treviño – who earned his bachelor’s degree from Fresno State in 2015 and is the graduate dean’s medalist from the university’s College of Health and Human Services with a 4.0 GPA – wants to have an impact on lives of others like him.

His life spiraled out of control starting his sophomore year at Porterville High School when he got into drinking and partying with the wrong crowd. He lasted 30 days at an alcoholic center for teens, getting kicked out for drinking beer in the back yard.

The more I learned, the more I found out I didn’t know anything. And, the more I found out I didn’t know anything, the more I wanted to learn. I was just so hungry for knowledge.

Arnoldo Treviño

His parents, Armando and Guadalupe Treviño, “never turned their backs on me.”

However, Treviño continued his partying ways and “just being a knucklehead.”

“I never learned from it. There was no reason for it other than the glorification I was getting from the fellows,” he said.

That lifestyle escalated.

Treviño dropped in and out of school (“mostly I’d go check out the girls”), drink, get into fights and scamper away before the police got there.

After his first knife fight, he got stabbed in the chest.

“The cops asked me who did it. I said I didn’t know,” recalled Treviño during a recent interview at Fresno State’s Peace Garden.

“The older homeboys took me under their wings because I didn’t say anything,” said Treviño, who played the trumpet on his high school’s marching band and played flanker on the football team his freshman year.

“I thought it was a blessing at the time, but today I see it wasn’t because they introduced me to harder drugs. By the time I was 17, I was doing cocaine and heroin. By the end of my 17th year, I was mixing the two drugs together, making speedballs and shooting that up intraveneously.”

Drinking, a fight, a stabbing

For the next three years, “nothing would change.”

“I was a straight knucklehead,” said Treviño.

The drinking and partying and womanizing continued.

“My parents tried and tried. Knowing they raised me right, they knew someday it would sink it.”

It didn’t, at least not on the night of Sept. 12, 1986.

That’s when Treviño got into a fight at a party and lost.

“I got mad.”

He left the party and tried to buy some beer but it was after 2 a.m. He returned to the party knowing there was beer there.

Treviño spotted the man who had gotten into the fight with him, went back to his car and retrieved a kitchen knife that was stowed away in a bag of fishing gear.

“I stabbed him twice, and one of them ended up cutting his pulmonary artery,” recalled Treviño, who was intoxicated at the time.

Five minutes later, the man died.

Three hours later, Treviño was arrested.

Six months later, he was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 15-years-to-life, and an additional year for using a knife.

That was in April 1987.

A revelation in prison

After a two-week orientation stay at Vacaville State Prison, Treviño was sent to Folsom Prison. After getting caught up in a prison riot, he was sent to the new Folsom Prison where he stayed until 1991.

“It was literally four solid walls,” said Treviño about Folsom. “For those five years at level 4 (maximum security), all I knew was the prison madness. That’s all what life was to me.

“In a mad world, only the mad are sane. That is exactly what was going on in Level 4 (prisons). It was complete madness in there.”

He more or less behaved well enough to be transferred to a medium security prison in Tracy.

In a mad world, only the mad are sane. That is exactly what was going on in Level 4 (prisons). It was complete madness in there.

Arnoldo Treviño

While on the bus to his new home, Treviño saw life happening on the streets.

“I saw kids on skateboards. I saw dogs running across the street. I saw mom and dad with their kids, and grandmas and grandpas pushing strollers.

“I saw McDonald’s. I saw stores. I saw life again.”

That’s when Treviño had an epiphany.

“I wanted to come back. I would do anything to come back. That was the beginning of my new life.”

Treviño figured he could brand himself anew at a prison where no one knew him.

It didn’t get off to a good start. Upon arrival at Tracy, an older homeboy recognized him. “Hey Arnold! I’m gonna move you to my cell.”

They were cellies for a month when Treviño woke up with a heroin hangover.

“You know bro, I’m done,” Treviño told his cellmate.

“June 9, 1991 was my first day of sobriety, and I’ve never looked back,” said Treviño.

A transformation in prison

Treviño quickly got involved in prison programs. He earned his high school diploma in 1992. In 1994, he obtained a liberal arts degree at Tracy’s Deuel Vocational Institute.

“Unfortunately, I was one of the last Deuel inmates to graduate before then-President Bill Clinton enacted the crime bill that took away (college federal funding) from the inmates,” said Treviño. “That is really too bad because I know what education did to me.”

Undeterred, Treviño earned certificates in auto mechanics, aviation maintenance and welding.

He would send letters to organizations he believed could help prisoners like him by promoting cultural awareness.

“In prison, the north and south stuff was just really alive. It was real and unbelievable,” said Treviño. “People were killing each other literally over a color.”

Barrios Unidos responded in 1994.

What do you want?

“I want to promote cultural awareness because of the madness going on,” he responded to a letter. “We came from the same apex, but somehow we divided and it’s really ugly how we, the Hispanic community, divided ourselves.”

After getting permission from the warden, Treviño organized a Cinco de Mayo weekend show with Aztec dancers, a band and motivational speakers.

“It was a great hit.”

The next year, he got permission to use more of the prison yard and presented skits. By the fourth year, he had a lowrider car show.

He helped African American and Native American prisoners set up their own cultural awareness shows.

Actor Danny Glover, rapper DC Boulevard, and, farmworker icon Dolores Huerta showed up.

His prison points dropped again, and Treviño was transferred to Soledad for six months and later to Avenal for seven years.

Treviño initiated a braille transcription program and was certified by the Library of Congress as a braille transcriber.

He was then transferred to Solano, where he was eventually released.

Treviño went to the state parole board 10 times during his 25 years in prison and four times was found suitable for release. However, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger three times refused to approve his release.

Gov. Jerry Brown authorized his release in 2011.

“I got out on merit,” said Treviño. “Now, the laws are what they are today and they’re releasing an average of 300 lifers each year.”

Acclimating outside of prison

Treviño had to learn how to drive once he got out. “I did a year out here to stretch my legs.”

It was a “whole new world.”

He got a job as a maintenance technician at a pistachio plant, but soon figured out that he wasn’t making enough money with 25-cent-an-hour increases each year.

“In four years, I’d be making a dollar more than minimum wage,” said Treviño, who decided to take a chance on education. “I figured out that in four years I could be making a dollar more or I could earn a bachelor’s degree and be making a whole lot more.”

He took a semester of algebra at Porterville College “just to test it out.” Eventually, he took enough classes to earn an A.A. degree in social science in 2014.

He entered Fresno State in the spring of 2015. Treviño earned his bachelor’s degree in social work in 2017, less than four weeks after his father, a psychiatric tech, had died.

Treviño accepted the challenge of going for a master’s degree, even though social work “is the lowest-paid major on campus.”

While walking near the North Gym at Fresno State one morning, he heard a buzzer and immediately dropped to the ground.

“For 25 years (in prison), you hit the floor when you hear the buzzer,” explained Treviño, who pretended to tie his shoelaces after students wondered about his action.

He has helped with Fresno State’s Project Rebound, a program with 25 ex-convicts who are interested in higher education. Treviño has also helped the All of Us or None of Us program at Fresno City College, which helps similar students.

Treviño has worked with Fresno County’s Focus Forward program as a mentor. He finished his year with WestCare, a substance abuse treatment center.

I figured out that in four years I could be making a dollar more or I could earn a bachelor’s degree and be making a whole lot more.

Arnoldo Treviño

Every Saturday for the last two years, Treviño has driven to Avenal State Prison where he works with inmates.

“I help them connect with the environment, the community and themselves,” said Treviño. He does it through “inner gardening and outer gardening.”

“We are weeding and pruning our shortcomings,” he said.

Inmates in the program installed a garden at the prison. Treviño found it surprising to see them get excited whenever a hummingbird would fly in, or see a butterfly.

“You see the transformation take place.”

He is frank with them.

“I’m an ex con. I used to wear those shoes. You can do it. It’s up to you,” he tells them.

The inmates, he said, have broken out of their shell through poetry and drawing pictures.

Inmates will tease him about his current situation.

“You fought 25 years in prison to get out just to go back in?” they will ask.

“Yes, I but I come back with a purpose,” responds Treviño.

Today, Treviño wishes he had never gotten mixed up with the wrong people. He was married twice, and his only child, a son who is now director of a Catholic school in New México, is estranged from him. The breakup came a year after Treviño got out of prison but couldn’t reconcile with his son’s mother.

Another positive for Treviño is that he was an inmate in Avenal when he posed for a photo with an assistant warden.

Ten year later, Treviño recognized her at a Fresno State criminal department advisory board meeting and went up to Rosemary Ndoh, who rose to become warden in Avenal.

Treviño showed her that photo.

He marvels at the journey he has taken since those prison years.

Other Latino dean’s medalists

Graduate level

▪ Juan Guzmán, Division of Student Affairs and Enrollment Management. The Fresno resident earned a 4.0 GPA while working as the graduate assistant for the University Student Union. His goal is to become a university president. He completed his master’s in education, education leadership and administration.

▪ Camerina Angélica Morales, Kremen School of Education and Human Development. The Orange Cove resident earned her bachelor’s in sociology at UC Merced. She was a mentor and supervisor of the Campus Involvement Ambassadors.

Undergraduate level

▪ María Díaz, College of Science and Mathematics. A native of Guadalajara, she earned a 3.93 GPA.

▪ Kaylee Gutiérrez, Kreman School of Education and Human Development. The Fresno resident completed her bachelor’s and her multiple subject credential in only four years.

▪ Cirenio Hisasaga, Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology. The Sanger resident spoke only Spanish when he started kindergarten.

▪ Primavera Leal Martínez, College of Arts and Humanities. The Sanger resident has won national recognition in debate.

▪ Theresa Monreal, Craig School of Business. The seventh child of nine, she was a scholar in the Smittcamp Family Honors College.

▪ Andrea Fernández Soto, Division of Student Affairs and Enrollment Management. The Dinuba resident was 6 years old when her family moved from México.

Fresno State President Joseph I. Castro will select a graduate and an undergraduate from among the dean’s medalists to receive the President’s Medal as the top student during Saturday’s commencement at the Save Mart Center. Profiles of the Latino dean’s medalists, plus coverage of Fresno State graduation ceremonies in the upcoming days.