Iowa State Penitentiary tutor to be subject of documentary
It’s impressive enough that an offender at the Iowa State Penitentiary would help tutor his peers in their quest for a high school equivalency diploma.
But this past year, Southeastern Community College adult education instructor Beth Deacon received help not just from Perry High School graduate Julio Bonilla but from current student Enrique Aboytes Garcia.
Garcia spoke little English and could not read English when he was sentenced to ISP and yet was one of 13 other offenders to receive their diplomas from SCC president Dr. Michael Ash Thursday morning.
An independent filmmaker was on hand that morning, having met Garcia five years ago when looking to do a film about life in prison. But Aaron Woolf of Mosaic Films said the nature of the documentary is still a work in progress. It could be several years before it’s completed and so he didn’t want to discuss what direction the film might take.
The film crew made sure to capture the arrival of Garcia’s mother, Tereza Solache – who came all the way from California – and his son, Enrique Aboytes-McKinney, as they approached the maximum security unit.
Solache speaks no English, so Garcia offered his appreciation in Spanish while Bonilla – a native of El Salvador – translated for the audience.
Aboytes-McKinney graduated in 2016 from Des Moines Roosevelt.
Because Garcia is Catholic, he had struck up a friendship with Davenport Diocese bishop the Rev. Martin Amos, and Amos was on hand to watch the ceremony.
“I came down for Christmas Mass two years ago,” Amos said. The two hit it off and began writing to each other.
Former ISP warden Nick Ludwig was supposed to make a guest appearance but stayed back in Michigan. He retired early from ISP for health reasons.
Father couldn’t help son
Garcia’s son was born shortly before he was convicted of murder and sent to prison for life without parole. Bonilla is also serving life, but is eligible for parole.
Aboytes-McKinney said that his father was never able to help him with his homework because he knew nothing of math and his mother, Annie, was usually working.
“I had to do school on my own,” Aboytes-McKinney said. The son tried to introduce his father to algebra, but Garcia couldn’t comprehend the subject.
Garcia began studying for what was then the General Equivalency Diploma program and he did learn to speak and read English from the past teachers.
Deacon came along and, with her strong background in math, was able to break through. Yet at the time, Garcia had below first-grade level math skills.
“He said he knew I was truly there to help,” Deacon said, “and for the first time felt he could actually make it as no one else ever taught classes.” At that time, the program was more designed as independent work, but the program now requires students to take structured classes.
Deacon said Garcia “studied five hours a day in school doing math and then in the evenings and all weekend.” Bonilla told her that fellow offenders would make fun of Garcia for carrying all his math work around with him.
“I got the biggest score,” Garcia said, in comparison to his classmates, and is now at the 12th-grade level.
So he called his son to break the news.
“He said, ‘I can’t believe it,’” Garcia said of his son.
Aboytes-McKinney said, “I didn’t even know they had something like this in prison.”
Deacon hired Garcia as a tutor when ISP moved to its new location as that’s when she had an opening. Bonilla had already been tutoring.
“Once he told me he was tutoring, I was shocked,” Garcia’s son said. “I can’t tutor my own classmates.”
As for the eventual graduation, “It made me proud. He never saw how my education got better, but I saw how he got better.”
Garcia told the audience at the graduation ceremony, “I think God for opening my eyes.”
He also thanked SCC Coordinator Kerry Murray and correctional officers Dave Maynard and Randy Coffman for their parts.
Although Bonilla is outside the radar of film producers he hopes to tell his story some day.
For now, it’s enough to know that he came to the U.S. at age 10, escaping a violent civil war in El Salvador.
Bonilla, now 31, said he was convicted of murder at age 17 and sentenced to life in prison without parole. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, ruled a juvenile can’t be given life without parole, so Bonilla has a chance for release.
But while he had a green card when he came to America, it was revoked at his conviction and he will likely be deported if and when he is released.