PROVO — After more than six years in prison, Ben Aldana realized how close he had come to throwing his life away.
While taking part in a drug treatment program behind bars, the recovering meth addict listened to other inmates talk about growing up in crime-ridden inner city environments where very few have a shot at a life.
Aldana was raised in a loving Utah home where his parents had given him every opportunity to succeed. Yet to that point he had chosen a life of drugs and crime.
"What's your excuse?" Aldana asked himself. "You don't have one."
Eight years later, Aldana's prison epiphany has motivated him to pursue a new life in which he can help others and help bring about positive change in the criminal justice system. This weekend, Aldana will graduate from Brigham Young University's J. Reuben Clark Law School and upon passing the Utah Bar Exam, assume a job with the Utah County Public Defender's Office.
Carl Hernandez, a BYU law school professor, says Aldana's story illustrates the power of education and giving people second chances.
"Everybody is entitled to second and third chances, even multiple chances, if they are willing to put the work in," Hernandez said. "As a society, we have to give people a chance to succeed, notwithstanding the fact they may have had some blemishes. We all have blemishes on our record, every one of us. Some are just a little less visible than others. I think everyone deserves an opportunity."
Although he was raised in a supportive LDS household in Mapleton, Utah, Aldana describes himself as an "angry" young man. He said he destroyed property and stole things. Part of his behavior may have stemmed from seeing his parents divorce and his mother remarry, but ultimately, he accepts responsibility for his choices.
"I became one of those rebellious kids. I was an angry kid who got into fights," Aldana said. "Between the ages of 13 and 23, my life was pretty much crime, drugs and selfishness. People make their choices, and I made some pretty bad ones."
As a teenager, Aldana got a job finishing concrete during the summers and was introduced to methamphetamine by his co-workers. It became his drug of choice. He barely graduated from high school, Aldana said.
At age 18, Aldana was pulled over for driving under the influence and was found to be in possession of an explosive device, basically a pipe bomb, he said. This led to his first stint in jail.
"From there I just dug myself into a hole," Aldana said. "Before that case was even resolved I caught another case and another one and another one, and eventually I had this whole series of cases that I was being sentenced for."
After he was released, Aldana's drug use only increased because of a new network of people he'd met in prison. But meth use was an expensive habit, so at various times he would buy larger amounts and sell off smaller quantities to cover the high cost.
Two unforgettable events led to serious jail time for Aldana.
First, on a night in November 2003, Aldana went looking for a friend at his West Salt Lake warehouse on the same night it was being raided by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Driving up at the wrong moment, Aldana said he was pulled from his car by dark-clad figures with guns and questioned. He spent three days in jail and was released when no charges were filed. But he was on the DEA's radar.
On another late night in February 2004, the 23-year-old Aldana showed up at a South Jordan hotel looking to buy some drugs from his dealer but couldn't find him. The hotel receptionist thought Aldana looked suspicious and called the police. When Aldana tried to leave, a patrol car blocked him in and he was arrested.
After some time in the Weber County Jail, Aldana ended up in federal court where Judge Dee Benson could have sentenced him to 110 months, but instead gave him 96 months (8 years) jail time.
Aldana served out his sentence at a federal correctional prison in Sheridan, Oregon. Looking back, Aldana feels fortunate he didn't get more time, he said.
"I didn't actually get arrested doing the things I was doing. I got arrested and drug into someone else's problem, which was lucky because that was lesser offensive conduct in the eyes of the law than the things I was doing," said Aldana who remembers other drug dealers receiving sentences of 15-20 years. "I kind of got lucky here."
Once in prison, Aldana began to experience painful dental problems, which turned out to be a blessing.
Aldana's wisdom teeth were growing sideways, pushing against his other teeth and causing headaches. He requested treatment for about a year before the problem was finally corrected by a dentist. As a result of the procedure, Aldana was in and out of the dental clinic for follow-up visits. He noticed other inmates working in the prison dental clinic.
"That would be an interesting job," he thought, "I wonder how you get that?"
Aldana expressed interest in a dental assistant job but didn't get an opportunity for another year. Once he did, he realized he liked helping other people and learning new things. Aldana later became involved in the medical clinic and was given the chance to teach a class.
"That was the first time in my life that I'd ever been given the responsibility to help other people, and it was people that I knew and lived with. I was pretty much devoid of empathy before that," Aldana said. "Being put in that kind of position where I had to learn how to do stuff and apply it. The more I learned and the better I did my job, the more people could see the dentist. It was like walking out of prison every day when I went to work because of the environment."
Completing a drug program and good behavior allowed Aldana to get out of prison after six years. He was ready to do something with this life.
"That is where the motivation came from to go to school," Aldana said.
At age 29, Aldana got a job in road construction and started taking classes at Utah Valley University with the goal of going to law school. His drug problem was behind him.
A car accident almost derailed his plan. One day on campus, Aldana was involved in a wreck, but he left the scene of the accident, even though he hadn't done anything wrong. When tracked down by police, he felt remorse and expressed his willingness to fix the problem. Facing the possibility of returning to prison, his lawyer counseled him to get straight A's in his classes, gather letters of recommendation from as many credible people as he could and to see a therapist, which he did.
His efforts to show this was a mistake and not a return to former behavior paid off. Instead of a Class A misdemeanor for leaving the scene of an accident with injuries, along with a possible felony hit-and-run charge, Aldana received a fine and avoided going back to jail. He continued to get good grades at UVU.
"The prosecutor looked at it and said I'm going to give you a chance," Aldana said. "Having somebody who could just hammer you, and squash you like a bug, say they will give you a chance, that totally changed the way I view people on that side of the criminal justice system. There are good people there and they can do good things."
When it came time to apply to law school, one school's law school admissions office told Aldana he had no chance of attending their program. Others laughed.
But when his application was processed at BYU, Marie Kulbeth, who then worked in admissions, said there was a moment of "Oh, this is different."
"Often times when you see someone with a criminal history, it makes you hesitate and say this may be problematic, both for them taking the bar but also because at BYU we have a strict Honor Code," Kulbeth said. "But at the end of reading Ben’s personal statement, I felt differently."
Kulbeth walked into the office of Gayla Sorenson, then dean of admission, and said she needed to discuss an applicant. Dean Sorenson also had one to review. They were both talking about Aldana, Kulbreth said.
"The standard response would probably be no," said Kulbeth, now the assistant dean of communications and marketing. "But from reading his personal statement, he's clearly made this incredible life change."
After a rigorous review process in which BYU law school admissions staff met with Aldana more than once, and with his full cooperation with every aspect of his troubled past, he was admitted.
Kulbeth said one reason BYU's law school gave Aldana a chance was to help other students benefit from his experience.
"Having students with different backgrounds means they will respond to questions in different ways and help classmates to think about questions in something other than their own traditional way," Kulbeth said.
Aldana can also use his own experience and knowledge of the criminal justice system, combined now with his new skill set, to help others in similar situations, Kulbeth said.
Carl Hernandez first met and became acquainted with Aldana during his first year of law school. Hernandez said Aldana reminded him of his brother who also had been incarcerated for several years. Hernandez wanted to help Aldana. In addition to having him in a few classes, Hernandez became a friend and mentor to Aldana.
In his 17 years at BYU, Hernandez is only aware of one other student with a situation similar to Aldana's in the law school.
"We take a really careful look at students. But we also understand there are students like Ben who have overcome significant challenges in their life and have done the very best they can to put their past life behind them and are looking forward and ready to make significant contributions to our society. Ben is one of those," Hernandez said. "That type of offer doesn't come without demonstrating significant talent and capacity in that subject area, and he has demonstrated his passion, knowledge and skill to work in that arena."
"Throughout Ben’s story you see people relying on this idea that people do have the power to change. You have to put a bit of hope and faith into someone to do that," she said. "When he finally reached the place where he was ready and capable of making those changes, he reached out for every opportunity — educational, professional, faith-based — every connection he had who was willing to help him and relied on them as they put some faith and trust in him."
More than a decade after he was sentenced to 96 months in jail, Aldana's story came full circle as he found himself taking classes from the same federal judge — Dee Benson — who issued his sentence. About a year ago, Aldana recalls staying after class to ask some questions. Judge Benson asked Aldana how he was doing? Of course he was fine, but the question caused Aldana to deeply reflect on where he's been and once again he realized how grateful he is for how things have turned out.
"I didn't think much about it at the time," Aldana said, "but later as I was driving home I thought about how lucky I am to be out of prison, doing what I'm doing."
Although there have been moments of frustration and discouragement along the way, Aldana is thrilled for the future. In sharing his story, Aldana hopes people take away a message about having compassion, giving people second chances and not wasting opportunities.
"People can change. Not everybody does," Aldana said. "But you never know who is going to unless they're actually given the opportunity to show you."