‘I was really angry,’ BYU law grad recalls 6 years in federal prison that changed his life

Apr 26, 2018, 9:25 PM | Updated: Apr 27, 2018, 11:24 am

PROVO, Utah – Finishing three years of law school is a huge accomplishment, but for one graduate of Brigham Young University’s law school, it’s the end of a journey that started with a long stint in federal prison.

“It’s just not something that I ever thought I could do,” said Ben Aldana on graduation day. “I got out of prison and had no academic background.”

“I was really angry,” he recalls. “Before you know it, you’re fully engulfed in this criminal world.”

The 37-year-old says drug use, including an addiction to methamphetamine, led to a life of crime and multiple arrests in his late teens and early 20s.

“I was really angry,” he recalls. “Before you know it, you’re fully engulfed in this criminal world.”

A federal drug charge landed him 96 months in prison when he was 23. While incarcerated at a medium-security corrections facility in Oregon, an opportunity to help other inmates receive dental work changed his life.

“I’m actually really just grateful,” said Ben Aldana of graduating from law school.

“It was like walking out of prison every day, because the people who I worked for actually treated me like a person,” he said of working with the prison’s dentist. “I had never been put in a position where it was my job to help anyone else.”

After serving a shortened term of six years, Aldana returned home with a desire to change the world for the better. While working a job in road construction, he got his undergraduate degree from Utah Valley University.

Later, when applying for law school, Aldana was required to disclose and explain his lengthy criminal record.

“There are 12 state felonies on my criminal record,” he said. “One school told me basically, ‘You’re not coming to our law school.’”

A sign of BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School on graduation day.

His application to BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School landed on the desk of Marie Kulbeth, who worked as director of admissions at the time.

“As I worked my (way) through it, I’m thinking, ‘This isn’t going to work,’” she remembers.

But when Kulbeth read Aldana’s personal statement and learned of his work in the community, she decided to give him more consideration.

“He was doing all these things that showed he really had come to care about people,” Kulbeth said.

After a series of interviews, Aldana got accepted in 2015.

After a series of interviews and explanations about his criminal record, BYU Law School admitted Ben Aldana in 2015.

“I don’t imagine there will be another student like that anytime soon,” Kulbeth said. “He really has done everything we hoped he would do in law school — and more.”

With a job lined up at the public defender’s office, Aldana says having been on the other side of the law is helpful but also painful at times.

“The courtrooms that I’m working in are courtrooms that I was brought through,” he explains. “Clients will come in in chains and I’ll shutter a little bit because the sound of chains is something that I dealt with for a very long time.”

“I don’t imagine there will be another student like that anytime soon,” said Marie Kulbeth, who worked as director of admissions when Aldana applied to law school.

In the end, Aldana says he hopes to teach others about seizing opportunities and giving people a second chance.

“I’m actually really just grateful,” he said of graduating from law school. “Because it’s not really me, it’s a whole bunch of people who have given me opportunities.”

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‘I was really angry,’ BYU law grad recalls 6 years in federal prison that changed his life