The flu, a different coronavirus, will be back this winter, as usual, starting in November and getting worse December and January. As the early symptoms of COVID-19 (also a coronavirus) and the flu are very similar, the medical establishment recommends that everyone gets a flu shot.
“This winter, hospitals could well be in great demand so it makes sense that if we can minimize influenza as much as we can we’ll have more reserved healthcare capacity to look after patients who might be suffering from COVID-19,” said Dr. John Campbell.
Further, the flu shot, designed to give you immunity against the flu, may give you increased immunity—although not total—against the worst cases of COVID-19.
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health (NIH paper), “It might be possible also that individuals who received prior flu vaccination might show mild severity of COVID-19 because of flu-induced bystander effect of the generated immune responses, which itself might cross-react against SARS-CoV-2 [COVID-19].”
According to The Dual Epidemics of COVID-19 and Influenza (the JAMA report), in the 2018-2019 flu session, the U.S. had 35.5 million influenza cases, 490,600 hospitalizations, and 34,200 deaths related to influenza.
As for the good news, the flu vaccination for 2018-19 prevented 4.4 million cases of influenza, 58,000 hospitalizations, and 3,500 deaths in the U.S. This is with only about 50% of residents getting the flu shot, according to the JAMA report.
Of course, COVID-19 is a different respiratory viral infection. Still, as to the flu, the relative risk in this study was 4.4. In other words, the people in the vaccination group were 4.4 times more likely to avoid the flu compared with people who did not take the flu shot.
So it is still very important that everyone gets a flu shot. Make sure that all your family members do so. That way even if you later get COVID-19, the hospital won’t be as full of influenza patients.
This was going to be the year that Dion DeMerrill would fully explain to his sons why he is in prison. The virus lockdown made that unlikely.
DeMerrill looks forward every year to this one chance to see his kids, when he and other incarcerated men and women link up with their kids, thanks to the Get On The Bus program.
Get on the Bus brings children and their caregivers from throughout the state of California to visit their mothers and fathers in prison.
But the COVID-19 pandemic forced all programs in state prisons to be suspended, including the Get on The Bus program that allowed him to visit with his kids.
He’s a father of three — an 18-year-old daughter, D’oni, who is in college, and two boys, 13-year-old Dion Jr. and 9-year-old Dr’Lon.
With numerous parents serving time in California prisons, their children are in the homes of relatives or subject to foster care.
According to research by the family reunification organization, Get on the Bus (GOTB), the negative outcomes of children with incarcerated parents include decreased mental health, behavioral and educational challenges, as well as higher rates of being incarcerated themselves.
“Before, when they asked when I was coming home, I told them I was in Texas,” DeMerrill said. “But my oldest son kept asking questions, so I told him what happened. A few weeks before Get on the Bus last year, my youngest son was told I am in prison. He still doesn’t know why. This year, I wanted to tell him the whole story.”
DeMerrill, 43, became an incarcerated parent when he was sentenced in 2013 to 16 years in state prison for involuntary manslaughter.
“The crime happened because of a lack of communications and respect,” said DeMerrill, who had never been in trouble with the law before. “I just happened to be in the middle of something.”
DeMerrill, the fourth child of five — and the only boy — added, “I was raised by my mother — a single parent. I grew up in West Oakland, California. My mother did her best with us. It was hard to raise a boy alone. She did not do just a good job, but a great job.”
When he was 21, DeMerrill moved out on his own, but kept in close contact with his mother and sisters.
“When this accident happened, they all came together to help me,” he said. “They are still supportive to me. If I need anything, they are right there for me. We were taught to always help each other when in need.”
DeMerrill came to San Quentin State Prison in 2017.
Talking to his kids on the phone helps him get by, he said. He also likes to relax by playing board games, exercising, watching the news and writing letters.
Since arriving at San Quentin, he’s been attending self-help groups. He’s graduated from the violence prevention programs No More Tears and Non-Violent Communications, and is currently enrolled in the Guiding Rage Into Power (GRIP) program.
Two years ago, another prisoner told DeMerrill about GOTB.
“I filled out the application because my daughter just turned 18, so she was able to bring my two boys,” DeMerrill said.
An annual event, Get on the Bus offers free transportation for the children and their caregivers to the prison, provides travel bags for the children, comfort bags for the caregivers, a photo of each child with his or her parent, and meals for the day (breakfast, snacks on the bus, a special lunch at the prison with their parent and dinner on the way home), all at no cost to the children’s family. On the bus trip home, following a four-hour visit, each child receives a teddy bear with a letter from their parent and post-event counseling.
“At that time, I hadn’t touched my kids since December 2013 and I hadn’t seen them since December 2014. I was only able to call them once a week.
“Last year was full of tears,” he recounted. “When my kids saw me, they stared at me because they hadn’t seen me in so long. My youngest son was in Pampers when I came to prison and I missed his second birthday.” During the visit, they played board games and he gave his sons “horsey back rides.”
“I was too old for that,” DeMerrill said. “I thanked the lady who was responsible for bringing my kids.”
His daughter, D’oni, said last year was about “holding, touching, and hugging our dad — that’s the main thing.” Her brothers agreed.
DeMerril said he had wanted to use this year’s GOTB visit to teach his sons about prison — “that this is a place where you never want to come” — but the pandemic has kept them apart.
For D’oni too, this hit hard. She said the program is important because it’s the only time she and her brothers get to see their father.
She said she “hates COVID-19 because so many lives are being taken and everybody can’t go outside like how it used to be. I cope with it by spending quality time with my family.” But her dad is just too far.
“It’s too expensive for a plane ticket,” D’oni said. “So we rely on the Get on the Bus to see him. My favorite memory was being able to hug him, so being able to see him in 2019 was one of the best days of the whole year. I miss our trips together. They used to be so fun.”
DeMerrill’s 13-year-old, Dion Jr., said that COVID-19 is “kind of scary, because it’s deadly and we can’t go to school.” Like his sister, he said it’s hard to miss out on the only opportunity to see his dad. Getting the chance to spend time and play games with him were his best memories from last year.
Dr’lon said he’s coping with COVID-19 by playing video games with his older brother. He also said his favorite memories from 2019 were being with his dad on their Father’s Day visit.
“He always makes me laugh,” Dr’lon said. “I miss him playing with me.”
All but nine of California’s 35 prisons house more people than the facility was designed to hold.
The following article by Juan Haines, Senior Editor of the San Quentin News and Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg is reprinted by the permission of The Appeal, which produces original journalism on how policy, politics, and the legal system impact America’s most vulnerable people.
The conditions for the novel coronavirus to spread rapidly have long been in place at San Quentin State Prison. Like much of California’s prison system, it has been dangerously overcrowded.
As of May 30, no prisoners at San Quentin had tested positive for COVID-19. That day, 121 people were transferred there from a facility with a deadly outbreak. On May 31, California’s department of corrections reported the first confirmed case of a prisoner with COVID-19 at the prison—and within weeks, hundreds were infected.
As of July 20, there have been 2,089 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among prisoners at San Quentin, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). About 1,100 people have recovered.
Thirteen people incarcerated at the prison have died from complications arising from COVID-19, according to the CDCR; six were serving a death sentence. Last year, Governor Gavin Newsom imposed a moratorium on executions and ordered the execution chamber closed. California has not carried out an execution since 2006.
The cause of death for the remaining nine is pending, according to CDCR’s website. Of those nine, three people were found unresponsive in their single cells—on March 28, June 24, and July 1. The remaining six died between July 3 and July 20 of apparent complications from COVID-19, according to the CDCR; all six were hospitalized at the time of their death.
Some who test positive for COVID-19 or have been exposed to someone who tests positive are isolated in administrative segregation housing units, according to the CDCR. Administrative segregation is generally considered to be a euphemism for solitary confinement.
“Those being placed into segregated housing due to COVID-19 are not being moved for punitive reasons, they are moved in order to prevent further spread of the COVID-19 virus in the affected unit,” reads the CDCR website. “Patients on isolation are screened twice a day by health care staff.”
When asked for the number of people in administrative segregation because of COVID-19, CDCR spokesperson Jeffrey Callison, emailed The Appeal, “We don’t share numbers in quarantine or isolation.”
As early as March, public health experts warned of an impending crisis facing the state’s overcrowded prisons. (The Justice Collaborative organized a letter by public health experts to urge the governor to release individuals who are over 60 or medically vulnerable, and identified as low-risk or have five years or less left on their sentences. The Appeal is an editorially independent project of The Justice Collaborative.)
“The crowded conditions make it difficult, if not impossible, for the prison system to spread people out,” said Don Specter, executive director of the Prison Law Office. “They’re living in a place which makes contagion very probable.”
The Prison Law Office, along with other attorneys, filed an emergency motion in March, asking the federal district court to order the CDCR to release to parole or post-release community supervision prisoners within a year of their parole date who were either serving time for a nonviolent offense or identified as low risk by the CDCR’s risk assessment tool. Even before the pandemic, some prisons had too few on-site medical beds to meet patients’ needs, the attorneys wrote. A pandemic, they cautioned, would be catastrophic. The court denied their motion.
Throughout the pandemic, the prisons have remained overcrowded even though the department of corrections has reduced the state prison population by about 10,000 people since March. All but nine of California’s 35 prisons house more people than they were designed to hold. For the prisons to operate at about 100 percent capacity, the population would have to be reduced by more than 16,000 people. Without mass releases, few options remain to keep prisoners safe.
To stem transmissions, San Quentin’s population must be reduced by 50 percent, according to a report released in June by the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health and Amend, a prison reform organization. As of July 15, the prison housed 3,362 people, at about 109 percent of its capacity. At the beginning of this month, David Sears, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the University of California-San Francisco, spoke to state legislators as a representative of Amend.
“California prisons are already over 100 percent capacity,” he testified. “We must depopulate all of our prisons immediately if we are to have any hope of avoiding what has happened at San Quentin at California’s other facilities.”
After public outcry about the rising infection and death rates, the state’s department of corrections announced on July 10 that up to an estimated 8,000 prisoners could be eligible for release by the end of August. As part of this effort, the CDCR will grant a positive programming credit to prisoners, which would reduce a sentence by 12 weeks. Those who committed a “serious rules violation” between March 1 and July 5 of this year are not eligible for the credit. Serious rules violations include murder, rape, and assault, as well as possession of a cellphone and “gang activity,” according to the CDCR’s announcement.
The department also plans to release prisoners based on a number of criteria, such as type of offense, medical vulnerabilities, and time left to serve.
For those incarcerated at prisons with “large populations of high-risk patients,” people will be considered for release if they have a year or less to serve, are not serving time for a violent crime, have no current or prior sentence that requires them to register as a sex offender, and are not at a high risk of violence, according to the department.
Prisoners who are 30 and over and meet these criteria are “immediately eligible for release,” according to the CDCR. Those who are 29 and younger, will be reviewed case by case. These groups will be screened on a rolling basis until the department “determines such releases are no longer necessary.”
People who are identified as “high-risk medical,” such as those who are over 65 and have chronic conditions, are eligible for release, as long as they are not serving a life without the possibility of parole or death sentence, and are not identified as “high-risk sex offenders,” according to the CDCR.
The department is also “reviewing potential release protocols for incarcerated persons who are in hospice or pregnant,” according to the department’s announcement. “Everybody will be reviewed based on both their current health risk and risk to public safety.” CDCR spokesperson Dana Simas confirmed to The Appeal that the review will include those sentenced to death or life without the possibility of parole.
The department will be “expediting the release” of those who are still incarcerated despite being approved for parole by the Board of Parole Hearings and the governor. As of July 15, there were 436 people who were incarcerated after having received a grant of parole, according to the CDCR.
The department of corrections’ announcement featured a number of statements from local advocacy groups, praising the release plan. “We applaud the Governor for working on two crucial fronts: getting the most vulnerable people out of harm’s way and stemming the spread of COVID-19 inside prisons and neighboring communities,” said Anne Irwin, director of Smart Justice California.
But other experts condemned it as dangerously inadequate.
The type of crime should not disqualify people for release, as there is no correlation between offense and risk to public safety, said Hadar Aviram, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. “It’s too little, it’s too late, it’s too reactive, and it’s too restrictive,” she said of the CDCR’s plan.
Those who are over 50 should be prioritized for release, as research shows people typically age out of committing crime, she said. More than 30,000 people age 50 and older were incarcerated as of December 31, 2017, the most recently available CDCR data. According to the same report, almost half of the state’s prisoners—over 60,000—were identified as low-risk to reoffend.
“I’m seeing the pattern of trying to carve out of the prison population,” Aviram said, “these slivers of people that they think are going to be non-controversial and hoping that if they have this sliver and this sliver and this sliver, overall the numbers are going to add up. The numbers are not going to add up. The number is 8,000. It’s not enough.”
Adnan Khan, executive director of Restore Justice, agrees that the plan fails to protect the people incarcerated inside the state’s prisons. The day before the plan was announced, he stood outside San Quentin at a press conference with the Stop San Quentin Outbreak coalition.
“This is not a COVID response. COVID responses are urgent and they’re much more drastic,” he said. “This is more of a political response to the pressure versus a COVID response for health.”
In 2003, Khan, then 18 years old and homeless, committed a robbery with an accomplice. He had agreed to grab the victim’s marijuana, believing that no weapons were going to be used. But during the crime the getaway driver stabbed the victim, killing him.
Under the felony murder rule, Khan was held responsible for the murder, and sentenced to 25 years to life. Last year, he went before Judge Laurel Brady who resentenced Khan, then 34, to three years, thanks to a change in California’s felony murder statute.
“In a matter of three minutes I went from being a violent, crazy criminal offender, whatever those derogatory terms are,” said Khan. “Three minutes later, I’m not even on parole or probation. I’m safe for society.”
Khan was incarcerated at San Quentin for four years. At least two people he served time with their died from COVID-19, he said.
“I’m doing this interview with a heavy heart and really frustrated,” he said. “It’s like, who’s next? Which one of our friends is next?”
The crisis facing California prisoners has been years in the making. Between 1980 and 2006, the state’s prison population increased by 514 percent, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, in part because of harsh sentencing laws. In 1994, California enacted the three strikes law, which mandated at least a 25 to life sentence for any third felony.
As the prison population increased, conditions inside deteriorated.
In 1990, a class action lawsuit, Coleman v. Brown, alleged that prisoners with severe mental illness were denied adequate mental healthcare. The federal court agreed and appointed a special master to monitor reforms. In 2007, he reported that the declining quality of care was due to overcrowding.
Then in 2001, the Prison Law Office filed a class action suit, Plata v. Brown, alleging that prisoners with serious medical issues were also denied adequate care. About four years later, the court appointed a receiver to oversee changes to the medical system. In 2008, he reported that overcrowding was contributing to dangerously inadequate medical care and the spread of infectious diseases.
The cases were consolidated before a three-judge panel and, in 2009, the panel ordered the state to reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of design capacity within two years. Individual prisons could go beyond that, as long as other prisons balanced them out.
“Until the problem of overcrowding is overcome it will be impossible to provide constitutionally compliant care to California’s prison population,” the judges wrote.
The state appealed and, in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed that overcrowding in California’s prison system violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. “Prisoners are crammed into spaces neither designed nor intended to house inmates,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy for the majority. “As many as 200 prisoners may live in a gymnasium, monitored by as few as two or three correctional officers.”
Prisoners at San Quentin have had to struggle with the ominous threat of infection in an increasingly distressing environment. They can only shower every three days, unless they’ve been identified as critical workers who are permitted to shower after their shift, according to a page on the CDCR website that details actions the department is taking to address the outbreak at San Quentin.
On July 14, the CDCR suspended phone calls in shared spaces, according to CDCR spokesperson Callison. When asked if there is any phone access that is not in communal spaces, Callison emailed The Appeal that there is not. “If it is a legal call, requested by the attorney or the court, it is facilitated in a counselor’s office on a non-recorded phone,” he wrote.
The CDCR has also attempted to stem transmission by increasing social distancing among prisoners. As the outbreak at San Quentin became one of the largest in the country, tents to house prisoners went up on the baseball field outside.
In the spring, the gym was turned into housing, according to the CDCR. In Amend’s report, the authors warned that “there is little to no ventilation” inside the San Quentin gym. The conditions, they wrote, were creating a “high-risk for a catastrophic super spreader event.”
On April 11, North Block had just finished serving breakfast to the more than 750 prisoners there. “I need seven volunteers to work in the gym,” a correctional officer asked over the block’s public address system.
The day before, a flatbed truck drove up to the gym. The truck’s sideboards were topped with battleship-gray 3-inch twin-size mattresses that most California prisoners sleep on.
Six prisoners went to the gym to set up 112 cots, in two rows of four with 30 inches between beds on the sides, and 12 inches head to head. Six feet separated 14 pods of eight beds, each. Several men continued the work over the next two days. For their labor, the set-up crew earned extra lunches and cleaning supplies.
Before the pandemic, the gym’s morning hours were filled with prisoners taking rehabilitative classes. At night, they watched TV, and played basketball, table tennis, card games, role-playing games, and chess. There were guitars and keyboards, haircuts being given, and guys sitting at stainless steel tables studying parole plans—what to do on the other side of the wall.
Those sleeping in the gym said they did not feel they could keep an adequate distance from one another. De’Jon Tamani Joy said when he and other prisoners got to the gym, they were promised there would be partitions between the beds.
“No partitions have been made available, nor seem to be coming,” Joy said. “The environment I’ve been housed in has created stress and anxiety.”
Curtis Thiessen agreed there should be partitions. “I don’t feel safe here because of the living conditions,” he said. “I believe we’re too close together.”
Fearing he would contract the virus, Ronald Shanko said he didn’t want to move to the gym but feared a disciplinary report if he refused. “We’re jammed in like sardines in a can,” he said.
Because of the COVID-19 situation at the prison, the San Quentin News newsroom has been shut down and staff members have been unable to meet to create new issues. The articles in this online issue were written by incarcerated staff members before the shutdown. This online version of the paper was published with the assistance of former San Quentin News incarcerated staff members, who have been released, and long-time volunteers, plus the support of San Quentin Public Information Officer Lt. Sam Robinson. When the emergency relents the paper will resume coverage.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) continues to struggle in its effort to stop the introduction of contraband inside its 35 prisons.
In a recently released Notice of Change to Regulations (NCR 20-01), the Department’s Regulation and Policy Management Branch stated, “Current strategies have been effective overall,” but CDCR still expects that it will expand its search methods.
“ION scanners and low-dose, full-body x-ray scanners as supplemental inmate search options will increase the Department’s ability to discover illegal drugs and contraband that are being introduced into and throughout the institutions,” the NCR’s Initial Statement of Reasons stated.
The CDCR is proposing to amend the California Code of Regulations, Title 15, Section 3287, which governs inspection of property and inmate body searches. It will include ION scanners as search options, according to the NCR.
The NCR stated that the existence and use of contraband inside the state prison system causes death, damages rehabilitation efforts, and facilitates criminal activity within the institutions and the community.
“Without the use of the many layers of interdiction devices and strategies available, inmates will continue to die from drug overdoses,” the NCR said, adding, “Staff and visitors will continue to be compromised by being pressured by inmates to smuggle illegal drugs and contraband into the institutions.”
To underscore its point about contraband, deaths and prosecutions for these crimes, the CDCR released some of its most recent numbers on its findings below:
Type of Contraband Discovered 2017 2018
Cellular Telephones 13,195 phones 11,715 Phs
Heroin 28.83 pounds 30. 8 pounds
Marijuana 91.77 pounds 131.9 pounds
Methamphetamines 43.55 pounds 44.22 pounds
Tobacco 635.8 pounds 527.9 pounds
Data obtained from CDCR’s Office of Research.
Year Overdoses Resulting In Death
Data obtained from California Correctional Health Care Services, Medical Services Division.
Number of People Prosecuted for Attempting to Introduce Drugs, Alcohol, or Contraband
Fiscal Year Staff Visitors Non-Visitors Totals
2014-15 6 211 51 268
2015-16 7 224 51 282
2016-17 9 221 32 262
2017-18 4 269 57 330
Totals 26 925 191 1142
Data obtained from CDCR’s Office of Research.
The importing, trafficking and use of illegal drugs and contraband pose many problems in an institution setting, including an increase in inmate violence, power struggles within the inmate population, the establishment of an underground economy, staff corruption, and inmate death due to overdose.
Striving for a good education has its challenges for anyone, but for incarcerated students those trials and tribulations are greater. However, one incarcerated man has persevered and has become the first student to earn a Master’s of Business and Administration (MBA) degree at San Quentin State Prison in almost a decade.
“He is the first guy to receive that level of a degree since I started overseeing the education department in 2013,” said Michael Wheeless, the principal of San Quentin’s education department. Wheeless is in charge of handling educational tasks and the overall education responsibilities, plus keeping track of who receives AA degrees and BA degrees.
There are other outside correspondence colleges active at San Quentin, as well as the Prison University Project that offers face-to-face classes and awards Associate Degrees upon graduation.
“For an incarcerated person to achieve any accomplishment in education is remarkable,” Wheeless said.
“Since Proposition 57 was implemented in November of 2016, there have been plenty of instances when inmates have earned time off their sentences for achieving AA and BA degrees, but this is the first time under the San Quentin rules of Prop.57 that I’ve seen a Master’s earned.”
Smiling while leaning back in his chair and beaming proudly, Wheeless continued,
“I’m impressed with Mr. Johnson’s educational achievement, at having earned an MBA degree while incarcerated. It means even more to have earned it while in prison rather than being on the streets.”
However, Johnson is modest about earning the MBA during his prison stay. Although he received his bachelor’s degree while at another prison, the challenges there were much greater to overcome.
“I treated my prison time as if I was away at college,” Johnson said, “I did my time and did not allow the time to do me.”
Johnson took such courses as Managerial Accounting and Business Management along with a laundry list of other business classes– and emerged triumphant.
He maintained a 3.86 grade point average, earning “A’s” and “B’s,” grades that he could not imagine earning back in Woodland, California where he was born.
“When I was in the fourth grade I could not even read; I was like in what they call, “slow learning classes,” said Johnson. He was a late starter and said that he actually started learning after he got to high school.
“I was determined to learn, though,” said Johnson.
Other SQ residents stopped by to congratulate Johnson even during this interview, but he modestly accepts compliments on his achievements from his peers. His wish is that he can encourage other guys in prison to pursue their dreams like he did.
Johnson understands the challenges an incarcerated person can face while in prison. During his humbling six year prison experience, Johnson was not always on the right path to education. It was a life-altering experience with a family member that sparked his desire of higher learning.
“My first year in prison my grandmother passed away,” Johnson recalls, “Her name was Mary Rita Moncrif. She was my inspiration to do better. She raised me and when she passed, it pained me that I could not be there for the funeral.”
He somberly sank back in his seat at the memory. So, in honor of her memory, Johnson wanted to do something that would make his grandmother proud of him. For Johnson, education was the best way to show his appreciation to his grandmother for raising him.
Throughout his life, Johnson has been familiar with loss in many other situations. Due to alcoholism he lost his wife and other assets. “Now I know how to appreciate the things that really matter in life, like family and loved ones, not the material things, the superficial things.”
He credits his Aunt Elizabeth for supporting him financially and helping him achieve his education goals.
“Feels good to be the first one to achieve this milestone at San Quentin,” Johnson said.. “I encourage other guys to go ahead and do it, too.
“If the government would focus more on education instead of just locking people up, I believe that would help communities out there a lot better.”
Prison to Employment Connection (PEC) reached a milestone at San Quentin, completing its 10th session and graduating 44 men, who learned how to present themselves to future employers.
One of the highlights of the program was Employer Day in November, where 196 interviews took place with inmates inside the prison’s Protestant chapel. They were conducted with potential companies that hire the formerly incarcerated. A subsequent graduation ceremony was held two weeks later for the Session 10-44 graduates.
Keeping with tradition, Diana Williams, PEC executive director, spoke to the audience comprised of inmates, guests and PEC volunteers. She said the rate of recidivism in California is more than 60%. “That means 26 of the men in this room would come back to prison within three years of their release.” She offered employment as one of the key solutions to reduce recidivism.
According to Williams, recidivism is cut in half when those who are formerly incarcerated find employment. For those who have jobs upon release from prison, recidivism is 3.3% to 8 %, she said.
“To date, 253 men have graduated from PEC,” said Williams. “Of those, 153 have paroled and only one has returned to prison,” leaving her program with a 1% recidivism rate.
“This is a blessing to me, something I’ve been needing my whole life,” said Edmund Johnson, 47. He’s been incarcerated 24 years. “I think the program is excellent. It’s teaching me to use my transferable skills. It’s teaching me how to talk to employers.”
Williams explained how during months of preparation the men learned personal and work related interests. They studied work values, resume writing, interview skills, their incarceration history, and used it all to create “packages of success.” She said they also worked on learning how to reframe rejection.
“It’s designed to connect the men to themselves,” Williams told the audience of employers and career specialists. “Men in this program experience a renewed hope.”
She said 68 men started the class in August. Two weeks later, the Session 10-44 graduates attended a ceremony in the Catholic chapel, where they received certificates and other paperwork that will allow them to find employment upon their release from prison.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Michael Belton, 58. “I signed up, and I wasn’t sure, but I said ‘what do I have to lose?’ I actually gained something from it.”
He said PEC taught him to be open about his criminal history.
Gary Falxman came in from Realty One and the Oakland Rotary Club. He had toured the prison previously and said he learned about the programs in prison, and it made an impression on him. “I’m back here to help others find what they’re passionate about,” he said.
Checker is a San Francisco-based company working to modernize the background check process.
“Our mission is to promote fair chance hiring,” Rebecca Rabison said. “We do that by trying to provide more employment opportunities for people with conviction histories.”
“Socializing” the idea of second chances, Orrian Willis works for the City of San Francisco’s Office of Economic and Work Force Development. It funds 45 job training programs, 13 of which focus on technical training. It was his third time attending Employer Day. “In our labor market, the demand is starting to recognize the talent” (of the formerly incarcerated)”.
Willis asked, “If people do their time why are we still punishing them when they get out?” Adding, to give them employment, “I think it’s our fiscal responsibility.”
“I was nervous and excited, not to mention I almost fell off the chair for giving me such an opportunity of a lifetime,” said Edwin Chavez, 44. He said he’s never had a job interview in his life. He’s been incarcerated for 25 years.
“I love it,” said Steve Garrett, 34, who’s been incarcerated for 18 months. “I think it’s a great program. The opportunity and skills that they’re giving us is what we need to stay out of prison.”
Elizabeth Toups, of the Jewish Vocational Service, had visited the prison previously during a graduation ceremony. “I was so impressed with what everyone was doing here,” she said.
The San Francisco-based organization works with people from all backgrounds to help them get jobs.
“Sometimes that involves connecting them to training, “she said.
When the interviews were completed, the guests reconvened to seats on the stage in the chapel. Williams commented that this 10th PEC session had the largest group of supporters attend Employer Day. Twelve of them stood up and received a warm applause from the men.
Jay Minteer was one of those supporters. He said another supporter, Tom Lacey, introduced him to PEC. He said it’s a worthy cause to make sure people don’t come back. It was his first time inside of a prison.
“I was impressed when I walked in and shook everyone’s hands,” said Minteer. “It works when you shake someone’s hand and look someone in the eye.”
“Thank you for believing in these men and this program,” said Williams. She introduced and thanked the inmate PEC volunteers who’ve also gone through the program and come back to help others. “As outside volunteers, we can only do so much for the program.”
Williams explained how the program was started before introducing Nobel Butler, who came up with the idea to provide inmates a head start on employment before parole. When he was incarcerated, he wanted to know how to get a job and to present employment prospects to the parole board.
“I just really wanted to come back and say things that other people (said to) me, so I really wanted to give back. This is my opportunity,” said Butler. He paroled and said he’s been gainfully employed ever since. The audience applauded his success. “My purpose here today is to give you guys hope. I think maybe I did something half right.”
“I realize life is an interview,” Williams, a PEC graduate now on parole, told her. She acknowledged and thanked PEC volunteers Lisa Trustin and Gabrielle Nicolet.
This was Trustin’s second session. “It’s not different because we experienced the same transformation the men make connecting with their own hope,” she said.
“It’s always different,” said Nicolet. “There are different challenges, like lockdowns, that present challenges. The prison population is different than it was a year ago.”
She said the core of why she volunteers is because prisoners need help. It was her sixth session.
As the guests sat on the stage, they received feedback from many of the inmates.
“I want to thank you for your friendly demeanor,” said Richard Richardson. “This program is everything I thought it would be. You guys treated me like a human.”
The employers and guests also shared their comments with the men.
One said, “This is the second time I’ve come, and each time there’s a new excitement.”
Another said, “You all should be teaching people how to interview.”
Their remarks kept coming.
“I’ve looked at a lot of resumes, and I can’t tell you how much I’d like to see more of these,” said another guest.
At the graduation ceremony, Williams asked, “How many of you would have taken this class if you weren’t getting RAC (Rehabilitation Achievement Credits) credits?” About 90% of the men raised their hands. Then she read the interview results of the PEC graduates and said they did as well or better than people on the outside. The percentages from low to high:
5 Excellent 42%
4 Above average 39%
3 Average 19%
2 Below 0%
1 Poor 0%
Derry Brown said someone suggested he take the program. He went through the class and has now become a facilitator for the program’s 11th session. He said he’d never completed a resume or had many jobs and that his youth was swallowed up with incarceration.
“I didn’t have any of these skills,” he said. “So for me to go through this process was inspiring.”
In addition to Williams, Angel Falcone has been a volunteer for all 10 sessions. He told the men, “Every job is your business school” and advised them to do the best they can on every job.
“Everything we learn, we’re going to need,” said Dwight Kennedy, who volunteers for the program. “Take what you’ve learned and apply it to your life.”
A class of men incarcerated at San Quentin graduated from a cooking course aimed at teaching them topnotch skills for reintegration into the workforce once released.
Thanks to the Quentin Cooks program, the eight men showcased their newfound skills on Nov. 13 by preparing a four-course meal for visitors from outside the walls of San Quentin.
“The food was astonishingly delicious,” said San Francisco Public Defender Manojar Raju, “But I think if more people were able to meet everyone in here and get to know them, they would be astonished by their resilience and determination to succeed.”
The theme of the meal was “Winter Squash Five Ways.”
The incarcerated chefs prepared the meal with assistance from instructors Chef Huw and Chef Adelaar. Several graduates also returned to help.
“I just thought we were going to go in there and pretty much make some meals,” said graduate Breon Mosely. “But we also got to learn what it was like to work on a team, how to plan out a meal, how to use the equipment, and learn how a kitchen overall runs.”
To begin the night, the cooks served butternut squash agro dolce with burrata cheese and chili crunch oil. A perfectly paired squash, apple and turnip soup was served along with the agro dolce.
The appetizer was a salad of roasted delicata squash, kale, cranberries, pumpkin seeds, chicories, winter citrus and goat cheese.
The entrée: grilled Allen Bros. rib eye steak, squash and chard gratin, roasted mushrooms, and salsa verde. To satisfy the guests’ sweet tooth: pumpkin cannoli with mascarpone, pistachios and cocoa nibs.
“The food was so flavorful, and the guys got really creative with the squash,” said Hadi Razzaq, who also works in the San Francisco Public Defenders office. “This is the kind of food I would expect at a fancy restaurant.”
After the meal, cofounder of Quentin Cooks Helaine Melnitzer delivered a heartwarming speech, thanking everyone who made the program possible.
“We’re not just a culinary program; we’re a skills based program, helping men-in-blue to succeed,” said Melnitzer. “Of the 55 men who have graduated so far, many of them released, as far as we know, none have returned to prison.”
Melnitzer, along with cofounder Lisa Dombroski, won a Jefferson Award this past August for her efforts associated with the Quentin Cooks program. A Jefferson Award is a weekly honor given to a community member for volunteer work in the community.
“The most precious thing you can give somebody is your time, because you can’t get it back,” said Melnitzer.
Dombroski shared the spotlight with the chefs who come to San Quentin for the five hour class on Wednesday mornings. “Chefs Huw and Adelaar, I never would have imagined I would find chefs whose passion for the program exceeded that of the founders.
“Every time one of our released men gets a job, it’s like Christmas for us.”
The graduating men not only value the culinary skills they learn in the program but also the opportunities they have to pursue a career in the culinary world once they are released.
“As we got to learn all these skills and techniques, we would think about how to utilize them,” said Mosely, “The program helps you to find a job when you’re released so that you can use these skills. You may have to start at the bottom, but if you’re determined, you can climb the ladder, hopefully become a chef, and be able to run your own kitchen one day.”
A new feature introduced at the Quentin Cooks sixth graduation banquet was entertainment by Quentin Cooks graduates.
Jason Griffin opened the show with a poem. Kerry Rudd and Jesse Ayers each performed humorous skits, which had the whole crowd laughing. Finally, Derry “Brotha Dee” Brown finished with a song called “My Best Friend.”
“The program just keeps improving with every cycle,” said Santhosh Daniel, a filmmaker who comes in to follow the Quentin Cooks program. “Every guy who’s getting out and doing well contributes to a track record of success.”