Finding roots of criminal thinking

Twenty-seven San Quentin prisoners have graduated from a 26-week program designed to help them address the root causes of criminal thinking, childhood trauma and violent behavior.

“Through The First Step curriculum, I learned where my criminal identity came from. I also learned how to deal with my emotions,” said Toalepai Falao, a November graduate of the Kid CAT-sponsored program.

“I learned to forgive myself for all the things that I ever did wrong in my life,” Falao said in an interview.

“Learning about forgiveness has allowed me to heal the broken relationships with my family. Kid CAT changed my life.”

Facilitator Travis Westly said, “Falao is the reason why I’m coming back next year as a facilitator. Just watching his growth has been inspiring. Falao has allowed me to feel that I am finally doing something good with my life.”

Through written assignments, self-exploration, lectures and group discussions, participants explore the root causes of criminal thinking, violent behavior, and ways to address those factors.

“The homework lessons have helped me out tremendously,” said Norberto Andinoit, First Step graduate. “The lessons allowed me to think deeper; for example, I didn’t realize I was holding resentments about my father until I was doing my homework assignments.”

“After learning from the Communications module, I called my dad and asked him why he never gave me a hug or tell me he loved me or supported me when I needed him, and he told me about his childhood and how his father never gave him love either,” said Adino. “The conversations I had with him helped heal our broken relationship.”

Expressing what it means to work with participants, volunteer facilitator Natalie Bell said, “Some of these folks came from the same place where I grew up, and seeing these men do hard emotional work, reflecting on patterns they learned as children, and how that trauma has impacted their lives, gives me hope that change can happen for my community of South Central LA.”

Composed of eight modules, the First Step teaches participants topics such as Masculinity, Self-Identity, Identifying Emotions, Consequences, Environmental Influences, Communications, Compassion, and Empathy and Forgiveness.

“These modules represented the individual struggles the founding members of Kid CAT thought were important to be addressed in their own lives,” said Kid CAT founding member Borey Ai.

Antoine Brown, one of the original members of Kid Cat, spoke of what a particular module represented to him. “I wanted environmental factors to be included as a module, because it addresses the topic of our environmental upbringing – like crime and poverty – which I believe has a big influence on whether a person will end up in prison,” said Brown. “I grew up in South Central LA. At 17 years old I committed first-degree murder and assault with a deadly weapon and was sentenced to 36 years to life.”

“My son was not even born when I came to prison. The environment I grew up in is the same my son would later grow up in. Without the proper guidance, I knew he could be drawn to the streets, like I was,” said Brown. “So I used the lessons in the environmental influence module to help my son, so that he would make better choices in his life.”

Reflecting on what the program has meant to him, lead volunteer facilitator Woody Wu said, “I have been facilitating this curriculum every Sunday night for more than three years and it has been meaningful every bit of the way, because I can see the change take place in our participants all the time.

“Our program cares about diversity and it embraces difference,” Wu added. We acknowledge the humanity that we all have growing up, and it’s not about judging people for what they have done to be in prison.”

Over 100 participants have graduated since the inception of the curriculum, and over 100 inmates are on the waiting list to participate.

–John Lam

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