By Juan Haines
Three highly acclaimed self-help programs at San Quentin Prison held a graduation for more than 80 inmates on March 30. Dozens of San Francisco Bay Area volunteers came to the prison’s Protestant Chapel to witness the event along with formerly incarcerated men who once participated in the same programs.
“It feels good to be back here,” said Kenyatta Leal, a former TRUST (Teaching Responsibility Utilizing Sociological Training) graduate. “This room has so many significations, from being an usher to praying to the most highest for deliverance from this place.”
Leal was released from San Quentin in 2014, after passage of Proposition 36, which changed the Three-Strikes Law and allowed a judge to re-consider his life sentence.
“There are a lot of people that don’t believe that anything is possible,” said Leal, wearing a business suit and standing before an audience of more than 150. Pointing down he added, “I used to clean this floor,” then with raised hands, “and slept in those cells. People look, at me and don’t believe that I’ve been to prison.”
Leal encouraged the graduates to continue taking self-help programs, saying it would pay off in the future.
“There are people betting against you,” Leal said. “But you can do it, because there are also lots of people out there ready to support you; keep the trust and keep pushing.”
Formerly incarcerated Robert “Red” Frey talked about the challenges of being out of prison and into society.
“Thank goodness that I have had programs that have taught me how to respond to things out there, instead of reacting,” Frey said. “But, one of the biggest challenges for you guys is looking in the mirror and seeing the person who’s really there and not the person we’re trying to project on those Level Four yards,” referring to doing time in a maximum-security prison, instead of San Quentin, a medium-security prison.
Joseph Paul Jr. is a sponsor for Project LA, which assists newly released inmates in their return to the community.
“E-22842 was my prison number,” Paul said. “I can’t replace the man whose life I took, but for the grace of God, my motivation is that I know that lives can change, because mine did.”
Paul called inmates like Leal and Frey, “the inmates who have blazed trails in leadership.” Then Paul addressed the graduates and acknowledged that they had “used their time wisely.”
Along with Project LA and TRUST graduates were Spanish Anger Management and Health and Wellness graduates.
The Health and Wellness program is a 12-week course that goes deeply into trauma and the way it affects a person’s behavior. The purpose of the course is to bring healing to the unresolved traumas, according to its program director, Ameeta Singh.
“What you have in this environment — folks in mainstream society don’t have that kind of checking system. So you guys are ahead of the game, because you know yourself better than those out on the streets,” Paul said.
“Seeing Red and Kenyatta was very inspiring,” said TRUST Chairman, Orlando Harris, who has been incarcerated for 34 years. “They exemplify what hope looks like.
“These guys are part of TRUST and are now thriving in the community. Now I know that people want to help us. They will extend a helping hand. We aren’t asking for a handout, just a little help getting on our feet, once we get out.”
Harris goes to the parole board in 2020.