Youth offenders keep CCI V. Sibley’s hands full
Ask any prisoner about his or her experience with correctional counselors and the responses will vary greatly—from torrid expletives to heartfelt praise. That’s the nature of the inmate/counselor dynamic: Does the prisoner feel he got helped or got screwed over?
Correctional Counselor V. Sibley knows all about this tricky duality.
“There’s plenty of inmates pissed off at me, I’m sure,” she told SQNews. “We counselors do what we can, but we can’t please everybody.”
Still, some young men in San Quentin’s Youth Offender Program (YOP) point out CCI Sibley for making a meaningful difference in the trajectory of their incarceration.
“Because she took the time to believe in me—that made it possible for me to see my true potential,” said Sumit Lal. “I didn’t realize what I could do with my life by being at this prison.”
Lal received two back-to- back Rules Violation Reports (RVRs)—or “115”s—for possession of a cell phone, and then, separately, the phone’s charger. Facing transfer to a higher security prison put all the opportunities available to him at SQ in jeopardy.
CCI Sibley remembers the incident well:“Lal came into my office and immediately told me, ‘I know I f–ked up.’ And he had no idea he was in the process of getting a second RVR—because while he was there talking to me they were searching his bunk area and found something else.
“He got caught with whatever he got caught with, but I knew he’d really been trying to program—going to school, learning to code, working with Lt. Sam Robinson.”
Lal went before a YOP disciplinary committee where his fate would be determined.
“At any committee like this, there always has to be at least two counselors and one captain,” said Sibley.
Although the final decision was not hers to make alone, Sibley spoke up about Lal’s hard work in The Last Mile’s coding program, his progress in the Prison University Project (PUP)—and all the positive efforts he’d made within the YOP program.
“It’s because of that one moment, that one chance—a second chance, really—that I’m getting my AA this June,” said Lal. “And I’m in Joint Venture (earning minimum wage), so I’ll be able to walk out of here with more than $200 when I get released.”
Sibley explained: “The YOPs (guys in the program), they have to sign a contract. They’re being given a chance to program at a programming facility, so they agree not get into trouble, essentially.
“I’ve transferred out quite a few YOPs for 115s—or rather, I should say I’ve been present at committees where YOPs were transferred out. Counselors can speak up because they usually have the most info, but it’s a collective decision, with a Captain there.”
Gabe Uribe, another YOP who faced transfer, said, “Sibley doesn’t want to see young guys fail and have to go to other prisons to learn lessons they’d have to learn the hard way. She actually takes the time to understand your situation.
“She’s the best counselor when it comes to helping out YOPs—getting them into programs and staying at SQ.”
“It feels weird—the recognition,” said Sibley. “I’m just doing my job.”
Not all YOPs at SQ share the same good opinion of Sibley. “She’s the worst counselor ever,”said one guy when he heard about the other YOPs praising her efforts. “She’s shipped out all kinds of dudes—for doing nothing, just looking at her funny.”
Other YOPs around him heard this and echoed their same opinion about CCI Sibley.
“Often, there’s really nothing I can do,” said Sibley— after erupting in laughter when told about the ‘worst counselor ever’ comment. “People seem to think counselors can get past rules and wave our magic wand.
“Some guys, you can just tell—they want to program here or try anyway.
“Other guys, you can tell they’re still in the game.”
Richard Prosser is a YOP waiting for Sibley to initiate a program review process— where he hopes his current Level 3 points can be reduced to Level 2 points so he can stay at SQ.
“She made it a point that we shouldn’t just stand by, be idle and get pushed around by the whole system— but instead be more proactive and utilize the resources available to us here,” said Prosser. “She re- ally encouraged me to continue going to groups, going to school—just stay out of trouble. That impacted me big time.
“It made me feel like I had someone, other than my family, who’d go the extra mile—
not look at us as just young kids go-ing around doing dumb stuff.
“She’s the only counselor so far that‘s shown any hope in me. Made me feel human.”
Prosser took Sibley’s advice to heart and is committed to immersing himself in SQ’s self-improvement atmosphere. He currently apprentices as a roofer in Career Technical Education, participates in ELITE (Exploring Leadership Improving Transitional Effectiveness), regularly attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and is enrolled in PUP.
Once YOPs arrive at SQ, the responsibility is on them to become involved in programs that will benefit them.
“There’s no structure,” said Lal. “YOPs are just put on the yard and told ‘Hey, go stay out of trouble.”
When new YOPs came to Sibley’s caseload, she would often call Lal to her office to try and help show them the ropes.
“It’s easier to talk to some- one who has more in common with you,” said Sibley. “Obviously, I’m not, like, 20—not a male.
“I’d introduce them to Lal and say, ‘This guy can help you.’ He’d walk around with them and point out the programs here that can benefit them.”
“Sibley utilized me to help get these guys in school, college, groups—whatever,” said Lal. “YOPs that aren’t even on her caseload, she’d call me because maybe their counselor doesn’t know me like that.”
“She definitely gave me a hard time—made sure to remind me of how short of a leash I was on.”
Not only did Lal progress successfully through the ranks as a coder in The Last Mile, but he now teaches coding to prisoners at other facilities, male and female, via video phone conferencing.
“I can relate to these young men and women through coding, but it’s about much more than coding,” he said. “We end up talking about the daily struggles that, as youths, we all go through.”
Sibley offered these words to youth offenders who are trying to navigate their way through being locked up: “They have to figure out what they want. Without a plan or idea, they’re going to go nowhere. If their plan is to stay in a gang or whatever—then that’s what they’re going to do.
“If they want to program, if they want to get out, they’re going to work toward that.
“Some people just aren’t ready—no matter how old they are.”
In an ironic and recent twist, the same YOP inmate who spoke negatively about Sibley ended up having her reassigned as his counselor.
“I still stand by everything I said before,” he told SQNews right before press time. “But she was real cool today. She helped me out a lot. She was great.”