Dining on chicken and pizza, on Feb. 8, dozens of inmates picked up certificates after completing a program aimed at changing criminal thinking and putting gang life in the past.
The program, Criminal Gangs Anonymous (CGA) models itself after Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)—the first step—admitting that they’ve lost control of their life to gangs.
Tommy “Shakur” Ross has been a CGA facilitator since 2012.
“I really enjoy watching you guys doing the work,” Ross told the graduating class II. There are seven circles of guys digging in doing the work. It’s about you guys—that’s how CGA has impacted my life.”
Anthony “Tone” Waldrip said, “It took a Draconian law to stop me from destroying my community. What it did for me is that it made me pick up my bible, graduated college, become I plumber, and graduate of CGA. Had it
Facilitator Somsak Uppashy added, “Through CGA I have learned that, if you put love and care in everything that your do, what you focus on it will come.”
Uppashy was found suitable for parole and is scheduled for release.
“Treasure yourself and your family,” Somsak added, “Don’t’ waste time, do the programs and get a positive attitude and graduate.”
Graduate Brain “Sharky” Holloway, 25, is serving a six-year sentence for robbery.
“I was blessed to come to San Quentin,” he told his fellow graduates. “I changed my criminal thinking and racist thinking after a big black dude who took me in. He referred to Kenji “Kenzo” Jackson taking him under his wing.
“Now, I play interracial sports. Sports along with all the self-help have changed my ways of thinking I made it back to church and got Baptized last month. Because of CGA I am a better brother and son.”
Graduate Kevin Smith, 65 has been incarcerated 25 years. Smith is a three-striker convicted of being an ex-felon with a gun.
He’s recently appeared be- fore the board, was denied release and told to try again in five years. Smith said that the board recommended that he take programs that would help him with criminal thinking and anger management.
“In the past, I was very impulsive and I had no morals, or ethic,” Smith said. “The biggest tool that I learned from this group is empathy— how to see from another person’s perspective. Without learning empathy, I couldn’t understand the harm that I did to people. It took these groups to see that there are tools to help me.”
“They’re supposed to be these tough guys, but you can feel the change—the trans- formation that has happened. They are like new men,” said 65-year-old Charles Crowe who is serving a life sentence.
Crowe said Jackson, CGA lead peer facilitator, invited him to the graduation.
After a carjacking conviction, Jackson, 46, got his third strike—that was 18 years ago. He said that he has 10 years of good conduct.
Jackson came to San Quentin in 2012.
“I did my best not to come here,” Jackson said. “I heard bad stories about here, but after I got here, the things I experienced is greatness.”
Jackson said that a friend told him about CGA.
“I have a good open mind, so CGA sounded good. The more I went, the more interesting I found it to be. Then, I became a facilitator.”
Jackson added, “We’ve come a long way — from one little class to hundreds graduating every year.”
Dina Durano, Erin West, and Martha Ginsburg are the outside CGA supporters.
“Since 2011, been through three sponsors, but Erin stands out,” Jackson said. “When it’s raining outside, Erin is here. When everyone said they wouldn’t come, Erin is here. Erin is our dog, she’s down with us, She’s right here with us.”
The audience stood to give Erin an ovation.
Jackson added, “If it weren’t for Erin, there wouldn’t be a CGA, she comes both days we have group.”
West was awarded a certificate of appreciation.
“Criminals are not who you are,” Erin said. “We are all brought into the world loving, but we were disconnected. You guys are on a journey to re-connect—you are on that journey, and I applaud you all.”
Ginsburg took the stage to receive a certificate of appreciation.
“I learn so much from listening to your transformation,” Ginsburg said. “I take a piece of you each week and share with my friends and family.”
Jackson introduced Durano by affectionately calling her “Bruce Lee’s little sister.”
“I always say that you guys are my people,” Durano said. She encouraged the men to continue programing and that she would assist their programming needs anyway she could.
“Have a deep commitment, it’s about programming. I want to make sure that you are taken care of,” Durano said. “I truly believe that most of you want to program—don’t worry about the credits, just program, even if they don’t have credits, just program. Be selfless, that’s all I can say.”
Jackson gave a brief his- tory about how the program transformed from Richard Mejico who got off Death Row and wanted to change his life. After meeting a nun who introduced him to AA, he felt like he could model CGA similarly. After taking the idea to the administration, inmates began enrolling and it grew from there.
Mejico got out of prison 2010, died 10 hours later. He didn’t know that he had hepatitis-c.
Jackson closed the ceremony by saying to the graduates, “I hope you continue your recovery—think about change. It’s a life time thing. Don’t let go of it. You are our CGA brother.
Pointing at the facilitators, he concluded, “Don’t forget these fine gentlemen.”