It was a bittersweet day at the 13th Annual San Quentin Teaching Responsibility Utilizing Sociological Training (TRUST) graduation ceremony August 16, as 70 men graduated from three different programs.
It was the announcement that Ameeta Singh, a 10-year volunteer for TRUST, was leaving that drew the sadness.
Singh taught and wrote the curriculum for the Health and Wellness Group. The program is a 12-week course that deals with trauma and the way it affects a person’s behavior. It also teaches how to heal unresolved traumas.
“It’s sad that Ameeta is leaving. She helped me get in touch with my intergenerational trauma, especially me being an Indian (Native American),” said Jim Kitlas, a graduate of the Health and Wellness Group. “She came from similar trauma, so she knew what to hit on, and that helped make the class real. She showed me that the tools she was giving us worked.”
Singh is a licensed marriage and family therapist. She is moving to New Zealand, were she plans to take the Health and Wellness program to prisons there.
“It’s my intention to build a bridge between these two different cultures,” Singh said. “We have the ability to reform these criminal justice systems. We have to provide a safe space for those incarcerated to share their experience.”
Singh was honored with a wooden plaque for her service. She thanked the men in TRUST for transforming her life over the years. She said learning and teaching went both ways. She then quoted an Australian Aboriginal proverb.
“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you come because your action is bound with mine, let us work together.” It is an Australian Aboriginal Political Activist Group saying.
Project LA and Spanish Anger Management programs also held graduations.
Project LA is a program that assists prisoners from Southern California with their re-entry needs.
“It’s all about making amends,” said Joseph “Joe” Paul, sponsor of Project LA and formerly incarcerated. “We have the chance to change someone’s life just with our actions.
“Going to prison was the best thing to happen to me. I vowed to always raise up the man who lost his life because of me and my friend.”
Paul expressed getting involved in this coming election and having people vote.
“We can’t rest,” Paul said. “It’s still people who want to take us back to tough-on-crime laws.
We must get involved—things can either slow down or speed up, according to our voice.”
Keynote speakers were San Quentin alumni Mike Tyler and J.C. Cavitt, who both spoke passionately about returning to the prison, and the work that needs to be done once one is released. Both went through the TRUST program.
“Everything we are learning in these groups is needed in society,” said Cavitt, who is working with Project Kinship, a re-entry program in Orange County. He is also attending California State University, Fullerton.
“It’s a book narrative that is being told about us,” Cavitt said. “But these criminal and social justice movements cannot be spoken about or moved without including us. What we are doing now matters.
“We just didn’t get out; we got involved,” he added.
Tyler is working with people in San Francisco Bay Area jails to get their GEDs as an operation coordinator.
“I just didn’t prepare to get out, but to stay out,” Tyler said. “It was my life dreams that kept me going as I would walk the (prison) track. Even when I got denied at the (parole) board, I just went back to the drawing board.
“So keep your dreams in front of you, and put yourself in a position to get out and stay out,” added Tyler.
The two men shook hands and embraced the men they once walked the yard with and took the program with.
Next, the graduates celebrated their accomplishments as one by one they crossed the Protestant Chapel stage.
“I haven’t graduated from very much,” said Alex Ross, who was a part of Project LA. “I got my GED in High Desert (state prison). But through this program I gained the tools not just to survive but stay home.”
The group sponsors and volunteers were also recognized with wooden plaque for their service.
“I thank everyone for their hard work. I thank the men for opening up in these programs,” said Louis “Louie” Light, TRUST member and MC of the event. “What makes this group different from others is the variety of volunteers and their ability to mix things up.”
As Singh made her last rounds through the room saying her goodbyes, sponsor Helaine Melnitzer captured the moment saying, “I’m really going to miss my San Quentin soul sister.”