A San Quentin program aimed at preparing incarcerated men for freedom held a graduation for 23 men in January — the first since the COVID pandemic hit in 2020.
The California Reentry Institute ceremony was held in the Protestant Chapel, marking the end of the 24-month pre-release program that empowers, heals and transforms people, and supports reentry into society. The program also provides post-release care, including transportation, prepaid cell phones, clothing, groceries, and securing necessary documentation.
The course consists of 350 hours of curriculum, with small processing groups, personalized case management and parole planning.
In the opening ceremony, Grace, a soon-to-be-ordained minister, led the event in prayer. She told the graduating class, “I am very proud of your resilience, your compassion. I am very proud of your accomplishment.”
California Reentry Institute holds first graduation ceremony since 2020
The graduation was hosted by the institute’s Executive Director Collette Carroll, who has been volunteering at the prison for 22 years. Carroll told residents that her late husband started the first self-help program at SQ.
“There is nothing more amazing than transformation — seeing a flower bloom and become something beautiful. You become men with integrity,” said Carroll.
The ceremony included a video showing paroled graduates. Participants were excited to see the people whom they said were an inspiration to the graduating class.
On the video, program graduate Phil Senagal told current SQ residents, “I am glad you have completed the process. Don’t let this be the end of your journey.”
Gary Harrel, another paroled graduate, said, “I went to CRI in 2018. It’s good you went through the program. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.”
Some of the graduating class related their experience going through the program.
“Carroll told me to stop feeling bad for myself; you are not your crime,” said Kenneth Cooksey, who joined CRI in 2019.
Graduate Donald W. Thompson commented, “When I see a man shedding tears, that’s character; it’s because there is no shame.”
SQ Warden Ron Broomfield told the graduates, “There are programs that are flashy, and might not represent what we are. We all try to transform our lives. I am very proud of the graduates. Do you know what repentance means? It means rethink what you have done.”
The class began in February 2019, was interrupted by the pandemic, and did not return until December 2022. Some of the participants transferred out and made it back for this graduation.
Those who remained at SQ during the pandemic were provided with materials to continue their studies.
Director Carroll introduced Sam Vaughn, co-founder of CRI, and an executive board member. “I call him my son from another mother,” she said.
Vaughn told the graduates, “We do not get to choose; we take what we get. The world does not understand what it’s like to be in prison …” He spent 10 years in prison, with some of that time at San Quentin.
He told the men it will not be easy when they get out. “Things may be challenging for you. Do not give up, because you cannot.”
Carroll told the graduates to honor victims and survivors. “We cannot do that if we do not honor ourselves.”
Graduates received certificates from Ryan Morimune, representing the California State Association of Counties. He was joined by program resident facilitators Bruce Fowler, John Gillies, and Marty Spears.
Graduates also received a letter of recognition from State Sen. Steven Bradford and a letter of recognition from Contra Costa County Supervisor Ken Carlson.
“You cannot give what you do not have. Talk about being blessed to be a blessing, you are truly a blessing in my life,” said a guest named Betty.
Program supporter Cindy Ayala told the class, “For me to be here and celebrate is an honor. You inspire me more than you ever know — the resilience you showed by showing up.”
A guest named Patricia said, “Congratulations to you all. We appreciate if you go out to the world and spread the love.” Her son was killed in a drive-by shooting.
Another guest referenced the story of Moses, who killed a man in Egypt and did not start doing the Lord’s work until his elder years — as evidence that it’s never too late to turn your life around.
Attendees enjoyed refreshments, including Subway sandwiches, potato chips, and bottled water.