After a long absence due to COVID-19, San Quentin’s Criminal Gangs Anonymous (CGA) rehabilitative group is back in action.
San Quentin’s CGA began meeting in 2011. Its purpose is to help incarcerated people who are recovering from a gang or criminal lifestyle. They come together to address their lifestyle addictions and to pursue meaningful change.
Participants work through a 12-step program in open forums. Step three reads, “We made a decision to let go of destructive self-will in exchange for spiritual principles, becoming willing to seek God’s care and protection, as we understood God.”
The program promotes accountability for the actions of its participants, and an understanding of destructive behaviors and belief systems that led to a life of crime. Participants focus on the impact of crime on victims, on victims’ families and the ripple effect on the wider community.
Corey Willis, chair of the program, once paroled from a life sentence and subsequently returned to prison on a parole violation, along with additional charges. He stresses how important it is to surrender all of one’s criminal belief systems. “Holding onto distorted beliefs, old identities and sometimes old associates, can trigger old behaviors that will put you back into the cycle of addiction.”
Willis particularly appreciates step 10 of the program, which encourages a daily reflection and a review of the earlier steps to ensure continued progress. It emphasizes having the courage to pursue real change, and effectively express one’s emotions.
“Being honest with myself, [being] open-minded and willing to expose all my character defects, [is] a must for my authentic self to flourish,” said Willis.
Michael Sperling, another CGA participant, says he has benefited from step seven, which encourages participants to process negative thoughts when they arrive by replacing them with positive thoughts, so that positive behaviors can follow.
“CGA means to me ending that criminal gang thinking and lifestyle,” said participant Sperling. “I am learning the 12 steps and I am applying them into my life.”
The program gives the participants an opportunity to examine the addictive behaviors that led to illegal activities, regardless of social backgrounds. It identifies three phases in the cycle of addiction.
The Obsession: The irresistible and persistent idea, desire, or emotion to do something until, we convince ourselves to act.
Compulsion: To act on the persistent idea, desire or emotion, repeating the act over and over again, and justifying the action with the continuing force of ongoing obsession.
Progression: The longer we repeat the act the more the cycle spins out of control and gets worse.
One facilitator reflected on his own cycle of addictive behaviors. He shared his memories of finding the acceptance of his peers in his early teen
San Quentin actor Kunta Rigmaden, who played King Richard’s ally Hastings, said, “I learned my lines on Thursday for the first time. I procrastinated, but I won’t let anybody down. This is a family.”
Attendees watching a San Quentin Shakespeare program quickly saw the rehabilitative benefits of the program. A local high school teacher who came in for the first time said, “Meeting the men gives me sadness, when I see how long they have been here and how much time they have to do, because they have so much to offer humanity.”
“Richard III” tells the story of a leader struggling with his humanity and character flaws that control his state of mind and actions. Drowns said he could relate to King Richard’s fragilities.
“The program allowed me to take off my mask to find the true Steve,” said Drown.
The incarcerated actors gained insight and developed camaraderie. They shared their experiences with the audience after the play.
“As a LBGTQ person in prison, I was never accepted, not even by my family,” said a tearful Adriel Ramirez who played King Richard’s wife, Lady Anne. She said that through personal development, she can now feel confident while interacting with others.
“These incarcerated actors should be out helping the next years while trying to find himself. From an early age, he felt that he did not belong at home. With his peers, he found acceptance but not comfort. He reflected on how this lifestyle led to taking another person’s life and wasting his own behind bars.
San Quentin offers the assistance of a sign language interpreter to CGA participants who cannot hear or speak, so that everyone has the opportunity to explore their criminal thinking. “I feel blessed to have the ability to be in the program through the assistance of an interpreter. We understand more about our choices or decisions,” said deaf SQ resident Erain Vallarta.
SQNews interviewed hearing-impaired SQ resident Matthew Hamm with the assistance of a sign language interpreter. When asked what he would tell another member of the hearing-impaired community about his experience in the program, Hamm said, “CGA helps with criminal thinking and how to rehabilitate; it also helps us … improve ourselves upon release.”
The San Quentin group works closely with other chapters of CGA throughout the state, as well as other behavioral modification groups that focus on gang awareness, disassociation, and prevention; using the 12-step process in an open forum setting to achieve recovery; helping those with lifestyle addictions to criminality desist from crime; and other recovery paradigms.
CGA empowers each participant to make a conscious choice to change their attitude and transform their thinking so that they can smoothly transition back into society. Participants make themselves vulnerable while sharing their stories. They work through their traumas and examine distorted beliefs systems. By denouncing their past criminal belief systems, they vow never to hurt another human being.
“I come to SQ to work with CGA because I see change and men can change their criminal thinking when given the right tools,” Said Marcy Ginsburg, who has volunteered with CGA for the past six years. “It gives me an immense amount of pride that I can play even a small role in someone changing for the better or learning something about themselves. I am honored to be a part of something that helps so many.”