By Rahsaan Thomas
California Congressman Mark DeSaulnier (D-11th District) and Contra Costa County Judge Clare Maier sat swapping stories with incarcerated men about triumphs over addiction as the live bands Quentin Bleu and One Finger Short played original music in the background. They were inside the prison to attend the National Addiction Recovery celebration.
Addiction Recovery Counseling (ARC) hosted the event. Members of Options Recovery Services, Seeds of Sophia and Support 4 Recovery joined in the celebration, which included food cooked by John “Yahya” Parratt.
“September is Recovery Month,” said Rick Baez, who helped start the ARC program. “This is a national event. The goal of today’s event is to connect the men on the inside to the outside to remove the shame of recovery.”
Outside guests and inmates sat inside a trailer on the Lower Yard while the bands played just outside. Each person in the circle spoke about removing the stigma of addiction—many by sharing their personal stories.
Congressman DeSaulnier talked about how substance abuse and depression affected his life. His father was a judge who lost his job, went bankrupt and committed suicide.
“We have to get out of the culture of shame, judgment and blame and get to acceptance, change and redemption,” said DeSaulnier.
Judge Maier was there to support recovery.
“I’m a servant, and this event gives me a chance to serve,” said Maier.
She spoke about the ability to wait in a space of angst or anger—or to pause when things go wrong.
“The guys should use the time they were given as encouragement to help turn their lives around,” she said.
ARC is a 16-week program that trains inmates to be certified addiction counselors, according to Borey “Peejay” Ai.
Incarcerated ARC member Isiah Daniels told the guest, “I figured I wasn’t an addict because he didn’t look like me.” Once Daniels accepted he had a problem, he was able to ask for help and get it to beat addiction.
“Every step you take is a step in the right direction,” added Daniels.
Gregory G. Coates talked about how AA and Indian Ceremony helped him break away from addiction.
Outside guests were inspired and shared their stories.
Kiki Kessler (Seeds of Sophia) said, “I drove with a broken arm and shoulder to get here. She has taught Reentry Action Planning class in H-Unit for 12 years.
“I’m inspired by the changes I see these men have made in their lives. That’s what keeps me volunteering,” she added.
Geraldine Moore of Support 4 Recovery said, “For recovery to take place, you have to peel back the layers of your life to see why you are self-medicating. Then work through the hurts, hang-ups and habits.” She added. “Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass; it’s about learning to dance in the rain.”
Kristin Lobos of Support 4 Recovery Youth Advocate said, “What motivates me is I’m a mother of a recovering teen addict. I think we should treat addiction as a health issue and not a crime. A lot of people profit off our suffering. Know that your family is worthy of help and support. Once we remove the stigma of shame, we can focus on the recovery.”
Karen Cordill, a Support 4 Recovery supporter, said, “I think people are very hard and judgmental on the outside because they judge themselves so much, so they judge others.” She took a day off from work to attend. It was her first time inside San Quentin.
“It’s great to see the recovery,” said Jeanie Slater of Axis Unity Health. “You see changes in people’s lives. It’s like we are giving to each other, and that’s the spirit of recovery, the spark to keep on going.”
Support 4 Recovery president and co-founder Tom Aswad said, “When I come in and work with the ARC program, it’s probably the best aspect of my recovery. There is no group like the aftercare here on the outside.”
Support 4 Recovery operates without a constant source of funding, office space or employees to provide the ARC program with its educational needs.
“What I really like about the program is that the facilitators are us,” said Eddie Herena, an ARC graduate. “I can relate.”
DeSaulnier spoke in an interview about criminal justice.
“We need to change our justice system. A lot of politics is about scaring people constantly,” said DeSaulnier. “It’s not evidence-based.”
“You can see over the course of time which programs work and which don’t,” he added. “Maybe we should go upstream and find out why all these kids are falling in the water.”
–Marcus Henderson contributed to this story