Ryan Dietz arrived at San Quentin in 2016 ready to succumb to all the usual pitfalls that await youth of- fenders—substance abuse, cellphone activity and peer- pressured violence.
Instead, the 19-year-old found a supportive community of mentors and positive role models that guided him onto a better path and a brighter future. Dietz paroled from SQ on July 7 with a heart determined to pay that forward.
“Ultimately, prison gave me back my life,” Dietz told SQNews. “When I look back, I know I’m always going to be grateful for this experience—I know that sounds funny, but it’s true.”
Dietz entered the system as a teenager hooked on crystal meth. He’d already been in and out of rehab numerous times. Fortunately for him, he crossed paths with guys at SQ who were ready to help.
Dietz said that Charlie Spence came up to him on the yard and asked if he was a youth offender. “He told me about a group I needed to join, with nothing but other youth offenders in it.”
Spence, a former KidCAT Chairman and lifer, who paroled last year, left a lasting impact on Dietz, encouraging him to take an active role in the YOP (Youth Offender Program) community, particularly KidCAT and BE-IT (Benefitting Each Individual Together.)
Dietz didn’t just participate in these groups—he eventually became a facilitator and mentor himself.
“I’m not religious, so I don’t want to say ‘blessing’, but it pretty much was a blessing to land at San Quentin,” said Dietz. “There are just so many people here willing to give me the time to help me out.
Kenny Vernon, Tommy Wickerd, Chris Deragon and Charlie Spence are the guys Dietz said kept pushing him to be his best.
Wickerd first met Dietz years before, when he was celled-up with Dietz’ uncle at Lancaster.
“It’s crazy…I can’t even remember the guy’s name right now,” said Wickerd. “But he knew I was serious about working with youngsters. He told me about his 16-year-old nephew mess- ing with drugs and possibly hanging around with gang members.”
Wickerd, who’s been incarcerated now for the last 18 years—and sober for the last 17—had facilitated Lancaster’s Youth Diversion program, and, at the time, was also Vice Chairman of CROP (Convicts Reaching Out to People).
“I wrote the kid a four- page letter, just telling him what was waiting for him if he continued doing what he was doing,” said Wickerd. “But later, you know, his uncle told me he was still f– -king up out there.”
Dietz eventually visited his uncle at Lancaster, and Wickerd happened to be there at the same time visit- ing with his wife.
“Man, when my uncle told them it was me, Tommy came straight up to me—his wife is there, too, yelling at me,” said Dietz. “He said, ‘Look youngster, you keep it up, you’re going to end up in prison with me. And this isn’t the lifestyle you want.’
“When I realized Ryan was standing in front of me at SQ three years later, I felt like I’d failed him,” said Wickerd. “I felt like crap be- cause my own son was out there making bad choices, and now someone I’d tried to mentor had ended up in prison.
“Ryan was a little jerk when he first got here, too— young and ready to do what- ever he had to do, and not in a good way.”
Dietz only had about a 10th grade education, so right away Wickerd ushered him into the education building and introduced Dietz to the CDCR teachers who were helping Wickerd complete his own GED.
“Once I got in there, I actually liked it,” said Dietz. “I didn’t feel pressured, because I was making the choice myself.”
Dietz flew through the coursework and passed all the GED tests within three months.
After that, Dietz also completed SQ’s Substance Abuse Program (SAP), participated in Coalition For Justice, graduated KidCAT’s First Step curriculum, enrolled in the Prison University Project (PUP)—and worked as a vocational carpenter.
Vernon, 47, took it upon himself to get Dietz into vocational training, so that Dietz would have some viable job skills to take with him to the streets.
“I had to talk my supervisors into taking a chance on Ryan, but I told them I’d be responsible for training him and getting him up and running,” said Vernon. “Now that Ryan’s leaving, they want me to go find another motivated youngster for that spot—all because Ryan worked out so phenomenally.”
“Kenny taught me every- thing I needed to know,” said Dietz.
The two men—over 30 years apart in age—developed a deep connection, eventually celling-up together for the last year. Everyone quickly began referring to Vernon as Dietz’ “prison daddy.”
“I’m just proud of the kid. He put so much positive work into himself,” said Vernon. “At first, you have to push these youngsters to succeed, but then you need to let up and see if they can make the right decisions on their own.”
At one point, Dietz found himself faced with a personal dilemma: there can be a stigma attached to prison- ers who choose to serve their time at SQ. The situation is complicated but, for Dietz, it was a choice between what was best for his personal advancement versus how he might be labeled at other prisons.
“At first, I was really unsure,” said Dietz. “I didn’t know what I was gonna do. I talked to Chris, Tommy, Kenny, but it was Branden [Riddle-Terrell] who told me something that stuck in my mind.
“He said, ‘Listen to yourself. You’re already worried about what people at other prisons think of you—and you don’t even know those people yet.’
“That just made me understand—other people’s opinions, unless they are positive, don’t really matter.”
Though it was difficult, ultimately Dietz made the decision based on what increased his chances for a successful reentry.
“This is the first time in my life that I’ve actually applied myself to positive things,” he said. He explained, for ex- ample, that the relationship he had with his mom had al- ways been strained but that was beginning to change. “Now she’s starting to trust me a little more.”
Becoming a KidCAT member helped put things in perspective for Dietz.
“It was weird, because when I first got into that group on Thursdays—everyone acted like adults,” he said. “I wasn’t used to it. The love and respect everyone shows each other, I’ve never seen nothing like that.
“Learning to handle conflict in a respectful way—respectfully disagreeing with someone—those were all new things to me.”
Philip Senegal first met Dietz in 2017. “He was a shy little guy back then,” recalled Senegal. “He’s a lot more engaging now—a lot more comfortable with him- self.”
Senegal wanted to relate an incident that demonstrates Dietz’ growth and maturity: “He and a Black man got into a verbal confrontation over the ‘N’ word. One of Ryan’s White buddies, I guess, used that word—the Black guy thought Ryan said it.
“Two days later, I could tell Ryan was still troubled by how it all went down. He wasn’t sure how he should handle the situation, but he wanted to reassure the man that he didn’t agree with his friend’s behavior.”
Senegal, a Black man himself, advised Dietz to just talk to the guy, man-to-man, and offered to be there to facilitate that conversation. But, Dietz felt it was something he needed to do all on his own.
“Ever since then, I kinda latched onto the kid,” said Senegal. “I saw him in a more favorable light. He’s been sincere in his rehabilitation. As this population has evolved, he’s evolved right along with it.”
Dietz said the biggest lessons he’s learned happened by simply being around his fellow KidCAT members.
“I wasn’t comfortable with myself, so I was always looking for validation— that usually came from doing stupid things,” he said. “When I learned to be okay with me, that’s when everything changed.
“People started to give me actual respect, instead of that fake respect when you do violent things. Doing the positive things I’m doing to-day, people appreciate me for who I am.”
Dietz plans to take these lessons home to the Tarzana Treatment Center—a youth rehab with which he’s extremely familiar.
“I’ve gone through there three times, but I never lis- tened,” said Dietz. “I need to share my story—a story from a still-young perspective.
“Maybe I can get through to kids like me and say, ‘Look, this is what happens when you don’t listen.’