Long before any law passed providing time off for taking self-help groups, San Quentin Kings basketball player Julio Saca found his own motivations for bettering himself and helping youngsters.
“I don’t want to return to prison,” Saca said. “And I want to be an example, help my family and my community.”
Saca grew up without examples to model himself after. His alcoholic and abusive father separated from his mother by the time Saca turned 8 years old, leaving behind a trail of trauma. By age 17, Saca dropped out of school, sold drugs and had a child.
Over the years, Saca struggled with addiction to cocaine and alcohol. He managed to stay sober for about a year but then came the relapse. Within a week he lost his job and custody of his daughter. Then he ended up with a 12-year sentence for committing robbery with a gun.
“It wasn’t until I came to prison that my eyes were open to that I wasn’t the only one suffering from substance abuse,” Saca said. “I learned of men just like me that ended up in prison for substance abuse. It put a desire and fear in me. I made the decision to stay sober no matter what.”
Ironically, incarcerated men became Saca’s role models. While in a Christian 12-step recovery program called Celebrating Recovery at California Medical Facility, he met men serving life sentences who took him under their wings.
“I met a lot of lifers in programs and learned what a true man is—taking accountability for your own stuff, having integrity, being true to thyself,” Saca said. “The true definition of a man is not using drugs and alcohol.”
Saca fought off temptation while incarcerated by focusing on education, sports and faith. He accepted God in his life and completed many programs, earning a Braille Transcriber certification, an associate degree through CoastLine Community College, a Ministry Degree through Golden Gate, and he completed a substance abuse program. He also played basketball for the San Quentin Warriors and then the Kings.
“When I started expanding my mind it empowered me to never want to use drugs again and it created a desire to help men like me,” Saca said. “I was able to find who I was, and now I’m using my history to help others.”
Saca mentors young men on the yard, like the lifers mentored him. He coaches, along with Royce Rose, a basketball team of men under 25 called The Young Outstanding Players.
“I could relate to them because I made a lot of wrong choices at that age,” Saca said. “You saw leadership in some of them. Raiveon would open us up in prayer. He took that leadership role.”
YOP player Raiveon Wooden, 21, said, “They have a real impact in my life. He (Saca) has been like a big brother and he’s seen me grow into who I really am.”
The YOP team has taken on the significant role of keeping youngsters from getting transferred to violent prisons.
Under the Youthful Offender Program created by prison administrators and established through a state Assembly bill, eligible youngsters get a security override that allows them the chance to start their time in lower-security places like San Quentin’s mainline. However, one disciplinary issue can get them transferred to violent higher-security places.
“I was just doing in my heart what I wanted someone to do for me—I never had the opportunity to play organized ball,” Saca said. “A lot of YOPs get to this yard, and they don’t know if they get a writeup, they are out of here.”
He added, “The vision at the end of the day, turned out it’s not about basketball, it’s about growing and being able to take criticism and being in prison and being able to make the best out of it.”
Saca, now 37, said he has 10 years of sobriety. He is scheduled to parole Sept. 29 and has plans to continue his education. Merritt College in Oakland gave Saca a scholarship to help him become a substance abuse counselor. He also plans to join Project Rebound, a program for the formerly incarcerated at San Francisco State University. Also, Saca wants to help his family.
“My dad is living out of a car in Oakland. He’s sick, been shot seven times, has diabetes — addiction still has him at 72,” Saca said. “My desire is to get out and help him and my family with the things that I learned in prison.”