Inmates at Kern Valley State Prison are utilizing their life experiences to help divert at-risk youths from coming to prison.
The program is called EDGE (Education, Diversion and Goals to Endeavor).
“This program is designed for inmates to interact with at-risk youths in the hopes to save them,” said Pheng Ly, vice chairman of EDGE.
“We do so by educating these youth through sharing our life’s experiences, our knowledge, and life skills, in hopes to divert them from continuing down a ruinous path by enlightening their minds and broadening their horizons.”
Kids who participate in the EDGE program are brought to the institution three times a year to take part in an At-Risk Youth Interaction Event.
The inmate-led event consisted of a four- to-five-hour day, covering topics such as: education, family values, and drug and gang prevention.
“Within this timeframe, we share with [youths] our personal stories; we then encourage them to share their own personal stories and root out the causative factors in their current lifestyle,” said Ly.
Ly, 40, who is serving 50-years-to-life for two counts of gang-related first-degree murder, has been incarcerated since the age of 16.
Ly, who shares his story with youths, recounts his own journey to prison beginning with his premature birth when his mother fled war. “My mother gave birth … before it’s time … I came into this world … a stillborn baby, dead, cold and blue.”
Ly’s mother then made the decision to let the river carry Ly away. “My mother swam after me … safe in her arms … I took my first breath.”
Ly and his mother made it to a refugee camp, where for three years they lived “near dying from hunger and thirst, in a camp of dirt, surrounded by barbed wires and machine gun towers,” said Ly.
“Saved through a miracle, to America we went.”
In America, Ly faced discrimination and racism. “At 7, I lost my innocence through torturous beatings.
“By 12 years old, I took the pain and joined a gang. Hunger for revenge … I became wicked.”
At 16, Ly was shot five times, “I found myself drowning in my own blood,” Ly said
“My mother warned me about those friends who would lead me to prison, but I never listened. By 17, I took two lives.
“I once thought it was cool being a thug … I must have been insane … After destroying and ruining countless lives, I have come to realize and understand the (consequences).”
Inmate facilitators of EDGE are all former gang members, who were vetted by an institutional staff sponsor.
EDGE’s motto is “We are here, we care. You do matter and your life does make a difference.”
“Ours is a ‘steer straight program’ rather than a ‘scare straight’ one,” Ly said. “Our goal is to hold at least one event a month, (because) we know that there are countless youth out there who are in need of all the help they can get.”
San Quentin has two similar youth diversion programs, called SQUIRES and Project Reach.
To learn more about this program, contact:
Kern Valley State Prison
Attn: Correctional Sergeant A. Sell
3000 W. Cecil Avenue
Delano, CA 93212