‘I was impressed that an associate warden came’
An audience of around 250 inmates, including many juvenile lifers, mingled with free people inside a prison chapel to learn about the introductory curriculum of a self-help group aimed at teaching juveniles who were tried as adults principles rooted in restorative justice.
The group, called Kid Creating Awareness Together, commonly called Kid C.A.T., teaches a three-phased curriculum, in eight modules over a 24-week period “to encourage continued self-discovery/improvement, accountability, cultivated consciousness, and empowerment,” according to the group’s promotional material.
The idea for the program came from San Quentin staff members and several prisoners who wanted to demonstrate to the public how young men that if given the chance could mature into responsible citizens, even though their incarceration began as juveniles.
“I became enamored about the stories of these men,” said Brenda Rhodes, Kid C.A.T. sponsor. “They wanted to have a voice in the world. Telling their story to the world has a huge risk. It should be a story of opportunity and as a means to show redemption.”
The group’s facilitators are committed to educating its members through projects, including journal writing, creating short stories, poems, essays and artwork. The creativity is intended to inspire, and educate, placing emphasis on the human sides of participants.
San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi spoke at the event and said that though he was unaware of Kid C.A.T. the group helps the public understand the criminal justice system. “Once people hear the stories, they will be willing to change some of the harsh laws that focus more on punishment than rehabilitation,” he said. “The criminal justice system needs to do a better job in humanizing people who encounter it.”
Kid C.A.T. member Miguel Quezada, 32, who has been incarcerated since age 16, said, “Since the event included prison administrators and external community members who were connecting with prisoners, it created the bridge necessary to bring about changes that Kid C.A.T. envisions.”
Several members of the group were featured in a three-minute trailer to a documentary. The men described who they were prior to incarceration, the process of maturing behind bars, and an understanding of the impact their crimes had on the victims, their families, and themselves. See the trailer is at www.cryingsideways.com.
“The criminal justice system needs to do a better job in humanizing people who encounter it”
Kid C.A.T. advisor Mike King said one of the focuses of the group is to create an outside organizing system that reaches kids through education and mentorship programs before they begin committing crimes.
“As an educator, the hardest thing to do is to check (his or her) ego at the door, said group facilitator Sonya Shah. “As educators, we need to make any learning experience about the group so they can develop themselves.”
Antoine Brown, 35, who has been incarcerated since age 17, said he was most impressed with speaker Phil Towle because of the interaction Towle had with his 17-year-old son.
“Phil was interested in the conversation I had with my son,” he said. “That impressed me, to know that he’s in tune with a man who’s trying to be a father behind bars. That was motivation for me to stay on the right path.”
Kid C.A.T. member, Michael Tyler emceed the event. Tyler has been incarcerated since age 17. “I compare this event to the Oscars,” he said as he pointed out the “similarities” that all attendees shared, such as community, healing, and justice. “We’re just trying to make the world a better place.”
“I thought the event went well,” said Elizabeth Calvin of Human Rights Watch. Calvin sponsored SB 260 which is legislation that permits juvenile offenders the opportunity for a sentence review after a specified period behind bars and good behavior.
“I was impressed that an associate warden came to see what we’re about,” said the group’s chairman, Michael Nelson. For Nelson’s, 31, incarceration began at age 15. He is serving a life sentence for first-degree murder.
Solano’s Associate Warden, Kim Young, said she heard about our program from prisoners who transferred to Solano from San Quentin. She seemed intrigued to hear about us—wanting to get a program like Kid C.A.T. there. For an associate warden to recognize value in our program is really good.”
“Elizabeth Calvin was also impressive,” Nelson said. “She’s worked on behalf of youth very diligently. One of her goals is to ensure the safety and welfare, of not just children, but public safety at the same time. The event inspired me to not wait for a possible parole date to begin change, rather to begin change today.”
Kid C.A.T. has a newsletter, gives out pamphlets at reception centers, and has a juvenile lifers support group.
Community volunteer Jaimee Karroll was honored with a special seat at the event.