Fermin Fernandez says he used meth for 41 years starting when he was 13. “I thanked the officer for arresting me. I wanted to quit but couldn’t just quit.”
In January, Fernandez was a member of the first Reception Center graduation class of the Options Recovery Services addiction initiative. In September 2018, the Options program took its incarcerated counselors where none had ever gone before – the Reception Center – to help men start breaking the addiction cycle as soon as they arrive in prison. “So if I would have had this (program) years ago,” said Fernandez, “maybe my life would have been different. It gives hope that there’s a way (to stop using).”
Although Fernandez is serving his fourth prison term, he said it’s the first time he had an opportunity to participate in a drug treatment program. “My coming back to prison had to do with drugs,” said graduate Fernandez.
People first entering the prison system are confined 23 hours a day in the Reception Center, segregated from the rest of the prison population. In reception, the new arrivals undergo a classification process to determine their security level and until last September had no access to anti-addiction programs.
Tom Gorham, founder of Options, came up with the idea to allow mainline prisoners trained as substance-abuse counselors to work in reception.
“We’re trying to get them on the rehabilitative path right out the gate,” Gorham said. “We’re giving them a choice but they have to realize they have a choice.”
The program is taught by counselors serving life sentences. They all completed California A Drug Treatment Program (CADTP), a state-certified program which trained them to help people overcome addiction.
“I greatly appreciated the environment created in the Options substance abuse program,” Mohammed Ahmed, 28, a reception resident, said. “The addiction recovery counselors were men whose shoes I could be in. To be able to relate with men leading the groups allowed me to open up and be honest in a way I have never before allowed myself.”
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation granted Options the contract to facilitate its program in three facilities – DVI, the women’s facility at Chowchilla and San Quentin. Options started its pilot reception program at San Quentin because it already had state-certified drug and alcohol counselors on the yard ready to go.
“This is what this program is for, to have the men teach other men, to be role models, mentors, to have that same type of style and success,” said Options Recovery Program Director Kathy Narasaki. “They’re experts at what they are doing. We need their brains.”
Two groups of men took the program on either Wednesday or Thursdays for nine weeks. Narasaki escorts the lifers into the reception chow hall to facilitate the program. Participates receive the book Denial Management Counseling Workbook: Practical Exercises for Motivating Substance Abusers to Recover, by Terence T. Gorski and the Sober Living book by Alcoholics Anonymous, as gifts.
“Best material I’ve seen in 20 years of doing this work; (Denial Management) is all about giving them insight into how they tick,” Gorham said.
The book helps incarcerated people identify denial patterns.
“It’s been truly valuable to be given tools to better recognize and address issues associated with denial,” Christopher “Jack” Jones, 27, a participant and graduate, said. “Personally, I find that my thinking patterns are reforming in terms of denial management to a great degree and I owe that to this class.”
On Jan. 9, the Wednesday group graduated and, on Jan. 24, the Thursday group graduated.
Narasaki told the class, “It’s the first group in any prison where we are mixing populations. I depend on the mentors to really help you and help me get this program going.”
The graduations were held in an icy chow hall with murals on the wall. The counselors wore standard prison issued blue uniforms while the reception guys had on dark orange.
Each graduate received an opportunity to speak before receiving a certificate, a Sober Living book, a composition notebook, a pen and a five-page list of resources. Many endorsed the idea of having a peer-to-peer mentor made.
“I just wanted to get out of my cell, but once I heard what was being taught by inmates, I related and opened up a little more; I found it pretty helpful,” Raymond Chavez said. “I want to thank y’all.”
When counselor George “White Eagle” Coates, 61, heard half of the class signed up for the program just to get out of their cells, he was worried.
“I had misconception about how the guys would take the information,” Coates said. “I remember how I was when I was young – still angry, not ready for change and that’s how I thought these guys would be. They totally surprised me. Even the younger guys were ready for something different. Not only have they done their homework, and we assign a lot of homework, they read the material and called each other on denial management.”
The graduates of the Thursday class were mostly serving sentences under four years with half-time, while the mentors have all served decades in prison. The fact that the mentors have overcome addiction and never given up inspired graduate Ronald Hills. He’s been locked up five times over 12 years in a battle with addiction and criminal thinking.
“Seeing the mentors, all of them have been faced with life sentence and they’re still holding strong,” Hills, 33, said. “I feel like if they’re able to turn it around to a positive view and keep fighting, who am I not to attempt to get my mind right and keep fighting. It made me look at life and gain a new strength.”
Counselor Martin Walters, 50, who is serving his 31st year of a 25-to-life sentence, added, “I’m hopeful that I can share my experience so these guys don’t suffer the same mistake that I make. I’m excited about it.”
For graduate Alejandro Montes, 26, who is serving half of four years, an older man told him eight years ago that he was on the path to end up serving life. Still, addiction to meth and blaming an absent father for his choices fueled his going in and out of jail where he has spent his last eight birthdays. Meeting actual lifers, he said, gave him a new perspective.
“Now I realize I really am headed towards a life sentence and I don’t want that happening,” Montes said. “It’s an eye opener.”
The incarcerated facilitators of the program had some concerns about going into reception.
“We are taking a risk doing this job in reception,” Johnny Lam said. “We are the first ones in CDCR going to do this. We don’t know what’s going to happen. Despite the fears, we are going because we wish we had a program when we were in reception.”
Facilitator Thao Nou Pang added, “When I started my recovery from criminal thinking, part of it is to be of service. I am hoping that what I am sharing with the men helps them start recovery now instead of 10 years down the road.”
A few graduates expressed that they will need more.
“I need a lot more work but this is a stepping stone in the right direction,” Fernandez said.
Among the Wednesday class graduates were: Ezra Williams, Daniel Joey Visek, Jorge Martinez, Troy Davis and Ahmed.
The Thursday class graduates were: Alejandro Montes, Raymond Chavez, Delmar Donahue, Thomas Johnson, Derek Dankston, Robert Hamby, Ronald Hills, Jorge Dela Rosa, Brandon Simpson, Louis Butler, Darryle Moore and Fermin.
“This is the first time in my life I ever received a certificate,” Fermin said. “My mother is going to be happy.”