By Michael Callahan Staff Writer, Bostyon Johnson Managing Editor
San Quentin’s Light Keepers — a peer support program that teaches participants to support those in mental health crisis — held a graduation for their latest cohort on June 23.
The event was intimate and emotional. Some of the 15 graduates brought in family members or friends from the outside, and the group enjoyed a series of speeches together, followed by Subway sandwiches and music by San Quentin band, The Greater Good.
The Light Keepers program is a 90-week course that teaches crisis resolution, mentoring, and techniques that help prevent mental health crisis, including suicide. Participants also learn to create an atmosphere of hope and inclusivity for their peers.
Incarcerated residents of San Quentin developed the program in 2005 as a response to the suicide of Robert Dubner on February 17, 2005. Prior to the program, prison residents in crisis often did not seek help from staff due to CDCR’s suicide protocols. The fear was that thoughts of suicide may harm their chances of being found suitable for parole.
After 24 years of incarceration, Patrick “PLo” Baylis noted that a program like Light Keepers did not exist when he first came to prison. He expressed that his goal is to help encourage individuals to stay motivated to care for themselves and face daily challenges.
“Young men here are in grief, ostracized and they stay in suicidal thoughts, [and] addiction. If we can intervene, it can save many people. I never progressed until I got to SQ, men here I knew provided a helping hand and helped me on my journey to recovery. Don’t ever be too proud to be a helping hand,” said Baylis.
Light Keepers learn how to assist their peers during times of crisis, such as the loss of a loved one, board denial, illness, and other stressful situations. But Light Keepers are more than that: they are also positive role models and friends who are knowledgeable and trusted by their community.
At the graduation, participants shared how meaningful it is to help others heal and the honorability that comes with being available to their incarcerated peers who are struggling.
Carrington Russelle spoke of the uncertainty he felt at 21 years of age coming into prison. He stressed that there was no outlet for people in crisis and no safe space to communicate uncertainties. He felt desensitized quickly and adopted a defensive posture in which he suppressed his own emotions.
He desired change but did not have an example to follow. “It is an honor to offer what I didn’t get,” said Carrington.
Graduate John James spoke of the importance of doing the work to face the reality of mental health struggles, and support others who are also struggling. “Growing up I needed someone to be there for me and I never had that someone. I had a lot of pain and I put that out to people. Over time I chose to help people in need and be that someone that was always there.”
Light Keepers, formerly known as Brothers Keepers, is available to serve their community and staff 24/7. They create an atmosphere of trust and hope. In the past, members wore a starfish as recognition from staff and peers. Members have now changed their lapel pin to a lighthouse to signify inclusivity and the group’s goal of being a guiding light for everyone to see.
The warden, associate warden and a small community of their peers, celebrated the graduates and all guests enjoyed the tunes played by the SQ band, The Greater Good.
Among the attendees was Associate Warden L. Bravo, who thanked the families, volunteers and graduates for their dedication. He talked about his vision concerning the California Model — Gov. Newsom’s new plan to reform the California prison system.
“With that model it is about peer support. I came here to be part of a movement and change. We really have to be there to help our peers. You are an olive branch to someone in need. You can be the strongest person in the world, but strength is not just physical,” he said. Bravo spoke about emotional intelligence and mental wellness.
Carrie Krupitsky works with the Humane Prison Hospice Program, one of trio supporters of Light Keepers. In that role, she sits in on weekly training sessions and is bringing the training to Vacaville.
“One of the fundamentals of the organization is inclusivity. Being leaders in the community and having that trust is what it’s really about, that community trust,” she said.
Krupitsky went on to talk about her experience in the group sessions. She said feelings of inspiration overwhelm her when she witnesses the work men are doing in San Quentin.
“I was blown away. People are so present, so open. I have never sat with a group of people, especially men, who are that loving and that open within themselves,” Krupitsky said about her experience during group meetings. “You want the people who are making the decisions out in the world to see the humanity in this space.”
Some of the graduates reflected on what it means to be a Light Keeper. “Being of service to others … where it is needed is one of the most important things in life because we are inter-dependent,” said Mark Cadiz.