San Quentin youth offenders came together on their own—in a grassroots ceremony on June 23, to commemorate the first-ever graduating cycle of the Power Source curriculum.
Institutional glitches delayed the officially scheduled graduation in May. But, the incarcerated members of BE-IT (Benefitting Each Individual Together) wanted to make sure this group of dedicated young men got the chance to fully celebrate their accomplishments.
“Here’s to rehabilitation!” Brian Holliday toasted his fellow graduates with an ice cold soda. Surrounded by friends, mentors and outside facilitator Ayoola Mitchell, Holliday seemed in great spirits—despite having been physically attacked by two reception center inmates just the day before.
“That’s the cost of staying at this prison and committing myself to ‘programming’,” Holliday told SQNews. “The bottom line is to keep doing the positive things that will get me home to my family.”
“Power Source is a group created for young men to help them understand them- selves better,” Mitchell told SQNews. “It’s about examining their belief systems and challenging their thinking— without being confrontation- al in how we challenge it.
“It’s really about looking introspectively—building a safe container, building a community—so that the guys feel comfortable talking about personal things, some- times things they’ve never disclosed before.”
“It opened my views of other inmates of different races,” said Holliday. “Hearing their stories of a different childhood—that expanded my thinking, for sure.”
Graduate Bryan Alejandro, a 20-year-old gay man, described the Power Source group as “a place where I can just be myself without anyone judging me for my sexuality.”
“I feel like I’m the first gay guy who’s accomplished something in prison,” he said. “I know that’s not true, but I feel that way through all my struggles.”
Mitchell credits the inmate facilitators with perpetuating such an inclusive and transformative vibe—Eric Abercrombie, Ryan Dietz, Sumit Lal, Isaiah Love, David Rodriguez, Nou Phang Thao, Thanh Tran, and Kenny Ver- non.
“I taught for eight years in various institutions,” she said. “You only really know something if you can teach it.
“Facilitating goes beyond that—to listen and be able to reach. This facilitating team really surpassed any expectations I thought I had.”
Graduate Jessie Rose said, “This is definitely a group where I could come and be comfortable. The connections were real. It was easy to form bonds with people— especially with the guys my own age.”
“This is the funnest group I ever been in,” said facilita- tor Love. “I didn’t know what to expect, but we’ve built a nice container that’s gonna stand up.”
BE-IT and Power Source fall under the umbrella of KidCAT—SQ’s premier youth offender support program. KidCAT members filled the room alongside the graduates.
“To all the KidCAT members, I want you to take a good look and recognize these faces,” said facilita- tor Thao—the last founding member still incarcerated. “Wherever you run into these guys—out on the yard, in the buildings—encourage them, help them.
“They may not realize how powerful that help is, but they need that help. You are now their resources.”
Thao related this message to Lal, the facilitator who’d just paroled the week before. He said Lal embodied this ideology—blossoming from an often troublesome YOP (youth offender program) into a guiding mentor for newly arrived YOPs.
KidCAT’s Phillipe Kelly concurred. “Sumit had a lot to do with putting this curriculum together,” he said. “All of you guys are gonna get out of here. Remember, how you spend your time in here now will determine your future out there.
“Find your peers. Bring people in to get the help they need. Y’all got help—it’s only fair that you give help back.”
Facilitator Tran expressed his appreciation for this inaugural graduating class: “For the longest time, I’ve said, ‘If you give young guys the opportunity, they’ll not only meet but exceed your expectations.’ And for the longest time, they continue to prove me right.”
“Any curriculum is only as good as the guys who bring life into it,” said Mitchell. “You all did amazing work in here, really brought this curriculum to life.
“That was especially important for this very first cycle. Because of your commitment to this program— being the first—we are being allowed to expand.”
Graduate Jonathan Rivas said Power Source taught him valuable lessons about becoming a man and deal- ing with childhood trauma.
“When you’re a kid, you tend to react to things differently, see things differently. But now I see that one day we might react to things more normally.’
According to all the guys, Mitchell has been a tireless advocate for rehabilitation and new beginnings. They joked that it seems like she’s at SQ every single day, facilitating in one capacity or another.
In line with the friendly, familial atmosphere, Vernon handed out personalized co- medic awards to each participant. Mitchell, of course, was given the “I Have Fifty Jobs” award.
She spoke about her background—how she quit her occupation as a juvenile hall counselor to become a teach- er, taking a substantial pay cut in the process.
“What kind of society pays you more to lock them up than to educate them?” she said.
“Working here, it ain’t even work,” Mitchell continued. “It’s what you guys give me. You give me hope that I’ve not been doing this work in vain.”
“Ayoola’s like my mother in prison,” said Alejandro.
“Our group started out with 21 guys. Some guys got transferred out, but nobody just stopped coming,” Mitchell said. “That right there speaks volumes about the 18 – 25-year-olds.
“One guy—I won’t say his name—did try to stop com- ing. I may or may not have sent threatening messages. He ended up seeing it through.
“So thank you all for put- ting up with my shenanigans.” Other graduates in attendance on June 22 included Miguel Arevalo, Chase Benoit, Jonathan Lunsford, Kevin Rojano, Anthony Russom and Vincent Turner. Nazhee Flowers, Marshal Kaplan, Jermaine Lindsay, and Rodney Rederford completed the curriculum but were transferred to other facilities before they could receive their certificates in person.