—Joe Garcia —David Ditto and Anthony Faulk contributed
Incarcerated and outside members of the San Quentin community joined forces to emotionally support one another and raise awareness during the prison’s second annual Mental Wellness Week.
“This week is about all of us coming together to encourage hope—no one should feel they have to go it alone,” said Dr. S. McCarver, SQ’s Chief of Mental Health for the last four years.
“There should be no stigma for simply reaching out for help— reaching out for support.”
The schedule of daily events from Sept. 8 to 14 included a highly anticipated panel featuring Board of Parole Hearing (BPH) Executive Officer Jennifer Shaffer and BPH Chief Psychologist Cliff Kusaj.
They came to speak about and clarify how the BPH regards documented mental health issues—and how be- ing involved in prison mental healthcare potentially affects a lifer’s parole suitability.
SQ’s Chief Deputy Warden Ron Broomfield set the week’s tone with a personal story about his own struggles with severe depression and his reluctance to share his experience with others.
“I’d been asked to speak twice and declined both times, but seeing all you guys’ inter- est in mental wellness gives me the courage to address you today,” he told an audience of prisoners, staff and volunteers on the Lower Yard.
“Working at Corcoran in 2009, I developed serious depression,” he said. “I could hide it at work and act like everything was fine.
“But where I couldn’t hide it was home. They got the worst of me.”
Broomfield described how his wife threatened to expose his mental problems with his coworkers if he refused to seek help.
“I remember sitting in my car out in the Corcoran park- ing lot, trying to summon up the courage to talk to someone,” he continued. “It was probably the most courageous thing I’ve ever had to do.”
“I always thought of myself as a healthy person, but hope really started when I sat in that car and decided I was going to talk to someone,” he said. “You can be free and a prisoner in your own mind— or locked up but free inside your mind.”
One of the week’s organizers, Dr. R. Thomas of SQ Mental Health, urged Broomfield to speak at the event. “I’m so grateful he shared his story with you guys,” she said. “It was in- credibly brave of him.”
Guys who know they need help are afraid to ask for that help…‘the Board’s not gonna let me out.’ But believe me; nothing could be further from the truth”
The ongoing theme of hope brought a packed crowd to the SQ chapel Sept. 11, where prisoners were ready to hear what Kusaj and Shaffer had to say about the BPH process.
California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) Undersecretary Kathleen Allison gave open- ing remarks before Kusaj and Shaffer engaged with the chapel audience.
“I’m passionate about this subject and have remained focused on suicide prevention,” said Allison. “It’s each and every one of [us] — our responsibility. If you see someone who might be in distress or mental crisis— reach out.”
Describing Shaffer as “a real rock star,” Allison set the stage for her by saying, “If you’re not a risk to public safety, she’s going to do everything she can for you.”
Schaffer started by connecting the history of the BPH to the evening’s mental well- ness theme—Hope Looks Forward.
“In 1979, California sentenced 907 prisoners to life with the possibility of parole,” Shaffer detailed. “And in that same year, only one person was actually granted parole.
“But take 2018, Jerry Brown’s last year in office. 1,016 prisoners were admitted into the system with life with the possibility of parole sentences—while 1096 prisoners were found suitable.
“That’s the first time since 1978 that more lifers were paroled rather than sentenced.”
Shaffer then focused her presentation on discussing potential parolees’ concerns about how receiving mental healthcare might reflect badly on their CDCR record.
“I know there’s a lot of myths out there,” she said. “Guys who know they need help are afraid to ask for that help.
“So many of you think if you need help, ‘the Board’s not gonna let me out.’ But believe me; nothing could be further from the truth.
“Think about it—plenty of people on the outside go get help. That’s actually healthy behavior.”
Shaffer encouraged the SQ crowd to utilize all available mental health resources, both inside and also after they are paroled.
“It’s an incredibly stressful time in your life to be re- leased from state prison,” she said. “That’s a big reason why the Board stresses transitional housing—not so we can watch you more closely, but so you’re surrounded by people who’ve walked the same path.”
Shaffer soon segued into what the majority of the audience came for—clarity on what the Board expects to see before granting a lifer’s parole date.
“We want to see if you’ve done the work,” Shaffer explained. “If you have truly transformed, you’ll be speak- ing a different language. You’ll show more insight—be more aware, more intuitive, more in touch with how you think.”
Shaffer also stressed the importance of understanding the difference between acknowledging the victim impact on an offender’s community but without carrying the shame of their crime around with them.
She detailed a research paper written by Kusaj which analyzed some psychological factors between offenders who recidivate and those who do not.
“What’s the difference?” she asked everyone. “Shame. If you find it hard to like your- self, you’ll find it incredibly difficult to create a positive narrative.
“Try to think of the bad things you may have done as in the third person. Learn how to explain who that person was and how they’re different today.”
Kusaj set out to answer the following questions: What are the Board psychologists look- ing for? What changes do they want to see? What should guys expect during their psychological review?
In regard to psych review expectations, Kusaj explained, “Ultimately, we need to be able to understand, contextualize and make sense of your violent actions—and how that’s been mitigated over time.
“Can you make sense of the darkness, badness and wrong decisions? Have you matured and changed during your incarceration?”
He listed a compendium of psychological and emotional shifts he directs his staff to look for—such as being open and honest versus circumventing the truth or rejecting violence as a problem-solving solution, or being fair and forgiving versus being vindictive and punishing.
“In short, we want to see life transformations,” said Kusaj. “When we evaluate risk assessment, it’s quite simple. What went wrong in your life? And where are you now?
“Don’t rehearse. Don’t try to anticipate our questions. You’re there to try to help the psychologist better understand your crime-causing factors.”
Kusaj also wanted the audience to recognize the structural difference between a forensic interview rather than a therapy session.
“Think of it more like a job interview. Because of time considerations, expect to be interrupted,” he said. “Expect to be challenged. We’re neither advocates nor adversaries. Our interests lie solely in your safe release to the community.”
Although Kusaj was nowhere near giving the full ex- planation he’d hoped to offer, Shaffer stopped him to allow the panel to field questions from the eager crowd. Most questions inevitably revolved around each prisoner’s personal BPH experience.
Allison and Shaffer eventually started a list for each person to write down their name, CDCR# and specific issue they want resolved.
Shaffer assured the crowd that every BPH scheduling commitment will be fulfilled. “Last year, we held 5,300 Board hearings statewide, and this year we’ve got 7,300 scheduled,” she said. “We’ll continue that pace every year until everyone who should be seen is.”
Allison equally reassured everyone that her CDCR office is reviewing every single prisoner’s file for 1170(d) re-sentencing consideration.
“You guys don’t have to submit anything to us,” she said. “If you’re disciplinary free, done exceptional programming or fit any of the enhancement criteria, we’ll petition the court on your behalf.
“We’ve had amazing success from the courts so far. Our priority is always going to be focused on the guys who already have the most time in. Those are the cases that need to be reviewed first.”
The last two days of Mental Wellness Week consisted of pure community interaction and celebration. The chapel shook with energy and emotion on Sept. 13 as prisoners and staff alike took part in a talent showcase—opening up and performing pieces themed around mental health.
Dr. K. O’Meara, CDCR Regional Health Administer, took to the podium and read an essay by Death Row prisoner Joseph Manuel Montes.
“It’s important to represent those who can’t be here them- selves tonight,” she said.
The highlight of the talent show may have been Dr. Thomas’ promised rendition of Sade’s “Soldier of Love.” The audience cheered in awe and appreciation as Thomas hit all the right notes without batting an eye.
Fully participating at every event that week, Thomas and her vocals underscored the commitment of the SQ Mental Health staff to stay immersed in this community.