While people in society were shocked when schools, churches, restaurants, and salons were shut down due to the pandemic, prisoners weren’t shocked when their rehabilitation programs were shut down.
For years, prisoners have had to rely on each other and assistance from people in the outside world for their rehabilitation.
“During the outbreak, my mom and my sister helped me develop my timeline so I could take ownership for everything I’ve done wrong when I go to Board,” said San Quentin (SQ) resident Darren Settlemeyer. “I keep in touch with my AA sponsor who lives in San Jose, and I took some PREP courses.”
The Partnership for Re-Entry Program (PREP) is run by the Catholic church in Los Angeles. It provides prisoners correspondence courses in domestic violence prevention, victims awareness, anger management, criminal thinking, and in other areas.
Richard Hernandez has been the PREP facilitator for the North Block housing unit at SQ since 2019. “I have helped 80-100 guys since the outbreak. This is my way of giving back,” said Hernandez. “I like to see the men network amongst each other and help each other.”
Residents often stop by Hernandez’s cell to pick up PREP material. Once the participants complete their lessons, Hernandez uses his own personal stamps to mail it to the PREP organization. The participants are then awarded certificates of completion.
At least a dozen prisoners serving life sentences who had been taking Hernandez’s PREP courses during the pandemic were released by the parole board.
Many organizations — like the Timeless Group, Crim-Anon, Lifers Support Alliance, and the American Correctional Counseling Institute (ACCI) — help fill the void in rehabilitation at prisons by providing correspondence courses. PREP is one of the most popular.
Donald Edge has been facilitating the PREP program in the Alpine housing unit at SQ for the past six months. “I have helped at least 30 guys complete courses and get Chronos and certificates.
It is generally understood amongst the population of prisoners serving life sentences that they are expected to take a pro-active approach to their rehabilitation regardless of lockdowns or deadly pandemics.
Boards of Parole Hearing Commissioners often tell lifers to do book reports or to find an outside organization if no prison programs are available.
“I was taking PREP courses and I was finishing up GRIP and the TRUST program during the outbreak here through correspondence,” said resident Ron Goffrion, who was sick with COVID-19 for a month and had to be transferred to an outside hospital.
Prisoners often facilitate many of the rehabilitation programs that do exist within the prisons. They are assigned as peer mentors or they volunteer to facilitate alcohol and drug counseling groups inside prisons. Interacting with each other is how many residents at SQ said they’ve learned to manage their anger and sobriety.
“I really got motivated when I came to SQ and saw how guys were able to openly express themselves without being judged,” said resident Dennis Jefferson. “I like talking to people who want to talk about improving themselves.”
Self-motivation has been the key to Jefferson’s rehabilitation. Jefferson didn’t let the COVID-19 pandemic stop him from doing PREP courses. He also did correspondence with Crim-Anon and ACCI organizations. “My father helped me pay for some courses at ACCI that costs between $45 and $90.”
Michael Baldwin Sr., who was released from Corcoran State Prison in 2018 after serving 27 years in prison, said his rehabilitation came from a lot of soul-searching and the aid of fellow prisoners.
“When you go to prison there’s no one coming to your cell door saying “hey, this is the crime you committed, here are some of the reasons why you committed that crime, and these are the programs you need to take to make sure you resolve the issues that led you to commit the crime,” Baldwin Sr. told the Valley Citizen on April 22.
As Baldwin points out, the system doesn’t normally guide any prisoner through the rehabilitative process. Neither the judge nor any corrections official will tell you how to resolve your problem.
As prison rehabilitation programs begin to reopen, unlike the rest of society prisoners say they won’t experience any new normal. Prisoners all across the state will likely experience more of the same.
“The truth is that rehabilitation, as it’s structured in our prison system today, just doesn’t work the way society may think it does. The truth is that inmates are turning to each other for support and strength in dealing with the issues — the addiction, the violence, the anger — that led them to commit crimes in the first place.”