Troubled children visit San Quentin SQUIRES group in hopes of changing their lifestyles
It was lunchtime in one of San Quentin’s historic chow halls, the site of violent uprisings in years past. One visiting guest was Christian Hernandez, a troubled youngster from Santa Cruz. He did not like what he saw and vowed that he would never go to prison.
“I learned how horrible it is and how horrible the lunches are,” Hernandez said. “What scared me the most was when that guy was talking about murdering someone and going to Death Row, and seeing guys being escorted by the guards wasn’t a good feeling.”
The young visitor to San Quentin was a product of a new approach toward dealing with at-risk youth.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, several state prisons tried the “Scared Straight” method in trying to reach youth who were headed for a life of crime, but “Scared Straight” was halted due to the controversy it generated after national news exposure. The up-front, in-your-face approach of confronting youth fell from favor. Instead, communication, not intimidation, became the preferred way to handle disruptive youngsters.
The communication approach is what brought young Hernandez to San Quentin. He came under the auspices of the Terrence Kelly Youth Foundation (TKYF28.ORG).
One of the groups using the new approach toward prevention of juvenile crime in America is the San Quentin Utilization of Inmate Resources, Experiences and Studies, better known as SQUIRES.
The purpose of SQUIRES is to communicate with troubled teens who have engaged in juvenile delinquent conduct and self-destructive activities. The prisoner/mentors of SQUIRES require new members to go thorough a training and screening process before admitting them to the group.
The youth referred to participate in the SQUIRES workshop are involved with outside groups and organizations like the TKYF that are responsible for youth offenders.
Landrin Kelly, CEO and founder of TKYF, said he hopes to leave an indelible mark of the lives of young people. Kelly was inspired by the memory of his son, Terrance, who was shot to death two days before he was to attend the University of Oregon on a scholarship.
For the last eight years, TKYF has provided services to youth through the High Achievers After-School program. The program includes culinary arts, computer lab, violence prevention, along with assistance in self-expression and voice development.
Twenty-two youths from the TKYF and the 21st Century Mentors Foundation (www.21stCenturyMentors. org) participated in a SQUIRES workshop on Oct. 20.
One of their escorts was Robert Turner, executive director of the 21stCentury Mentors Foundation. He has been assisting kids for more than 30 years. For the past 15 years, Turner has been bringing kids to the SQUIRES workshops.
“I feel there’s a need to help these kids in the community, and even though there are a lot of programs, there’s never enough to address all the troubled kids,” said Lona Kelly, Terrance’s aunt. “We have to try, and their foundation tries to get kids before they go all the way wrong. The solution isn’t to bring in more police because they have been trying that for years. What we need is more mentors.”
Alex Bennett, who participated in the October workshop, has never been locked up but asserts that his visit to San Quentin helped him focus on turning his life around.
“These mentors are really good. They have made a difference for my son, and I want to say thank you to all the mentors,” said Christie Bennett, Alex’s mother. “They are effective in their communication with the boys. It takes courage to open up their lives to these boys.”
During the workshop, the youths were placed in cells, and the mentors spoke to them from outside the bars to give them an impression of prison life and what it’s like to spend long amounts of time, even life, in a room no bigger than a small bedroom closet.
“I felt trapped,” said Diego Cardona, 17. “When I get home, I’m going to obey my parents and the law.”
Rodrick Parker, 12, said, “I feel trapped and I can’t get out. I’m going to do good things to stay out of trouble. I don’t want to live like this. This is ugly.”
Kyree Hall, 12, commented, “This is horribly dirty and scary. It really bothers me that I’m in a cell. This will help me be a better person—especially to my parents.”
Andrew Phan added, “I learned how people’s lives can be changed and they start losing their family after they are locked up. The mentors from this program are giving us some really good advice and it is working.”
Also attending the workshop were Joe Hernandez, a Santa Cruz police officer, and Henry Michel, assistant principal at Santa Cruz High School. Both work in community youth programs. Bob Michels, a professor at Santa Clara University, has been visiting San Quentin for 20 years, working with youths participating in SQUIRES Michels brought in 15 graduate students who will also be working with at-risk kids.
Thanks to staff support and volunteers, SQUIRES conducts the best youth diversion program in the country, said Lt. Rudy Luna, chief sponsor of the group.
–Boston Woodard contributed to this story