In 2020, the Substance Use Disorder Treatment (ISUDT) program converted San Quentin’s gym to a place to learn life skills and get drug treatment. Last year, on Dec. 21, the gym was converted once more to become the site of a carnival.
The carnival offered an alternative to the classroom setting common in life skills and drug treatment programs, said Correctional Counselor III C. Collins, who heads ISUDT.
“They’re allowed to have fun. However, the contests have a therapeutic aspect too,” Collins said. “The question and answer games give our participants an understanding of addiction and recovery.”
Collins emphasized the community atmosphere the program aims for. “We don’t differentiate between blue and green in this program,” a reference to blue prisoner clothing and green correctional officer uniforms.
Todd Winkler, 54, is an incarcerated program mentor. “The carnival is about letting the participants know that we recognize the efforts they are taking to better their lives,” he said. “My job is to facilitate groups, which is about being a good listener and making it comfortable for people to talk about uncomfortable things.”
Mark Kinney has been in the program for about six months. He has a parole hearing coming up in June. Kinney said he knows that he must address criminal thinking, as well as drug and alcohol abuse.
“Some parts are extremely difficult because you have to dig into your past,” Kinney said. “You may feel vulnerable to a group, yet others are experiencing what you have.”
Kinney said participation in role-playing and live skits “has been very helpful to me because it deals with concepts and communication.”
Some of the topics addressed included how to act non-violently, homicide, sex crimes, domestic violence, alcohol and drugs. “Though the topic may not be your crime, you still learn,” Kinney said.
Miguel De La Cruz recommended ISUDT “to anyone who may have issues within themselves such as substance or alcohol abuse.”
“I have gained the understanding and coping skills that I feel will serve me when I’m released back to society,” De La Cruz said.
Staffer B. Brown has more than 30 years of experience in social services. She often asks those she serves, “What are your risks? Why do you take risks?”
“I don’t want to know or hear what you did,” said Brown, “All I want to know is what you are going to do from this point on.”
She relocated to California after serving the incarcerated population at Riker’s Island in New York.
“The games are to reinforce positive change that we teach in our curriculums,” Brown said. “It gives them a chance to have fun with their peers and to [practice] teamwork and cooperation.”
Team Apple Cider showed that they got the idea of cooperating as a team. Alex Sinigur, Sincere Carter, Ismael Valencia and Joaoclavdio Neves won four of the 11 contests.
SQ resident Angel Cabanillas, 30, facilitated Criminal Gangs Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous groups. Within months of getting to San Quentin, he became the second-youngest ISUDT mentor.
“I just wanted to make a difference,” Cabanillas said. “It’s the best way that I know to honor the victims of my crime and to help my community.”
Some ISUDT participants are resistant. Andrew Hildreth, 46, said he did not sign up for the program.
“I was one day away from completing my reentry program, so I was resistant to coming. I didn’t want to be here, but I kept an open mind.”
Hildreth said that after a while he began enjoying the camaraderie and ability to talk about serious issues among people he could relate to.
Nevertheless, he said he could have used his time more wisely. But he had to admit that “no group on the outside could replace these groups. I’m the token White guy in my group, but they are my brothers and I love them. I will miss them.”
Alejandro Estrada, 48, has less than a year left on a 10-year sentence. He hoped the program would help him learn to control his impulsive nature. And he did find something that worked for him: STARS (Stop Think Act Review Skills).
“I don’t want to come back to prison,” Estrada said. “Using STARS teaches me patience — to think clearly and think about outcomes.”
Estrada said that the program helped him become a better communicator, especially with his son and daughter.
“It taught me how to be a better listener. Being in a group lets me know that I’m not the only person going through things. It’s helped me all around — being around other incarcerated people, I’m not as hot-headed.
“The counselors help me be myself and relax and be normal and be around everyone — to try.”
Many of those enrolled in the program say that there are tremendous benefits of ISUDT. Michael Sperling spoke about his life experiences.
“As a child, I grew up in a hostile environment. My father kept me and my family hostage with fear. Nothing satisfied my dad. The end results were severe beatings,” Sperling said. By age 12, he began experimenting with drugs, and then he turned to the streets.
“That’s where I joined a gang. This family would show me love that I never received at home,” Sperling said. “All the hurt and rage that I had built up inside, I would release it on anyone that got in my way in the only way I knew how, through violence.”
For the next 30 years, Sperling said he struggled with a heroin addiction that nearly killed him seven times with overdoses.
“I would remain in and out of prison all my teenage and adult life for crimes that benefited my gang, and crimes that fed my drug addiction,” Sperling said.
After an overdose in 2020, Sperling said he took a good look at his life. “I became disgusted — disgusted at how I treated myself, my family, my friends and my community. The ISUDT program has been a blessing in disguise.
“The facilitators and mentors do everything they can every day to help all of us with our recoveries. From skills, mapping, family roles, breathing techniques, and more. I am now 13 months clean of heroin and ISUDT has been a huge reason why.”