Second Chance Month highlights impact of self-help, rehabilitative efforts
April is officially Second Chance Month. Every year, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs celebrates formerly incarcerated individuals for successful reentry. A high number of returning citizens, also known as formerly incarcerated, are in college, running social justice reform nonprofits and working within the tech field.
San Quentin produces a lot of these formerly incarcerated citizens. Phil Melendez of Smart Justice, an advocacy prison reform organization, spoke recently at a press conference with Gov. Gavin Newsom on the power of self-help groups and rehabilitation. Melendez will be a part of a committee of the formerly incarcerated who will have input on Newsom’s re-imagination of San Quentin into a Scandanavian-style prison model. Melendez’s transformation inside prison walls and his service in society have provided him a voice within the halls of the state assembly and to the governor.
James King, another former resident, has landed a job as the state campaign manager for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, an organization that advocates for prison reform. During the state’s COVID-19 pandemic, King took to the airwaves, both radio and television, with the #StopSanQuentinOutbreak coalition to bring awareness to the trials of prisoners within the state prison system. King has reached back and helped the incarcerated with commutation petitions. King continues to be an inspiration to those who seek to be a servant when they return home.
Adamu Chan, who learned his craft of filmmaking within the San Quentin Media Center, paroled and created a documentary film titled What These Walls Won’t Hold, also about the SQ COVID-19 outbreak. The 40-minute film details the relationships, struggles and connections that transcended prison walls during the deadly outbreak.
With these second chances at living a productive life, these people continue to reach back and promote public safety. They have taken their prison experience and represent change.
Watson Allison spent 35 years on San Quentin’s Death Row before he was re-sentenced to 25 years-to-life. Allison is the only individual from Death Row to complete the Offender Mentor Certification Program (OMCP). Allison paroled in 2020 and returned to work as a San Quentin free-staff counselor for the prison’s Integrated Substance Use Disorder Treatment (ISUDT) programs. Allison mentored many of the same men he once walked the prison yard with in alcohol and drug addiction counseling. One could always see the surreal expression on his face as he walked to the prison gym for the ISUDT classes. Allison has since moved on to other endeavors, but a journey from Death Row to freedom shows the power of second chances.
San Quentin is unique, a place where formerly incarcerated residents have returned to lead self-help groups, religious services and college programs. Seeing these people transcend from state prison blues to what the incarcerated call “street clothes” sets the example of what is possible.
There are programs and support groups such as Project Rebound that have helped returning citizens to get in and attend prestigious colleges such as the University of California – Berkeley and Stanford. The formerly incarcerated are making strides in all walks of life.
However, formerly incarcerated people still face housing and job discrimination, as well as social stigmas. Throughout the nation recidivism rates remain high and people of color are still disproportionately incarcerated. There are continual debates between conservatives and liberals on the whys, which leads mostly to this see-saw effect on what public safety is and what needs to be done.
Second Chance Month is designed to recognize the importance of helping individuals and communities in supporting the safe and successful reentry of the hundreds of thousands people who return from some form of incarceration each year. A second chance is not about forgetting the harm that has been caused to victims or survivors; it’s about using that pain and hurt not to reoffend and to advance oneself to a higher state of humanity.
A second chance involves true healing.