A state lawmaker stood with several inmates on the Lower Yard of San Quentin on Feb. 15, reflecting about a meeting he had with the executives of a private prison.
“They told me that they calculated the number of beds they needed to build by tracking third grade reading levels,” the lawmaker said. The assessment troubled him. He asked the executives if they could use a different calculation, one aimed at increasing college-bound kids.
“The executives never got back to me on that,” said Reginald Bryon Jones-Sawyer (District-59 Los Angeles).
About a month prior to his visit, Jones-Sawyer sent his senior assistant, Shelli Jackson, to San Quentin to attend The True Impact of Criminal Justice Reform in California symposium.
Jackson later said that she had no idea what she was getting into. “All the insight the guys had — for them to self-reflect and be accountable, was incredible,” Jackson said. “It was more than I’ve had ever seen. If people on the outside did this kind of work, the world would be a much better place.”
Jackson, who has a back- ground in journalism, coordinated a collaborative effort between the State Democratic Party podcast and San Quentin’s podcast, Ear Hustle, to broadcast a discussion centered on childhood trauma, as well as on ways to keep younger people in school and out of the criminal justice system.
Jones-Sawyer interviewed Antwan “Banks” Williams, Rahsaan Thomas, Hieu T. Nguyen and Robert Polzin.
Nguyen told Jones-Sawyer what it was like to live in a family seeped in violence and having trouble identifying his feelings. Next, he talked about joining a gang at 16 years old. Gang life, he said, led him to making bad decision after bad decision, until he landed himself in prison.
“If I learned how to process feelings, I wouldn’t have acted out in violence,” Nguyen said. “I wish I could have had the classes that I’ve taken in San Quentin when I was young.”
http://sanquentinnews.com/kern-valley-youth-e-d-g-e-program/While incarcerated, Nguyen has had the opportunity to take several self-help groups that emphasize introspection. He enjoys writing to at- risk youth for the publication called, The Beat Within.
“Society needs this kind of program,” Nguyen said. “I believe if I would have had a class like The Beat Within, I would not be here. It should be mandatory.”
Polzin said that his father was an alcoholic, who left him when he was eight years old. An absent father made him an angry kid, he said. He lived a middle-class life full of domes- tic violence.
Polzin said programs like Non-Violent Communications and Guiding Rage Into Power taught him how to express himself, adding that they should be taught in school, so that youngsters learn how to express hurt, pain and anger.
“It’s sad that it took me so long to be able to express myself,” Polzin said. “There are so many things that transpire before a violent act happens.”
Philippe Kelly closed the podcast with a spoken-word piece that emphasized the need to address and heal childhood trauma.
Legislator Jones-Sawyers oversees a budget of $37.3 million to establish the Youth Reinvestment Fund. The fund aims to improve the outcomes of youngsters by using trauma-informed community and health-based interventions in lieu of arrest, detention and incarceration. More than $1 million of the Youth Reinvestment Fund goes to Native American Tribes for youth diversion programs.
“I am one of 120 people who make laws for 40 million people, so I have to do a lot of listening,” Jones-Sawyer said.
Members of the Jones-Sawyer family were early pioneers in the civil rights movement. His uncle, Jefferson Thomas, was one of the “Little Rock Nine” high school students who, in 1957, faced staunch opposition to the US Supreme Court order (Brown v. Board of Education) that directed an all- White high school to integrate.
“What he fights for in criminal justice reform, the work that he’s doing, I get into it — it helps better people’s lives. That’s why I work for him,” Jackson said.