The triumphs of recovering substance abusers were on full display in San Quentin’s (SQ) gymnasium during the recent Incentive Day, a day of celebration.
A couple of years ago, San Quentin’s gym was converted into a place for prisoners to learn life skills and get drug treatment. On Sept. 1, the gym was converted into a carnival to offer participants something different from the classroom setting of the life skills and drug treatment programs.
At first glance, it was noticeable that the event’s atmosphere was joyful and filled with togetherness.
Incarcerated people and staff members connected with one another through conversation, music, carnival games, and popcorn, cotton candy, and pizza — it was a beautiful scene.
For this brief moment in time, to paraphrase a keynote speaker (Dr. Kaia Stern) at a recent SQ graduation, it erased a fictional “human contact” barrier that somehow seems all too real in prison.
Life skills counselor Stacy Kemp and two incarcerated mentors, Everett McCoy and Todd Winkler, organized the carnival with the approval of Correctional Counselor III Cedrick Collins, head of the Integrated Substance Use Disorder Treatment (ISUDT) program that is housed in the gym.
“The purpose is to show the men we appreciate them for making the effort to change their lives. So, hopefully, they feel that and it continues to motivate them to work on themselves for the better,” Kemp said.
Near an office door in the gym, in quiet conversation, stood Paris Mays and Shayla Scott. It was their first day on the job with ISUDT, they said.
Mays said her motivation for being a counselor to incarcerated people is that “incarcerated people are humans and deserve to be treated like everyone else.” Scott added, “I feel like everybody deserves a second chance, that anyone can do better. So if I can help them do that, then I will.”
Sitting alone in a chair near the P.A. system, enjoying the music, was participant Sunny Maldonado. A man with a quiet demeanor, humble eyes, and tattoos on his face, Maldonado is in a group that addresses alcohol and drug abuse as well as family relations.
“We work on our tools like ‘stop, think, and listen,’” Maldonado said. “We also work on ways to change our lifestyles.”
Although this is Maldona-do’s third time through the course, he advises people to “give the program some patience [and] it will work.”
A tall Black man wearing glasses and prison blues nib-bled on a snow cone. Jeffery “3-Jay” Jernigan Jr. is an incarcerated mentor for the participants.
He is one of the many ISUDT counselors comprised of prison officials, formerly incarcerated and incarcerated persons who offer San Quentin prisoners Medically Assisted Treatment for substance use as well as life skills training.
Jernigan is currently mentoring sessions aimed at anger management and victim’s impact.
“We talk about the ripple effects of crime and our actions on victims, family, friends, the community, and ourselves,” Jernigan said.
He said he enjoys the work. “It also makes me smile a little more. Plus, seeing others learning to do better also inspires me to do the same.”
During the open mic session, one participant told the crowd that he was a 30-year heroin addict before getting into the program. He credited the program for saving his life.
Formerly incarcerated per-son Tith Ton is a Cognitive Behavior Therapy counselor.
He served nearly 25years of incarceration and completed substance-use-disorder treatment training while imprisoned. He paroled in 2019.
“I started doing residential and outpatient work in early 2021,” Ton said. “My boss asked me to come into The Q to work with the guys. Understanding that it is good to give back, I did not hesitate.”
Ton said he has been in addiction recovery for 12 years. His goal, he says, is to teach the incarcerated life skills and help them understand what got them in prison. “In my class, I try to tell them the truth because no one did it for me when I was struggling. I try to help them recognize and understand the insight into their crimes.”
There were several carnival-like games geared to reinforce positive change based on the course curriculum. The games also aimed to provide participants with what it means to work as a team and develop cooperation skills.
Ben Davis, a 50-year-old-man and SQ resident, attending the carnival just two days after being denied parole, called the event “a blessing.”
“It is nice that all races and ages are getting along and playing these games together — clean and sober,” said Davis. “This gives me motivation to keep doing what I’m doing and to get rewarded for the efforts that we get for doing the classes.”
“It’s nice to be around everyone without tension,” said James Hatfield, 49. Referring to the carnival, he added, “This is awesome. I haven’t had cotton candy since I was 12.”
“I’m celebrating sobriety and getting appreciated for doing something right. That makes it a lot easier,” he added.
Hatfield, incarcerated 26 years, said he also appreciates the camaraderie between fellow incarcerated participants.
Brett Westphal, 35, added, “I’m just having fun with like-minded people doing the right thing.”
For the competition portion of the event, Hatfield, Davis and Westphal teamed up and called themselves Moose Tracks. They won Darts Derby — a dart-playing game where they tripled the highest score — and Crazy Corn Hole. They also came in second place in two other games. Other winners were Bunkers Basket and Zebra Cakes.
Before serving the pizza, Alison Pachynski, Chief Medical Executive at SQ, took the mic to address the crowd. “This is fantastic. Every time I come in this space, it serves a purpose. Every time I sit down and listen to the discussions, there is real effort being put forth — popcorn and pizza is icing on the cake. Let’s eat!”
At the end of this illustrious event, ISUDT program director Christopher Price, 49, who has worked in the social service field for 17 years and holds a master’s degree in criminal justice, spoke elegantly about the importance of recovery:
“The best place to reach persons who suffer from criminality, substance abuse and mental health is while they are incarcerated,” Price said. “While incarcerated, it makes the best opportunity to change a person’s life.”
Price said he aims to “establish a health foundation” for the incarcerated population by ridding the prison of “anything that is dysfunctional” and meeting the needs of participants. His ultimate goal? “To save as many lives as possible.”
By Juan Haines
and Dante D. Jones