On Friday, July 14, The People in Blue and correctional officers came together for a collaborative conversation about how to move forward as a community within the vision for the reimagined San Quentin Rehabilitation Center.
The meeting was conceptualized by Public Information Officer Lt. G. Berry and The People in Blue. The incarcerated group, also known as TPIB, is a diverse collective of incarcerated stakeholders with a vested interest in safe communities and ensuring the success of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s “California Model” of prison reform by contributing their lived-experience as a living amends.
Our expectation is that this meeting will be the first of many conversations with officers moving forward in an effort to change the culture at San Quentin to one centered on health and wellness for everyone.
At the meeting were 12 members of TPIB, including myself; 10 correctional officers, including a California Correctional Peace Officer Association (commonly known as the CCPOA) union representative; institutional training officers; the public information officer; and IDEO consultancy team members Lillian Tran and Bianca Jimenez-Rivera. The diverse group sat together in a circle and was led in discussion by the incarcerated residents.
The event opened up with a grounding exercise led by TPIB member Anthony Tafoya designed to help calm the nervous energy of those in the room. As expected, many on both sides were anxious and wondered what was going to unfold.
At the meeting, the members of TPIB made it clear that the people on the ground, living and working in the prison, are the only ones who can actually make the vision of the SQRC and the California Model work.
Most officers at the meeting said they didn’t really know what the California Model is and are not sold that the idea can work. Some said they don’t believe they have a voice in the matter, and they believe that government bureaucracy is going to continue business as usual — using a top-down approach to criminal justice reform.
I opened the meeting by acknowledging that our broken prison system does not just hurt the incarcerated population. It hurts everyone.
Officers deal with a lot of post-traumatic stress and depression that is job related and can lead to divorce, addiction and even suicide. At least 10% of California’s correctional staff contemplate or actually commit suicide due to job related stress. One officer at the meeting spoke about five separate incidents in which he knew someone from work who took their own life.
At the same time, we all acknowledge that incarcerated people also deal with many psychological disorders related to the stress of living in prison. This has also caused a high suicide rate among the incarcerated population.
Later in the discussion, I made officers aware of the idea that what makes this criminal justice reform movement slightly different is that we are being asked to create the California Model at San Quentin by sharing our thoughts and ideas with the IDEO consultancy team and Gov. Newsom’s advisory council.
Most people at the meeting agreed that a building alone won’t change San Quentin and transform it into an innovative rehabilitation center.
Talking points for the meeting included: 1) how to create a therapeutic community; 2) how to change the rules concerning “overfamiliarity” so that the relationship between people in blue and people in green isn’t so uncertain or adversarial; 3) how to incentivize officer participation in self-help groups; 4) training at the academy before becoming an officer or coming to SQRC; 5) changing uniforms and changing the dehumanizing language of how we refer to each other; and, 6) getting the CCPOA’s buy-in for the California Model.
Surprisingly, or perhaps not surprisingly, some of the officers shared some of the same concerns as the TPIB. Overcrowding is a problem, one officer said. We need to keep the lifer population because they are the foundation that makes the programs work, another officer offered. There needs to be a screening process for those committed to rehabilitation to participate in the model and everyone else should be excluded, remarked another. There needs to be a specific program for people with mental health disorders and addictions, due to their higher needs, said one.
Officers even showed interest in being a part of some of the self-help groups and programs that exist at San Quentin — if more paid incentives could be added. The idea is that through staff sponsorship and participation, we can eliminate long waiting lists for programs and create more rehabilitation programs at the SQRC.
Some officers expressed concern about potentially losing their equipment and their peace officer status. The CCPOA representative said that is not on the table for discussion. TPIB did not take any position concerning prison security. However, we do believe less threatening attire is important to shifting the culture inside California prisons so that it is healthier for everyone. This is inline with the California Model’s pillar of “dynamic security,” which emphasizes incentives and pro-social relationships over force and control.
What TPIB determined from this first meeting is that officers are not receiving much in the way of communication about their role in creating the SQRC and the California Model to date. Some are frightened of losing their peace officer status and equipment as part of this transformation. Some don’t believe a building will resolve any of the problems that exist here, and some even say San Quentin already had successful programs that were working but were taken away.
The officers generally entered the room with a very pessimistic and hopeless attitude, but after a conversation with The People in Blue, many closed out the meeting by describing themselves as now “hopeful” that things can finally change for the better.