Their methods may be slightly different, but two youth focused-groups at San Quentin are committed to improving the lives of young men heading in the wrong direction.
S.Q.U.I.R.E.S. and R.E.A.L. Choices both receive groups of young men into the prison who have either gotten into trouble or are close to it. They provide a look into prison life and conduct workshops to deal with the challenges the youth face.
A vanguard of programs, S.Q.U.I.R.E.S., was started in 1964 by Ross ‘Patch’ Keller, a Death Row prisoner. Seeing his son beginning to follow his tragic example, Patch acted on a vision embodied in the S.Q.U.I.R.E.S. name – San Quentin’s Utilization of Inmate Resources, Experiences, and Studies. He wanted to use inmates’ knowledge and experiences to encourage “the youth of today from becoming the convict of tomorrow.”
Of more recent origins, R.E.A.L. (Reaching Expanding Adolescent Lives) Choices uses effective communication and life experiences as their main tools. Through dialogue they establish rapport, empathy and understanding to get through to the youth. Both point out that they are not “scared straight” programs.
According to S.Q.U.I.R.E.S. President James Houston, its motto is: “We don’t scare straight; we communicate.”
That’s a sentiment also shared by R.E.A.L. Choices, says member Jonathon Wilson. “We attempt to change behavior of youth through cognitive change,” not by scaring or strictly giving advice.
According to Houston, S.Q.U.I.R.E.S. achieves its goals through open and free dialogue. They establish an agreement to adhere to the principles of “honesty, respect and confidentiality,” then talk about everything from family problems, drugs, gangs and sexual relationships. “Sometimes kids just need to be talked with – to know that they are being heard.” S.Q.U.I.R.E.S. member Shahid Rouse says this “helps them connect with themselves.”
R.E.A.L. Choices has begun using scripts to guide its dialogue. With each script focusing on different factors such as attitude, behavior and values, R.E.A.L. Choices members are able to focus on specific challenges that youth face and help them to develop new thought processes. As member Wilson stated, “If you don’t think any different, you don’t behave any different.”
Both groups also work to achieve such cognitive change with parents who sometimes accompany their sons into the prison. This can be one of the biggest challenges. “Sometimes parents need parenting too,” stated Rouse. He and other group members work to get parents, often not open communicators themselves, to talk freely with their kids and understand their needs. Once exchange of emotions, fears and needs take place, parents are usually surprised and happy about immediate improvements they see in their relationship. “Parents have to trust the process,” says Robert Frye, a member of both S.Q.U.I.R.E.S. and R.E.A.L. Choices.
A success rate of 70 percent has been attributed to such groups, “We can see growth in individuals,” says Houston. “We know they leave here with a better understanding of themselves.”