San Quentin’s acting warden, Ron Broomfield, recently accepted an invitation to sit in and speak directly with the incarcerated participants of Power Source, a San Quentin self-help program designed for young adults.
But more than talk, Broomfield and Chief Deputy Warden Trent Allen also came to listen to the voices of the young individuals sent to SQ as part of its Youth Offender Program (YOP).
“You learn stuff in prison. Everybody learns stuff,” said Broomfield. “But what do you do with it? What path are you going to choose?”
These are questions he had to ask himself over the years while working for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).
Broomfield paralleled his own journey with the situations youth offenders face when they hit their first prison yard—particularly when deciding whether or not to follow what everybody else seems to be doing.
“Treat everyone as an individual and be your own man,” he said. “You can clique up with positive groups or negative groups. It’s absolutely critical to start thinking as individuals.
“I love the YOP program because it allows youths a chance to associate with strong individuals—positive individuals.”
One of the first things Broomfield did when he entered the Power Source meeting on Feb. 29 was ask who had been at San Quentin the least amount of time.
Mekhi Williams raised his hand. “It’ll be a year in April,” he said.
Broomfield later called on Williams to speak about his YOP experiences in the system. “What’s it done for you? What do you think?” he asked the 21-year-old.
“The only benefit I’ve seen is that I’m at a lower level prison—that’s it so far,” answered Williams. “I’m on wait lists for all the programs, but I’m not in any yet.”
A prisoner’s security level is based on a point system determined by CDCR. The more points, the higher their security level. CDCR designates its prisons from Levels I through IV.
Level IV prisons usually offer very few positive programs, yet most youth offenders enter the system with Level IV points. Being classified as YOP lets them be housed at Level II facilities like SQ.
“It’s easy to get in trouble if there’s nothing here for you to do,” Williams told Broomfield. “There ought to be a mandatory YOP group right when we get off the bus. “That way we’d have somewhere to go.”
Because SQ’s current reputation as a progressive programming facility revolves around a wide range of innovative self-help curriculums, non-YOP prisoners throughout CDCR make an effort to get here and work on their rehabilitation.
Demand to get into programs is high, and wait lists are long. It’s a problem Broomfield and Allen are all too familiar with.
Much of the interaction between Broomfield, Allen and the Power Source participants focused on the issue of getting YOPs (as they’re commonly referred to) more immediate access to programs they need now.
But Broomfield appeared to draw the line at the mention of offering YOPs preferential treatment.
“I like to treat everyone the same, give everyone the same opportunities,” said the acting warden.
Ayoola Mitchell, the volunteer facilitator who helped bring Power Source to SQ, continues to advocate for more programming aimed specifically at youth.
“It’d be really great for programs like VOEG [Victim Offender Education Group] or GRIP [Guiding Rage Into Power] to have a YOP component,” she suggested. “YOPs’ needs are different. The way I facilitate with them is different. We’ve got to meet them where they are.”
Broomfield and Allen were bombarded by positive ideas about peer-to-peer mentorship programs, a formal YOP orientation and, basically, finding more spaces to run more programs.
“We bug everybody we can about workable space,” said Allen. “If we can find a way to make it work, we’ll make it happen. This homegrown stuff is the best for us because it comes from the people here doing it.”
Bloomfield described how at one point in his career he was ready to retire. He’d had enough of walking in and out of prisons day in and day out.
“It was exhausting,” he said. But then he took a job assignment at SQ two years ago.
“San Quentin restored my hope that people can change. It put the wind back in my sails,” said Bloomfield. “It blew my mind that a prison could be so hopeful and full of opportunities.
“You know, the system’s changing. Our officers are getting better education. Before, it was all about disturbance control. Now, we’re learning de-escalation techniques; how to talk to people.
“Things are definitely changing under Ralph Diaz’s leadership, but you guys may not fully see it for a couple more years. The old ways are dying off slow.”
Bloomfield also talked a little bit about CDCR’s ongoing plans for YOPs.
“The state, as a whole, is reimagining its YOP program,” he said. “As we speak, Valley State Prison is becoming the YOP model facility. It’s a good prison, mellow.”
Brian Holliday, a Power Source participant, told Bloomfield what it meant for the acting warden to come sit in on the group session that day.
“Usually, the way we see wardens, like in a prison movie, it’s not good,” explained Holliday. “I’ve never seen no warden come down like this. For you to come and intermingle with us, it really gives us a chance to see who you are.”
“You’ll see a whole lot more of me,” Bloomfield assured the incarcerated individuals. “Being able to facilitate opportunity; that’s the part of my job I really enjoy.
“And it’s not just me. My staff, too. We want to know you, understand you and get you where you need to be. The ‘R’ in CDCR is there for a reason.”
Allen voiced his agreement. “Listening to the boss, he makes me want to stay here.” Looking around the room, he said to everyone, “This passion—it excites both of us.”
“I want to see what’s best for everyone here. The goal is to get everybody out of here and back on the streets as better men.”
Part of the agreement YOPs make to come to a lower level prison includes losing that privilege when they get a disciplinary write-up. They’re often seen as taking this for granted, as young troublemakers.
One YOP spoke up about the way he perceives some officers’ treatment of the younger prisoners.
“A lot of the time, it’s like we have a target on our back—especially from staff,” he said. “We’re picked on and messed with because it’s easier to get us out of here. “That’s not right. It doesn’t give us a fair chance.”
“I’ll give you a fair chance. I can’t speak for another man,” Bloomfield told him. “If you experience someone with a bad personality, take it upon yourself to impose the 15-foot rule.
“There’s good cops, cops that care. Just like guys at this prison, men in blue. Believe me, there’s plenty of them. I don’t paint anybody with a wide brush.
“And I ask that of you, also. Don’t paint all of us with a wide brush.”
Williams later shared how he felt when Bloomfield asked him about the YOP experience.
“He just seemed like a regular person. He didn’t seem stuck up or nothin’ like that,” said Williams. “He gave honest answers about what he was capable of—you know, a genuine person.
“Wardens, we usually look at them as a–holes—you know, cruel. He didn’t seem like that.”