By John Lam
Youth Offender Program (YOP) inmates between the ages of 18 and 23 are embracing a program specially created for them at San Quentin.
“We started a support group specifically for YOPs originally with three guys, and in three months the attendance exploded. The YOPs have been recruiting and are spreading the word and coming up with ideas about creating a curriculum,” said Charlie Spence, Kid CAT chairman.
“What’s unique about this program is that prison officials aren’t building it. The youth offenders are the ones taking the initiative to expand the program, and it is something they want, which is perfect because no one knows what these young men want besides themselves,” said Spence.
“The program is very important,” said 20-year-old inmate Summit Lal. “Most of the programs here in San Quentin are geared toward prisoners who are serving life sentences, which is a problem, because I’m not a lifer.
“I started attending the support group in May. At first I felt that I had nothing to offer, but since coming here, I learned how to put my potential to work and not let life pass me by.”
One of the distinguishing characteristics of the YOP support group is that the participants drive it. The participants determine the direction of the group, topics to cover, and who can be their mentors.
Selected peer mentors were once young men when they started their adult sentences. YOP mentors share a wealth of prison experiences to help guide the next generation of young offenders toward a path of rehabilitation.
“As a mentor, I often share my experience of spending six years in the SHU (Security Housing Unit) for gang validation to show them what can happen when they are engaged in a certain lifestyle,” said George Torrez, 34, YOP mentor.
“I encourage these young men to think about the consequences of their decisions and not resort to violence to deal with issues and to get their GEDs.”
Meeting twice a month on Sundays, the YOP support group discusses a range of topics such as reentry, developing coping skills, and one-on-one mentoring.
“The most important thing for me are the outside resources, because once we walk out of these walls that’s the real challenge,” said Mauricio Salazar, 22, YOP participant.
Commenting on the group, Juan Juarez, Kid CAT volunteer, said, “Since my time here, I have seen people change their lives.
“I take what I learn here back into my community to end gang violence and help kids in my neighborhood avoid the route of prison,” said Juarez. “I also use things I learn here to teach teachers and administrators in northern Sacramento how to deal with students with behavior problems, and it has been successful.”
The YOP support group is staffed with 12 peer mentors and four YOP facilitators with an average attendance of 25 YOPs.