VACAVILLE, Calif. — It begins inthe O wing on the second floor of theCalifornia Medical Facility (CMF). It’s 3p.m. on a Friday and a group of inmateshave formed a circle inside a small room,sitting in front of two other inmates anda white board.
The room falls into a soft silence as oneinmate begins to read from Don MiguelRuiz’s book “The Four Agreements.”“One, be impeccable with your word.Two, do not take anything personally.Three, do not make assumptions. Four,always do your best,” the inmate readsaloud.
These four agreements havebecome a powerful component of theCalifornia Department of Correction andRehabilitation’s (CDCR) Self-Awarenessand Recovery (SAR) workshop — aweekly program based on a structuredmodel of transformation, where inmatesare given the tools and support to begintheir path to self-reflection and recovery.
The program, one of CDCR’s manyrehabilitative program services, wasestablished by inmates in 2005 and waslater expanded to numerous correctionalfacilities within the department.
SAR Director and Co-Founder DanielSilva developed the program curriculum.He served 39 years inside CMF and waseventually released on parole in 2015.
Silva, who comes from a backgroundof abuse, discovered during his ownrecovery the connection between pasttrauma and the destructive behaviorpatterns that lead to incarceration,ranging from drug and alcohol addiction,to poor anger management, to ganginvolvement.
Silva and co founder Henry Ortiz,brought their vision to life to address theemotional need for healing within thecorrectional population, examining manyinmates’ stories familiar of their own.
This is how Silva and Ortiz wereable to create an instructive step-by-stepchart for the SAR model, opening withthe individual’s admittance of an existingproblem and their willingness to begin ajourney of self-exploration. “To begin the healing process, youhave to start at the root of the problem,and that root is usually some sort oftraumatic experience,” Silva said.
The SAR model concentrates onchanging the perception of one’s ownreality by processing experiences undercompassion and understanding ratherthan anger and resentment, working onthe idea that by becoming more awareof your emotions and your reactions youcan create better outcomes.
The chart begins by recognizing those negative experiences, to understanding the false beliefs which stem from them.For example, the negative experience,whether it be an absent parent or anabusive or dysfunctional upbringing, cancultivate a mindset that says, “If you don’tcare, then neither do I.”
The chart continues, showing howthese false beliefs manifest in one’sown ego or “social mask”, which Silvacalls a defense mechanism, ultimatelycreating a cycle of self-destruction andvictimization.
Once the inmate is able to identifythe root of his problem, he moves ontofinding the next steps to evolve. Thesesteps include finding empathy andcompassion through the power of healingand forgiveness, adopting spiritual valuesand developing authenticity of character.
Community Resources Manager Dan Maldonado, who oversees and evaluatesthe program, explained that the overallgoal of this program is to have an inmatetoday, a neighbor tomorrow.
“We want to ensure that while theyare in here they aren’t idle,” Maldonadosaid. “We make sure that they’restaying productive, that they’re learning something and figuring out how to betterserve the community once they’re out.People are getting deep in here, deeperthan some people ever get on the outside.”
The program also allows inmateswho have worked the program and arefurther into their recovery to becomefacilitators, creating a support system forall participants.
Natasha Lanter-Wiggins, SARfacilitator, stated how much theprogram has improved the inmates’communication and coping skills,expressing her admiration of their workin progress.
“When I first started observingthe groups, I was totally taken aback,because I got to witness these men whohave really intense stories — and they’rewalking in, so humbled; they’re notafraid,” Lanter said. “You have facilitatorswho are so supportive of the participantsand they help [the inmates] open up toget to the core of their problem.”
Lanter continued, explaining “You don’t think of a prison as a place youcan be open and vulnerable, but here,we’ve created a safe space for [inmates],where they can be themselves and workthrough their issues.”
In November 2016, Californiapassed Proposition 57 which includedthe emphasizing and safeguarding ofrehabilitation program services withinthe correctional system. Under thisproposition, CDCR incentivizes inmatesto take responsibility for their ownrehabilitation.According to CDCR, funding for these services is maintained by innovative programming grants. These grants began in the 2013-14 fiscal year and provided $5.5 million to form 74 different programs at 20 adult institutions in an effort to expand community-based services and support to institutions and facilities. The 2016-17 budget contained $3 million for additional grants, including $5.5 million specifically to provide programs for long-term inmates. CDCR released its most recent annual recidivism report in 2016, showing the total three-year return-to-prison rate for all offenders released during fiscal year 2010-2011 is 44.6 percent, down from 54.3 percent last year.
Furthermore, CDCR has been able toexamine the recidivism rates of offenderswho received in-house substanceabuse treatment and community-basedsubstance abuse treatment programs. Thereports show that offenders who receivedboth in-house substance abuse treatmentand completed post-release treatment hada 15.3 percent return-to-prison rate, thelowest of all inmates released in fiscal year2010-2011. The rate at which offendersreturn to state prison continues to fall.Silva said that so far only one out of the25 men released after being involvedin the program has re-offended. Heexpressed that ultimately it is his goal touse this model as a preemptive tool andto help put a stop to the revolving door.Currently, Silva is organizing thetraining of multiple facilitators to teachthe SAR model to youth offendersas well as extending the programto women’s correctional facilities.“We are not done, we’re going to keepexpanding,” Silva confirmed. “We are ona mission.”
On weekends and during school holidays, many Sacramento teens cannot find safe,affordable places that offer positive activities and involve supportive adults in their ownneighborhoods. They resort to hanging out at friends’ houses playing video games all dayor at the mall, where over the recent holiday season, there were reports of hundreds ofteens engaging in unsafe behaviors.
In response, the Sierra Health Foundation contributed $30,000 to non-profit groups to offer“Youth Pop Ups” around the city throughout the weekend of January 4-6. Activities offeredincluded roller skating, basketball, a mobile barber shop/beautician, silent dance parties,family game rooms, art, movies, ping pong, and a talent show. Over 1,000 youthparticipated in the activities.
Using this momentum and building on the rich history of social supports such as urban“midnight basketball” and the City’s current neighborhood-based “Hot Spots,” the City ofSacramento stepped in to continue the free weekend community-based Pop Ups inneighborhoods across the city. The sites are distributed geographically and, to the extentpossible, close to public transit to ensure that as many youth as possible, especially those inthe most underserved communities, have access to positive activities. At least 10 eventsoccur across the city every weekend.
The Youth and Community Pop Ups are managed by The Center at Sierra Health Foundation and hosted by community-based non-profit organizations with trusted community relationships, focused on high-quality standards around youth development principles. Although the primary focus is on fun and community-building, participants are also helping to create future programming, engaging in soft skills training, and, in some locations, have the opportunity to gain volunteer or internship experience. With the inclusion of funding for Pop Ups in the 2019 city budget, expansion of youth workforce training and development is in process. Since the launch of the initiative in February, 136 events were offered through the end of May. Between February and March, 5,733 individuals participated in Pop Up events.
Self Awareness and Recovery (SAR) is one of the 21 community-based organizations thatoperates the weekend Youth and Community Pop Upevents. SAR aims to reduce recidivismrates and incarceration in the Sacramento region by creating space for youth and adultsimpacted by trauma and people re-entering society from incarceration to begin to heal andfind transformation in their lives.
On May 31, SAR hosted a Pop Up event at Burbank High School, one of the sites where theyoffer services. About 80 youth showed up and enjoyed an evening full of fun. Sixty percent(60%) of the participants are part of a core group of youth who have consistently attendedSAR’s Pop Up events.
The evening started with a short presentation explaining what Pop Ups are all about andencouraging participants to have a safe summer. Throughout the event, youth participatedin a karaoke contest, enjoyed a professional DJ’s music, and won various gift certificatesthrough a raffle. Participants wrapped up the event with pizza.
Isaiah G., who recently graduated from high school, has attended several of SAR’s Pop Upevents. He thinks the events have been “fun and pretty cool.” He has especially appreciatedthe DJs because he wants to be a DJ himself eventually. Isaiah knows that “there’s plenty ofnonsense on the streets” so he appreciates the opportunities provided through the Pop Upswhich keep him engaged and prevent him from having to stay home.
Daniel Silva, SAR’s director, shares that young people call him constantly asking when thenext Pop Up event will be or reminding him to call them with an invitation to the nextevent. Silva believes that these events build a strong sense of community through thesimple acts of eating, dancing, and enjoying the night’s activities together. He brings inolder youth who grew up in the same neighborhoods or environments as Pop Upparticipants and who have graduated from college to share their own stories providinginspiration and hope to the youth. Finally, Silva believes that the Pop Ups have contributedto a reduction in violence in the community. “Showing kids that we love them and careabout them through these Pop Up events will help lead them on a path towards peace,” hesaid. Silva wants to see the Pop Up initiative continue long into the future. “Pop Ups are aplace where youth can learn to be better humans. Love and hope are powerful things.”