Graduating inmates at this California prison are no longer prisoners but professionals


Prison inmate Kristopher Kirschner reaches out to his mother Eileen Peterson as new graduates walk in for the graduation ceremony at California State Prison on Feb 28, in Lancaster, California. Photos: TNS

Before the graduates strode in to the strains of Pomp And Circumstance, their prison blues peeking out from under their gowns, correctional officer John Janvrin encouraged them not to rush.

“Remember guys, you worked real hard for this. Real hard,” Janvrin reminded the incarcerated men as they lined up in a back room, reread their notes, fixed their bow ties and adjusted the gold tassels bobbing from their mortarboards.

The music began to play.

“Don’t walk too fast,” Janvrin told them as they began their procession. “Let ‘em see you.”

For more than a year and a half, these 20 men had been working for this: Their graduation from training as alcohol and drug counsellors. It was an accomplishment that could help them secure jobs both inside and outside the California prisons. It had also become a brotherhood they dubbed the Storming Cohort: Scarred Team of Recovering Men Inspiring New Generations.

Beyond the razor-wire and high fences of the state prison in Lancaster, in a visiting room strung with gold and black balloons and celebratory signs declaring, “On to the Next Chapter”, the men walked in a procession before loved ones and state correctional officials to be recognised. Some said it was the first graduation they ever had.

Graduating inmates led by Michael Coats, 57, entering the hall for the Offender Mentor Certification Program graduation ceremony at California State Prison on Feb 28, in Lancaster, California. Graduating inmates led by Michael Coats, 57, entering the hall for the Offender Mentor Certification Program graduation ceremony at California State Prison on Feb 28, in Lancaster, California.

Stepping up to the lectern, graduate Ivan Stine said that “this programme was the most difficult and rewarding experience of my life.”

“Myself, along with these other gentlemen in these fine caps and gowns, have embarked upon a one-and-a-half year journey of self-discovery, self-disclosure, self-examination, self-honesty and self-healing, in an effort to achieve the dual goal of becoming certified addiction treatment counsellors, and overall better human beings,” Stine told the seated crowd.

“Each and every member of this cohort courageously opened up their heart and exposed raw their deepest secrets, hurts, fears and shame.”

They had gotten lessons in neurobiology and pharmacology, ethics and the law, family dynamics and relapse prevention. They had spent hundreds of hours being educated on addiction and counselling, preparing for a required exam.

They would soon start putting in thousands of hours as interns – the final step that would ultimately lead to them gaining state-recognised certification as alcohol and drug counsellors.

Even getting into the programme was an accomplishment, as it’s reserved for people who have gone years without serious violations of prison rules, penned a 500-word essay on maintaining their recovery and helping others, obtained at least two references from prison staff and gone through an interview process.

The intense, selective programme is as demanding as a full-time job, prison officials said, and a training programme that usually lasts a year had been interrupted repeatedly as the Lancaster facility grappled with the coronavirus.

Then there was the “storming” that this group had undergone together – the term for a tumultuous stage in team development that inspired their cohort name and ultimately forged them into a supportive fraternity. But the name had also come to stand, metaphorically, for the storms they wanted to pull themselves and others through.

“Today, we are no longer prisoners,” Stine declared. “We are professionals.”

His shoulders were draped with a graduation stole of canary yellow, emblazoned on one side with the words “Offender Mentor Certification Program.” On the other: “OMCP.” It is a state programme that has existed for more than a decade, beginning with an inaugural class at the state prison in Solano County now chronicled in a documentary film.

But this was the first class to graduate from the Los Angeles County facility – and the first men to graduate from the programme at a “Level 4” site, state officials said. Level 4 means “we’re in a high-security institution for those that are considered to be the most violent and dangerous men in prison,” Diana Weston explained to the crowd that Tuesday.

New labels

Weston is director of criminal justice contracts for Options Recovery Services, which helped develop the programme and now operates its seven sites across the state. She went on to talk about the labels that could weigh the men down: Criminal. Addict. Failure.

Now, she said, these graduates had taken a chance and earned the right to be labelled something different: “Substance use disorder counsellor” or “professional healer”. It was a new label they needed to carry forward, she said, because “there’s so many hurting individuals carrying those negative labels that need your help.”

“If this is really, truly about rehabilitation, we should be doing it for everybody,” Weston said in a later interview. “And that’s what’s happening.”

Andrew Sanchez, 29, left, helps fellow graduate Raymond Maldonado, 43, get ready in black cap, bow and gown for the OMCP graduation ceremony.Andrew Sanchez, 29, left, helps fellow graduate Raymond Maldonado, 43, get ready in black cap, bow and gown for the OMCP graduation ceremony.

The men had borne a number from the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. They got a new one during this process – their registration number for certification as an alcohol and drug counsellor, said Alvin Barksdale, director of the OMCP programme in Lancaster.

Richard Teer, who said he had been incarcerated since 2015, could already recite that number from memory. It was the first thing he had ever completed, he said, holding the crisp piece of paper that had been handed to him during the ceremony, along with a certificate of recognition from US Rep Mike Garcia, R-Santa Clarita.

“I never thought I could be anything other than what I’ve been all my life,” Teer said. Now, he said, he had gotten his GED and started picking up college credits in psychology, communications and social science. His goal, once released, is to return to work again in the prison system. “And this shows that there’s an opportunity for us. That we’re needed and wanted.

“It’s funny that even though I’m in prison,” he said, “this is the happiest I’ve ever felt in my life.”

Drug overdoses claim thousands of lives annually in California, and the threat has not skipped over its prisons, where nearly 300 people have died of overdoses between 2012 and 2020, according to statewide reports. Prison officials have worked to bring down deaths through an initiative that offers substance use treatment, including medications to help people shake off addiction.

“There are so many people that are incarcerated in California that need help. We can’t get to everybody. And then you step in,” Brant Choate, director of the state division of rehabilitative programmes, told the men in their mortarboards. “And you’re part of our answer.... That’s how special you are.”

The California programme is set aside for people with more than five years left to serve on their prison sentences, and after finishing their training, many head on to other prisons to serve as paid mentors to people undergoing addiction treatment. Some were preparing themselves for the parole board or already eyeing a release date; a few members of the Storming Cohort had already been paroled and were working as interns to finish the hours needed for their certification as alcohol and drug counsellors.

Richard Teer (right) and others practising their speech before the graduation ceremony.Richard Teer (right) and others practising their speech before the graduation ceremony.

More than a dozen people across the state have graduated from the programme, been released and gone on to work as contracted staff at California prisons; others who have been paroled work at community programmes providing addiction treatment.

Among them is Jamal Johnson, now an internship supervisor with Options Recovery Services, who had worked at outpatient and residential recovery programmes after being released from prison a decade ago, one of the “First 50” graduates of the state programme. He now works with the programme at the Lancaster prison.

“Without the programme, I don’t know where I would be,” Johnson said. He had been arrested as a teenager, he said, having never had a job before.

“I grew up as an alcoholic, a drug dealer and a gang member” – experiences that now help him build a “therapeutic alliance” with his clients, he said.

“They know that I empathise with their position that they’re in,” Johnson said. “Because I’ve been there.”

Life-changing programme

Al Sasser, another one of the “First 50” graduates, credited the “parallel process” of working on the self and helping others.

“We have this saying, ‘The more I work on me, the better everybody else gets,’” said Sasser, who is now working with a San Luis Obispo-area prison. What sets the OMCP apart as a programme in the prisons, he said, is that it “enables you to see past the gates”.

Yet the programme has also been life-changing for graduates who are unsure if they will ever use their skills on the outside.

“I used to hear people say they wake up in prison – and they’re not in prison. And I didn’t get it,” said Frederico De La Cruz, 58, who has been in prison for decades on a life sentence. “Now I do.”

“I wake up. I’m in the same bed. Same walls,” he said, holding fast to his certificate after the ceremony. “But it doesn’t translate to me the same. I wake up different. I’m able to go out and be different.”

During the ceremony, De La Cruz recited a poem he had written. “We are living proof that even those who are guilty of the most wrongful deeds/Can pluck from the flowers of love and hope and sow these very seeds,” he read.

His younger brother Rudy, who had made the trip from Fontana for the ceremony, looked on beaming at De La Cruz in his black robe.

Around them, other grinning families embraced their new graduates and settled in at tables to eat barbecue, baked beans and cupcakes frosted in yellow and white. An instrumental cover of Lean On Me played in the background.

“I don’t have that physical freedom,” De La Cruz said. “But I have that spiritual freedom right now.” – Tribune News Service/Los Angeles Times/Emily Alpert Reyes

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