Editors note: This is another in a series of articles out of California Medical Facility and California State Prison Solano, both located in Vacaville.
VACAVILLE — Primes Harrell was just a couple of days shy of being handed his high school diploma when he got into trouble last year at age 18.
He ended up in a Level II dormitory-style facility at California State Prison Solano, sharing space with hundreds of men – mostly older than him – instead of sharing a place with his buddies for some after-graduation summer fun.
The Vacaville state penitentiary is not where the now-19-year-old from Stockton said he wants to stay. If inmate Cotton Jones has anything to say about it, Harrell will learn the skills he needs to stay out of trouble when he is released next year. And be a productive father to his three young children.
“I’m looking at people (here) who have been (in prison) half of their life,” said Harrell, a soft-spoken teen who admitted to fighting a lot while in school. “If I stay here, my kids aren’t going to have any respect for me and if I stay here, I won’t have a relationship (with them).”
Jones, like Harrell, is an inmate. He’s the program coordinator for the Level II In Building Self Help program at the prison and was instrumental in its implementation. It’s a one-of-a-kind, peer-to-peer prison program developed by Associate Warden of Level II Operations Kim Young.
He is a 27-year veteran in corrections who oversaw the development of the program when tough financial times resulted in staff reductions and suspended programs a few years ago. It was designed to cut down on idle time with no cost to the taxpayer – staff and inmate volunteers, donations and 15-cents-on-the-dollar inmate positions are its backbone.
The classes focus on such subjects as making better choices, communication techniques, soul-searching and anger management. There are dozens and dozens of choices that also include book clubs and parenting classes – the latter taken by Harrell. Inmate facilitators go through eight hours of general training and then several weeks of training unique to the class they will teach.
While the classes are open to all Level II inmates, Jones said he wants to reach the young ones who wind up in prison. With him, he said, they’ve found a mentor and a safe haven within the walls of a place that can be overwhelming.
On a recent day, as Jones walked through his dormitory facility, he pointed to his bunk – one of the younger inmates, another 19-year-old – was fast asleep.
“He feels safe there,” Jones said.
“We have something in place to help them find balance,” he said of the program, and of a mentoring program designed to help younger prisoners. “When they turn around and (get) out of (prison), they know how to be a better person. Right now, they don’t know how.”
On this recent day, an inmate facilitator conducted a Bible class close to Jones’ bunk, but Jones spent most of his time in another Level II building, sitting in on a class called Conflict Recognition and Resolution for Effective Goal Setting.
The 12-session class has several prerequisite classes: Denial Management, Anger Management, Victim Awareness and a substance abuse class if that was an issue prior to incarceration.
“Most of the time, substance abuse is involved,” said Ronnie Randon, an inmate class member.
Randon is one of several inmates in the class that is taught by two inmate co-facilitators, Richard Bell and Shavar Gilliam. The class location, and the official “office” location of the In Building Self Help program, is an alcove that also houses six inmate bunk beds, next to the showers.
It’s within the direct eyesight of an overhead guard location. It’s not a quiet place, with other inmates involved in myriad pursuits beyond the alcove, but those in attendance inside the alcove gave Bell and Gilliam their full attention, taking notes and asking questions.
The class’s premise is effective goal-setting and reaching those goals despite obstacles and conflicts using the works of Zig Zigler, Abraham Maslow (Hierarchy of Needs) and Lawrence Kohlberg (Theory of Moral Development).
“Every time I teach (this class), I’m getting a better understanding of conflict I have within myself,” Gilliam said.
He admitted that goal-setting is still tough for him because he was so “used to going on a whim.”
Aside from the class’s premise, a sense of community and knowledge of himself is Stephen Bogovich’s takeaway.
“I never understood ‘community’ until I came to the self-help groups,” he said.
Young said there is nothing like the program within the California prison system. She said that it’s not unusual for her to get calls asking about the program’s setup. She credits Jones with being one of the reasons the program exists. It’s cut down on discipline reports and recidivism, Young said.
“I call it ‘bringing the mountain to Mohammed,’ ” she said, citing an adaptation of a popular phrase. “It helps them interact and gives them social skills they probably didn’t have when they came in.
“Out of everything I’ve done in my career, it’s the most powerful . . . meaningful, I should say.”
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