VACAVILLE — “Never come here, you hear me?”
It was a loud message from an anonymous inmate as he walked by a group of teen boys from the Vacaville Youth Diversion program while on the exercise yard at California State Prison, Solano. It was just one of many taunts of “fresh meat” and vocalizations from the hundreds of inmates out for exercise at the same time the boys and their parents walked through the yard flanked by 10 inmates – all members of the Prisoner Outreach Program, dubbed POP.
The resounding message from the POP inmates during the eight-hour program: It’s all about choices and decisions, and it starts with the little things such as disrespecting parents, ditching school and drugs.
“I never thought about consequences,” said Matt Ray, a POP inmate, to the group of teens. “Please think about what you’re doing. It starts with little things . . . now I’m in prison.”
Ray, along with the other nine inmate POP members, are all in prison on murder convictions. The teens spent the day with them Thursday as part of a six-month contract the teens signed with the Youth Diversion Program that allows first-time offenders to avoid a conviction on their record if they fulfill the contract and stay out of trouble.
The five Vacaville teens, ranging in age from 13 to 15, took a tour of the prison that took them right into the general prison population, showing them the holding cells, exercise yard, miniscule shared cells; all the time giving the teens a snapshot of what the inmates lives are like: the shame, the embarrassment of being locked behind bars, fences and barbed wire.
“Everything you see today is unscripted,” said inmate Derrick Branch. “We don’t want you to end up like us.”
Branch was blunt to the group of silent, unsmiling teens throughout the tour. The group paused at the locked security gate – one of many on the prison grounds, most laced with barbed wire – leading to the “Receiving and Release” building, and turned to the group.
“Before you leave, you have to spread your butt cheeks,” Branch said, as he talked about the regular inmate body searches. “That’s just one of the things that happens . . . daily.”
While the program allows the teens to see the harsh realities of prison life, it’s not a “scared straight” program. Marlaina Dernoncourt, the prison’s public information officer, said, “We don’t use that. That’s what they use on TV. This is respectfully done (and) not to terrify them.”
It’s also done on the personal level. Designed to open the doors of communication, the POP inmates sat down with the teens and told their stories – stark, black-and-white stories with no sugarcoating. Stories of ditching school, fighting, alcohol, drugs, gangs as young teens or even in elementary school; all leading eventually to them killing someone.
Branch described the killing of a friend who he believed had betrayed him.
“I decided to kill him,” said Branch, who graduated high school and was in the military for more than two years before being kicked out. “I went and picked up my friend, took him to his own house and choked him to death.”
Branch, married with a young daughter at the time of the crime, paused, and again looked each teen in the eye: “Please don’t allow my story to become your story.”
The teens also shared their stories – most were there for drug possession on school grounds – before breaking into one-on-one groups to encourage the teens to open up about their lives. The teens were paired with a POP inmate who could relate to what the teens were going through. The parents broke into another group. The sessions culminated by meeting in two larger groups in an effort to begin dissolving any communication barriers between parent and child.
“We don’t just talk to the kids, we talk to the parents,” Branch said, while he set up for the sessions. “We try to get the young people and parents to listen to each other. It’s not about us dogging at the kid.”
Robyn Cole, the staff sponsor of the program, said it can get emotional.
“Some break down and say, ‘I love you’ for the first time in years,” Cole said of the participants, who are also welcome to come back for repeated, briefer sessions if they want.
Cole meets with the POP inmates two or three times weekly with trainings that keeps the group up-to-date on things such as new drug and gang trends. The inmates involved can’t have any write-ups nor can they have committed crimes against children or women. They do it in an effort to deter the participating teens from the wrong path.
“I see myself in every youth that comes in here,” said Sergio Aceves, who has been in prison for 31 years after committing a robbery and murder as a teen. “This is my responsibility to be of service.
“My vision for the end of the day is for these kids to have an awakening . . . . Don’t end up this way.”
Reach Susan Winlow at 427-6955 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/swinlowdr.