VACAVILLE — As a teenager, he visited the Prisoner’s Outreach Program and didn’t take the warnings seriously about ending up in prison.
Twenty-one years into his term, 38-year-old Harvey Turner is serving 15 years to life for murder at California State Prison Solano in Vacaville. He looks back now and wishes he had listened to the inmates who told him that what he was doing would lead him to prison.
“I went through it twice. I said, ‘I’m not that bad. It can’t happen to me,’ ” Turner said. ” ‘I’m not going to get busted. I’m too smart.’ ”
Although he was only committing smaller offenses at the time, it soon turned serious. Now he works to help ensure that those in his former position get the wake-up call he never received.
That’s exactly what the nine men, mostly lifers, aim to do with the Prisoner’s Outreach Program. They routinely give tours of the prison to children and teens and meet with them one-on-one. Taking the not-so-scared-straight approach, it’s more about honesty and how quickly bad decisions can land you in a cell.
“We take them on a tour and let them see how we live up in here. What we have and what we don’t have,” said Derrick Branch, 41. “They have an eyeful. It’s real business. We give them the whole flavor.”
Along with talking with children and teens directly, the program also uses special food sales within the walls to raise thousands of dollars three times a year for groups and charities. The most recent fundraiser from January raised $19,556, which was given out entirely in Solano County, according to Robyn Cole, staff sponsor for the program.
That included $4,889 to both the Court Appointed Special Advocates and Mission Solano. The group also gave $1,955 each to sixth-grade science or learning camps at Alamo Elementary, Hemlock Elementary, Markham Elementary, Cambridge Elementary and Foxboro Elementary schools.
Past donations in September 2012 included $7,663 to both the Horseplay Therapeutic Riding Center in Dixon and Walnut Creek’s Junior Achievement of Northern California. The group donated $8,405 in April 2012 to the grad nights of Will C. Wood and Vanden high schools, along with $3,000 to Vacaville High.
That money comes from selling special food items to prisoners. Items such as brisket, chicken and pork loin are offered with a variety of desserts and jelly beans. The items are marked up 40 percent and that money goes to the groups the outreach program members choose.
An order form is handed out to the prison population, with a limit of $200 each order. Once collected, the forms are checked against the amount in the prisoner’s bank account to verify the cash.
Delivery day is a big operation. It takes about 12 hours to receive the orders and hand them out. Volunteers often come in to help with the process, Cole said.
Then comes delivering the checks. Representatives are invited to the prison, where the money is handed off personally. The men share their stories and they are told how the money will be put to use.
The visit left an impression on Steve Wilkins, board president for Court Appointed Special Advocates.
“They were very interested in helping the kids in the program. It was absolutely impressive to me when they told their story,” Wilkins said. “Not one told me they were a victim of circumstance. I was truly impressed. I applaud the program.”
Rod Malloy, chief operation officer for Mission Solano, went to the January ceremony, his first time in a prison. Not knowing what to expect, he found the program members much more inviting than the slamming of steel doors on his way in. He said the money would provide about 8,000 meals for the homeless in Fairfield.
“Afterward, I gave each of them hugs. It was a powerful event for me. It was actually the highlight of my year,” Malloy said. “It’s such a great story.”
Inmate Roger Hernandez said raising money for outside groups is one of the first things he has ever felt proud of doing. The 37-year-old said it doesn’t make up for what the men did in the past, but helps them begin to assist others – something that doesn’t come easy while they are locked up.
Hernandez said he is most affective at reaching the children and teens by talking face-to-face about real life. He said many of those who visit the prison don’t have someone to talk to. Hernandez said he hopes his message sinks in.
“I tell them ‘not to compare lives, but the consequences are the same for me and you.’ They have choices. I wish I had those magic words to tell them,” Hernandez said. “They don’t have anyone to reach to. They really just want to be cared for.”
The men in the program wear blue hats with POP written on them. They say the other prisoners know what they are doing and respect the effort. Many are happy to take part in the fundraisers because of where the money goes.
Turner said the men in the program carry themselves a certain way and try to set an example for other prisoners.
“It helps me to not be so self-centered. I have this blue hat hanging in my bed area. I have to represent the program. Everyone knows I’m a POP member,” Turner said. “There’s a standard that all of us have to uphold. If I get angry and mess up, I know I’ll have to turn my hat in.”
There’s a high demand to get into the program, and tough rules. There can be no history of sex crimes or crimes against women or children, Cole said. She said the inmates have to be honest with what they’ve done and accept responsibility.
After looking through the application, interviews are conducted. From there, the groups chooses a new member. It can hold up to 25 people and the group is about to invite four new members. Branch said determining what motivates someone to want to join the group is a big part of the vetting process.
“After the interview, they feel like they done went before the (parole) board to get out,” Branch said. “It’s a hot group. Everyone wants to be a part of it, but not always for the right reason. Don’t come to POP to help yourself.”
Cole said the program has shown great results with the youngsters who have come through it. She knows the temptations for teens today and hopes they take the words to heart.
“This isn’t a quick fix. But they can come in here and not be judged. It’s letting all the burden off of them,” she said. “It’s a beautiful thing that happens.”
Reach Danny Bernardini at 427-6935 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/dbernardinidr.