by Dortell Williams
“If you want anything done, you’ve got to do it yourself,” goes the refrain. That includes that ever elusive thing they call rehabilitation: self-help and personal development
The truth is that within the confines of our misnomer, The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, rehabilitation can be a difficult thing to tackle. Lack of class space, lack of vocations and lack of structure for personal growth. I recall asking a mental health specialist a few years back what “rehabilitation” is: What am I chasing here? Were my exact words. His response? He laughed, heartily. He told me: “There is no rehabilitation in CDC1:
A few years later, I learned that that was only partially true. While CDCR isn’t structured primarily for rehabilitation, there is room for personal development — if we’re creative, still-willed and persistent. Her at the Progressive Programming Facility — formerly known as the Honor Yard — we constructed in Inmate Leisure Time Activity Group we call Men For Honor (MFH). Approximately twelve years ago we started with one class: Critical Thinking. It was a thought-provoking class, with a little competitive debate and a lot of group participation. Later, we added creative writing. We got a few guys published, promoted literacy and had fun. With each class the waiting list always grew larger than the classroom limit. We read the section in the Title fifteen and Departmental Operational Manuals (state and local) under ILTAGs and studied what is and isn’t permitted. Each year the MFH grew in its mission and participation.
We began listening to what attorneys for the board of Parole hearings focused on, and more importantly, what the BPH was requiring to grant suitability. We searched for curriculum and talent within our population to offer those classes and teach those principles. The requirement to instruct a self-help class is fairly simple: Find someone experienced in the subject — with either a past class, formal schooling or correspondence course — and put ‘em to work.
This requirement isn’t just good enough for CDCR, but is encouraged by all non-professional self-help organizations. The view here is that when people with similar problems get together and express their failures and triumphs, all become experts and future failure are avoided, while triumphs abound.
Over the years we have taught Spanish, English as a Second Language,
business classes and HIV/AIDS prevention. We also have a MFH Library to compliment creative writing, among other classes. We offer a Victim Sensitivity Class = in English and Spanish – along with an independent, in- cell victimology course based on the curricula of Colorado State University, Pueblo
Here, we make it difficult for staff to call us “useless”, and treat us like crap. From those anticipating an upcoming release date, to those of us with life without the possibility of parole, we actively challenge the fallacy of incorrigibility that indefinite sentences imply.
For those looking to shake these places, we teach the Work Force Development class, which prepares men for filling out job applications resumes and how to respond to interviews. For those who have gang banging in their past, we offer new choices, different directions to specifically confront the vicious addictions to that life style, and to acknowledge the anti-social thinking that underlies such neighborhood fraternities. Our personal development class addresses social norms (thinking and behaving like the mainstream).
Many of our participants have had positive results during their BPH experience and we have all come to see that those elusive keys to rehabilitation are a lot closer than any of us ever imagined. Those keys are within each of us, piece by piece, waiting on us to collaborate, partner up and mirror society at large.
By mirroring the mainstream, members of society have embraced us. It wasn’t that they needed to get US, we needed to get THEM; to understand them, speak their language and behave as they behave. Acknowledging this truth has rewarded us with various partnerships outside. Kind of like accountability partners, they monitor us through our reports and staff confirmations (memos, Chrono’s, etc.). They send our participants letters of acknowledgment and certificates for their files.
Each month our five executive body members (Chairman Allen Burnett, Programs Specialist Clifton Gibson, Community and Coordinator Dortell Williams), and some 20 peer instructors host nearly 200 participants, and they host us by participating tin our classes.
The experience has been challenging, educational, fun and very rewarding. The secret is out and we encourage every prison, every facility and even your block, to seek and find your own keys, because like we’ve demonstrated, if you just look for them, the keys are there.