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In this California prison, ‘we are no longer prisoners. we are professionals’


Before the graduates strode in to “Pomp and Circumstance,” prison gloom peeking out from under their gowns, corrections officer John Janvrin encouraged them not to rush.

“Remember guys, you worked so hard for this. Very hard,” Janvrin reminded the jailed men as they lined up in a back room, reread their notes, straightened their bow ties and adjusted the gold tassels that dangled from their mortarboards. The music started to play.

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

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

Andrew Sanchez, 29, left, helps fellow graduate Raymond Maldonado, 43, get ready in a black gown, bow and cap.

(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Past the barbed wire and tall fences of Lancaster State Prison, into a visiting room festooned with black and gold balloons and celebratory signs declaring: “Into the Next Chapter,” the men walked in a procession before their loved ones and state corrections officials to be recognized. Some said it was the first graduation they had.

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

“I myself, along with these other gentlemen in these fine caps and gowns, have embarked on a year-and-a-half journey of self-discovery, self-disclosure, self-examination, self-honesty, and self-healing, in an effort to achieve the dual goal of becoming counselors. certified in addiction treatment and just generally better human beings,” Stine told the seated crowd. Each and every member of this cohort bravely opened their hearts and exposed their deepest secrets, hurts, fears, and shame.”

They had received lessons in neurobiology and pharmacology, ethics and law, family dynamics, and relapse prevention. They had spent hundreds of hours receiving addiction education and counseling, preparing for a required exam. Soon they would begin putting in thousands of hours as interns, the final step that would ultimately lead to their state-recognized certification as alcohol and drug counselors.

a man in cap, gown, and yellow sash, with others in likeness around him

Brian Neumann, 61, and his fellow graduates, all dressed in black cap, bow, gown and yellow sash, ready for the Offender Mentor Certification Program graduation ceremony.

(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

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

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

Then there was the “robbery” this group had suffered together, the term for a tumultuous stage in team development that inspired the name of his cohort and ultimately forged them into a supportive fraternity. But the name had also come to represent, metaphorically, the storms they and others wanted to go through.

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

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

men in cap and gown and yellow stoles smile as they walk down an aisle

Kristopher Kirschner reaches out to his mother, Eileen Peterson, as new graduates enter the certificate program graduation ceremony at California State Prison.

(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

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

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

Now, he said, these graduates had taken a chance and earned the right to be labeled differently: “substance use disorder counselors” or “professional healers.” It was a new label that they needed to carry on, she said, because “there are so many injured people who carry these negative labels who need your help.”

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

The men had brought 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 counselor, said Alvin Barksdale, director of the OMCP program in Lancaster.

Richard Teer, who said he has been jailed since 2015, could already recite that number from memory. He said it was the first thing he’d ever done as he held up the neat piece of paper he’d been given during the ceremony, along with a certificate of appreciation from US Rep. Mike Garcia (R-Santa Clarita).

Four men in cap, gown and yellow sashes practice speeches

Richard Teer, 46, right, and others practice their speeches at the Offender Mentor Certification Program graduation ceremony at California State Prison in Lancaster.

(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

“I never thought that I could be anything other than what I have been my whole life,” Teer said. Now, she said, she has earned her GED and started earning college credits in psychology, communications and the social sciences. His goal, once released, is to return to work again in the prison system. “And this shows that there is an opportunity for us. That we are needed and loved.

“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 each year in California, and the threat has not escaped its prisons, where nearly 300 people have died from overdoses between 2012 and 2020, according to state reports. Corrections officials have worked to reduce deaths through an initiative that offers substance use treatment, including medication to help people kick addiction.

“There are so many people incarcerated in California who need help. We can’t reach everyone. And then they step in,” Brant Choate, director of the state’s division of rehabilitation programs, told the men in his caps. “And you are part of our response. … That’s how special you are.”

The California program is reserved for people who have more than five years left to serve their prison sentences, and after finishing their training, many head to other prisons to serve as paid mentors for people undergoing addiction treatment. Some were preparing for the parole board or already looking for a release date; some 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 counselors.

The men in the camp, dressed and yellow sash smile, clap and cheer

Graduating inmates applaud a presentation by a fellow graduate of the Offender Mentoring Certification Program at the graduation ceremony.

(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

More than a dozen people across the state graduated from the program, were released, and began working as contract staff in California prisons; others who have been paroled work in community programs that provide addiction treatment.

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

“Without the program, I don’t know where I would be,” Johnson said. He had been arrested as a teenager, he said, since he had never had a job before. “I grew up 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 sympathize with the position that they find themselves in,” Johnson said. “Because I’ve been there.”

Al Sasser, another of the “First 50” graduates, credited the “parallel process” of working on yourself and helping others. “We have this saying: ‘The more I work on myself, the better everyone gets,’” said Sasser, who now works at a San Luis Obispo-area prison. What sets OMCP apart as a prison program, he said, is that it “allows you to see beyond the gates.”

However, the program has also changed the lives of graduates who are unsure if they will ever use their skills abroad. “I used to hear people say they wake up in prison, and they’re not in prison. And I didn’t understand it,” said Frederico De La Cruz, 58, who has been in prison for decades serving a life sentence. “Now I do.”

“I wake up. I’m in the same bed. The same walls,” she said, clutching her certificate after the ceremony. “But it doesn’t translate to me the same way. I wake up different. I can 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 unjust acts can pluck from the flowers of love and hope and sow these very seeds,” she read.

two men in cap and gown and yellow sashes walk through a door, one with his hands in the air

Graduating inmates led by Michael Coats, 57, enter the hall for the Offender Mentoring Certification Program graduation ceremony.

(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

His younger brother, Rudy, who had made the trip from Fontana for the ceremony, beamed at De La Cruz in his black robes. All around them, other smiling families hugged their new graduates and settled around tables eating barbecue, baked beans and yellow-and-white frosted cupcakes. An instrumental version 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.”

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