In Fresno, Inmates Learn to Handle Life’s Challenges

On the fifth floor of the Fresno County Jail 32 men have put aside their gang affiliations and racial and social prejudices for the chance to turn their lives around. These are AB 109 inmates whose risk score was medium to high for recidivism – mostly substance abusers with addictions that propelled their revolving door existence in this Central California lockup. But county corrections officers saw something in their histories, crime patterns and in face-to-face interviews that made them believe these men were ready to change. After passing intensive interviews they are serving the final four-to-six months of their sentences in the county’s Transition from Jail to Community pod, where they will be offered a chance to remake themselves and their lives. “I’m going to show my homies if they do change and take the right steps and get their mind out of the ugliness they’ll have what I’m going to receive – and that’s a better life with the county’s help.” That’s how Jasper H, a 43-year-old reformed gang member with 20 convictions and 30 years cumulative behind bars, envisions his life back in the community. Jasper was classified as maximum security with a high risk of recidivism prior to being selected to enter the TJC Program. Now he’s one of the model inmates. Launched with a grant from the Urban Institute and maintained with AB 109 funding from the Community Corrections Partnership, the Transition from Jail to Community pod received its first offenders in August 2013. Since then 54 men have graduated and just eight have been rearrested, a promising statistic given the high-risk nature of the population. From 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. offenders are required to attend substance abuse and cognitive behavioral classes such as Thinking For A Change, anger management, parenting classes, work on their GED or on art projects in the day room – no lounging on bunks is allowed. Twice a week they practice yoga and pilates. Along the way they build a relationship with both the corrections officers assigned to the unit and the probation officer that will be assigned to monitor them upon release, which both sides agree is key to making this experiment work. “They treat us like human beings. They are offering us a chance at life. This is the first time I’m thinking that I’ll be staying out. Before I always thought I’d be back so I just wouldn’t care. Now I know my probation officer and I don’t want to be running because he’s a nice guy. It’s a cool thing that we get to know them,” said another participant with a high risk of recidivism, 51-year-old George S, who has a history of drug use, vehicle theft and burglary and has spent nine years in the system. The atmosphere in the pod is relaxed. Then men don’t self-segregate by race or former gang affiliation as they do in nearly ever other lockup in California. Sometimes corrections officers will sit for a game of cards, a gesture the inmates say has taught them to see them as human beings and therefore respect their authority. “We were selected because we had the traits where we wanted to help people,” said Sgt. Stephanie Gibbs, who runs the day-to-day operations of the unit. “We take pride in having created this. People who come to see this can’t believe what they see. All of these different types of people sitting at the same table, even tasting food off of the same fork. It’s a huge change for them and for us.” Inmates are required to sign a contract promising that they will adhere to all program requirements. They must promise to live and work with offenders who may be of a different race or background and participate in educational programs. They learn respect, integrity, leadership, teamwork and commitment through the Core Values Accountability System that corrections and probation staffs have devised. Inmates are graded daily on their behavior and performance, and those that do well earn graduated privileges, culminating in contact visits. “The other day I got to hug my kids and give them horsie rides for the first time. I’m proud of that. They help us interact with our families and offer guidance. My family is proud of me and my want and desire to change. They are helping me mend that bond broken by drug use and selfishness,” said Melvin S., 32, a high-risk drug offender with a long criminal history and at least 40 bookings into the Fresno County Jail. Corrections officers come to understand the men’s dysfunctional family dynamics and, in some cases, work to help restore them. One inmate had no relationship with his two young boys, who have been in foster care since his wife committed suicide and he landed in jail. The young boys only knew their father as an addict, and were hesitant to visit him. “They were worried I would be the same. I was able to show them I’ve changed.” 39-year-old Jaime M, who has been booked into the jail 30 times over the past few years for stealing to support his drug habit and has served time in state prison. His sons have gone from not wanting to see him to hugging their dad throughout their visits. Corrections officers and behavioral therapists from Turning Point guide the inmates through a graduated three-phase program of expectations and rewards. In Phase 1 they learn to follow rules and attend scheduled treatment programs. In Phase 2 they are expected to set examples for behavior to the inmates in Phase 1. By Phase 3 they are expected to demonstrate leadership qualities and positive social skills. Similarly, they are demoted and lose privileges if they fall below expectations. Violations can be as minor as not keeping the bunk well made to gambling to the very serious act of pushing gang or pod politics, which can result in termination from the program. Nobody wants to go back to the bickering, tension-filled life in the jails’ other pods. “I don’t feel like I have to watch my back here,” said Jeffry S. Both the inmates and the officers know the hard work comes upon release, when they’re faced with temptation, frustration and perhaps rejection. With Fresno County’s high unemployment rate, jobs are few – especially for convicts. They’ll be back in old family dynamics, hopefully with the skills they need to make positive changes. All the inmates housed in this unit have the option to go to a sober living environment upon release. Out of the 53 released so far, 21 have chosen to go to sobering living for three-to-six months before going home. That says a lot about these men and their desire to change, officials say. Jeffrey A. is just 23, but already classified as having a high risk of recidivism. He had been in and out of juvenile hall and the county jail since he was 14, mostly for possession of drugs and stolen property. Now, he says, his life is changed. “I had a contact visit with my girlfriend the other day. I thought she wouldn’t like me because I was, I don’t know, a square. You know what she told me? She told me I was now the person that she fell in love with,” Jeffrey said. For more information contact: Michelle Lefors Inmate Programs Manager 559-600-8456 Sergeant Stephanie Gibbs Transition from Jail to Community Jail Programs and Services 1225 M. Street Fresno, Ca. 93721 (559)600-8454 Fax (559)488-3982