Trevon seemed to almost peep over the back row of the pew in the chapel at the Norco Correctional Facility. Slight of frame, he didn't look much older than 16 years with neatly cut dreadlocks and wide, dark eyes. His voice was a bit unsteady, but definitive about the matter at hand: "Prison can be a black box," he declared. "It's designed to make you oblivious to real life."
Trevon and about 50 or so of his prison mates, who could not reveal their last names, were in the chapel last week to explain why their lives are in such peril, and to ask what they can do to improve their lot.
"After prison, pathways are cut off for us," Trevon continued. "We want to change. We want to learn a trade and earn a living. It's tough for men in prison to learn a new avenue for success. They block it all off from us."
Oddly, Norco has facilities for learning trades and providing academics, but the opportunities are far too limited, and only a few inmates are able to take advantage of them.
The fact that these inmates opted to spend the morning in the prison chapel bearing their souls to outsiders seemed to evidence a desire to make a positive choice for self-preservation. Many of the younger inmates, like Trevon, never got on track nor became proficient in navigating their way through life's hiccups. Most dropped out of school. They had no job training. They had no mentors. Their families early on had no time for them--either too busy, indifferent or had their own problems coping--to demonstrate smart choices versus bad choices.
Robert Lewis, program officer of the California Community Foundation (CCF), believes early intervention and character development are the best ways to keep the increasingly young Black boys out of jail.
"We want to give our kids a blueprint for success after jail," Lewis said, "but what is most important is to drive home at an early age the point of success. The people in our community have told us time and again that their prime concern is the massive jailing of young Black kids."
Damian, who is White, is trained as a clinical research biologist who didn't know there was such an epidemic as the school-to-prison pipeline. He got hooked on drugs--becoming a "functional addict"--who, once behind bars, found a "disconnect" among prison officials on the merits of rehabilitation.
"Even when we sign up for rehab, the administration can be very resistant to you cleaning yourself up. It's like they don't want you to clean up."
Trevor, also White and, like Damian, in his early 30s, said he is losing interest in his goals, because there are virtually no rehabilitation or job training programs at Norco. "Having a purpose each day, a goal you can work towards, can really benefit your self-worth," said the former Defense Department employee.
"This is a warehouse. There is no redemption here. There is no reclaiming the soul here."
These inmates, mostly 19- to 40-year-olds, comprise most socioeconomic, ethnic and religious groups in Southern California, yet their common bond (besides blue dungarees and white sneakers) is a desire for self-improvement. None professed their innocence. They know the score. They also know they have the potential for good if only they can get training for a new life outside.