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.
The CCF has operated since November 2011 a five-year initiative focused on redirecting Black male youth (ages 14-18 years) who are, or have been, involved with the Los Angeles County probation system. They’re offering a path that produces improved education and employment opportunities. Its lofty initiative, BLOOM (Building a Lifetime of Options and Opportunities for Men), is the nation’s only major philanthropic outreach specifically focused on Black male youths involved in the juvenile justice system.
“We want to expose inmates to more academics and opportunities for professional growth,” said Renford Reese, a political science professor at Cal Poly Pomona who organized the Norco visit for local press and others. His 2006 book, “Prison Race,” examines the so-called “school-to-prison” pipeline. Norco is one of 33 state prison facilities that will close over the next five years–it’s a historic site that will be returned to Riverside County–and Reese commended efforts there to create a college dormitory-like setting where inmates can work toward their associate of arts degree.
Reese is founder/director of the Prison Education Project (PEP), which seeks to expand educational opportunities for inmates at the California Institution for Men, the California Rehabilitation Center and the Ventura Youth Correctional Facility. The group wants to enhance educational services to promote the developmental growth of inmates, thereby contributing significantly to social transformation. The ultimate goal is to provide inmates-students with the cognitive tools necessary to function as productive citizens, which can translate to recidivism reduction. PEP wants to reduce recidivism in California by 1 percent by 2015.
“The department of corrections is pleased with what Norco is trying to do,” Reese said. “The inmates are exposed to academics. Facilities like this should be geared more toward a reintegration academy which provides professional development, life skills assessment, college applications and job fairs. Too often people are released with no job skills. They return to the same neighborhood. The same people. The same habits. That is why the Black recidivism rate is so high. Inmates are not used to being self-reliant.”
Norco is a Level 2 minimum-security prison that houses 3,400 inmates, of which 1,228 are African American. Inmates, however, stress the administration there is “too slow” at providing any type of rehabilitation, from drug abuse to job training. Still, the facility has hosted actor/director Tim Robbins (“The Shawshank Redemption,” “Dead Man Walking”) who has conducted acting workshops there; actor Larenz Tate (“Menace II Society,” “Dead Presidents”) said of the Norco visit: “This demonstrates how much we need prison advocates. You don’t take the kid with no high school and put him in the kitchen.
He needs to be taught something. He needs training to get his AA or BA, not how to wash dishes.”
John used to work for the Defense Department and blames the courts for an overly zealous attitude about “always getting” their man. “I was pushed through quickly,” he explained, “with all the lawyers and the judge seemingly going through the motions. The courts can be harmful because they don’t take into account rehabilitation or job training.”
Trevon took panelists’ advice in stride. He knows he’ll reside in this Depression-era complex shared with dozens of stray cats and circling red-tailed hawks (all likely hunting rats) for the foreseeable future. He took hold of his lunch bag (distributed in the morning with breakfast) and, on order, swiftly filed out of the chapel with the others, leaving this vow: “When I get out of here, I’m going to learn how to make a living,” he said. “I never want to come back here.”