Live, Learn and Prosper participants take the “Awakening Pledge” at a graduation of the conflict-resolution group.

Live, Learn and Prosper participants take the “Awakening Pledge” at a graduation of the conflict-resolution group.

Inmates team with custody, mental health staff for positive programs

By Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR Public Information Officer II
Office of Public and Employee Communications
Photos courtesy Tristin Engels

A group of inmates at California State Prison-Los Angeles County (LAC) are proving their dedication to rehabilitation through an innovative program that offers positive groups seven days a week.

Live, Learn and Prosper (LLP) was formed in 2014 by a group of inmates determined to program, even in the maximum-security environment. Through hard work and the cooperation of staff and volunteers, LLP has evolved into a one-of-a-kind program offering men the opportunity to work on themselves while connecting with one another in meaningful ways.

“It took a lot of building trust and credibility with the correctional staff, and the correctional officers giving us a chance to do something positive,” said Tino Archuleta, who transferred to LAC just when the program was getting off the ground. “Keep in mind, this is a Level IV prison. A lot of us are doing life sentences and/or have committed violent crimes, so the correctional officers giving us a chance was huge.”

“Captain M. Nunez and Correctional Counselor III were our champions,” said G.W. Tuiasoa, who founded LLP along with Michael Thompson. “They gave us the courage and support to soldier on.”

Tuiasoa shared that LLP started small, with just one group, but with a big mission: “to foster a more positive outlook on the yard.” It’s working – today LLP runs classes seven days a week, led by both staff and inmate facilitators dedicated to empowering others to change their lives.

In June 2014, Karapet Davtyan found himself in the Administrative Segregation Unit (ASU) at LAC, facing some serious charges. When a doctor advised him to sign up for a victim awareness course, he had his doubts.

“I was very skeptical, saying, ‘How is this course going to help me in my troubles?’” Davtyan remembered. “Little did I know that it was going to change my life.”

After leaving ASU and participating in a victim awareness class, Davtyon got involved with LLP. After nine months of coordinating with LLP and mental health, Davtyon was asked to facilitate a victims’ impact awareness class that is still a part of the LLP course load.

The mission of LLP is “to put tools in the hands of every prisoner willing to use his incarceration as time for self-awareness, self-improvement and creation of a rehabilitative community.”

Those involved in LLP recognize that inmates, their families and CDCR have the same goals: rehabilitation, reduced recidivism and successful reintegration of offenders into society. Incorporating those elements, LLP offers a well-rounded selection of programs, from developing maturity and conflict resolution to criminal thinking and board prep, which is geared toward inmates preparing for parole suitability hearings.

In addition to classes focused on changing behavior, LLP also recognizes the importance of the arts and having fun in developing positive lifestyles. For the musically inclined, a class called SOUL allows men to interpret their feelings through music, and several classes use card games as communication tools, including Gamer Relations, a group modeled after the game Magic: The Gathering.

“It’s just a simple magic game, but this game helps them to interact with different races,” explained Jesse Bonilla, who also helped develop a conflict resolution class. “Plus, it’s like therapy – during the games, the participants are engrossed in their games. For that hour, they are in a magic land.”

LLP has partnered with Mental Health staff at LAC for even more programs, including gang and drug prevention and victim awareness, which focuses on developing empathy and understanding the effects of criminal behavior.

“The victims impact group can get very sensitive at times, because everybody in there has victimized somebody,” said Dr. Tristan Engels, an LAC staff psychologist and LLP sponsor. “It’s helping them understand how they’ve affected not just the individual, but that individual’s family and their own families, and the community. It really emphasizes that it’s not as simple as the eye-for-an-eye gang mentality. It’s a ripple effect.”

The men are even committed to helping youth avoid following in their footsteps by educating them about the dangers of criminal thinking and behavior. Albert Zepeda, who helps facilitate the group, said the men involved share what they have learned about such topics as resentment and apathy via letters to at-risk youth. Like all LLP programs, in helping community, the men are also helping themselves.

“It makes us all delve deep within,” Zepeda said. “When we present our homework in class, a ton of emotion – raw emotion – comes out. It is a heavy class.”

Graduates accept their certificates from the Live, Learn and Prosper “Awakening” group, which focuses on conflict resolution.

Graduates accept their certificates from the Live, Learn and Prosper “Awakening” group, which focuses on conflict resolution.

When asked about the changes seen inside LAC since the inception of LLP, men involved in the program all shared stories of transformation, both within themselves and their peers.

“Addicts go sober, gang leaders leave their gangs,” said Ivan Stine. “And men cry like babies when they touch on the pain and heartbreak they have caused to their victims, family of victims, their own families, the communities and themselves.”

For Christopher J. Frank, the biggest impact he has witnessed has been seeing participants “understand that they – we – have choices and that feeling feelings is OK. You just have to articulate accurately what you’re feeling, when you’re feeling it, to process your emotions.”

The buzz about LLP continues to spread throughout LAC and beyond. Several notable guests have visited the program to see it in action, including Hollywood producer and Anti-Recidivism Coalition founder Scott Budnick, California State Assembly members Anthony Rendon and Tom Lackey, and musician John Legend.

“Those visits are cool, but the memorable times are when you see guys really start to change and turn their life around for the positive,” Archuleta reflected, or when you see guys make mistakes and own up to them and dust themselves off and get right back to work to fix things.

On Facility C, where LLP takes place, words like “compassion,” “empathy” and “humanity” are now commonly heard on the yard – not what you might expect from a maximum-security prison, commented Fred De La Cruz.

“For me, the greatest moments are those when a man speaks not just his mouth, but from his heart as well,” he added. “In that moment, you know you are experiencing something real and noble. When a man reveals his soul like that, it humbles me, and lets me know that I’m definitely on the right path.”

A group of graduates from the group “Awakening,” which focuses on conflict resolution.

A group of graduates from the group “Awakening,” which focuses on conflict resolution.