Story and photos (below) by Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Photos (top) by Scott Sabicer, Director, CDCR Television Communications Center

The first parole agents to graduate a revamped rehabilitation-focused 10-week academy will be taking up their new duties, and they say they are ready for the challenge.

In June, 40 students started the Parole Agent Academy at the R.A. McGee Correctional Training Center in Galt. On Aug. 25, those same 40 students earned their badges as parole agents.

They are all familiar with CDCR and its mission since they come from institutional settings.

Meet the students

“When you go in and you see the same people coming in and out of the prison, especially after working there for 14 years, I decided I’d like to make a difference outside the prison walls so they don’t come back,” said Lina Herrera as she prepared to line up for the graduation ceremony.

She started as a correctional officer at Chuckawalla Valley State Prison. For the last 10 years, she has worked at California Institution for Women (CIW).

She said the biggest hurdle for her to overcome as a parole agent is learning to adapt to the new mission.

“I think learning the job will be a challenge and it will take some time because it’s so different from what I’m accustomed to (in a prison),” she said. “It will be a challenge to fully grasp the case work.”

She said she learned a lot at the academy.

“The implementation of the social aspect of our job will help us deal with the parolees better,” she said. “I had a positive experience in the academy. I was very well rounded from the technical aspect to the (case management) and getting parolees connected with resources in the community.”

Joseph Powers is no stranger to CDCR either. Since 1994, he’s worked at California Institution for Men (CIM). He started out as an office assistant but went to the Basic Correctional Officer Academy in 1998, returning to CIM as an officer. In 2001, he was promoted to sergeant and in 2013, he promoted to lieutenant.

After a long career at a men’s prison, why the urge to switch gears?

“I could see the writing on the wall. There’s a paradigm shift. With all these Assembly Bills and propositions, it seemed like there was a shift in the department and in the public to a rehabilitative model,” he said.

He acknowledges the personal shift won’t be easy.

“The parole mission has some significant differences. As a sergeant and lieutenant, there was more of a crime-and-punishment aspect. I was an incident commander and I placed inmates into administrative segregation,” he said. “Now in parole, the mission will have a social aspect my job didn’t have before.”

Working directly with parolees and their families will also be new for him.

“All the casework is highly different,” Powers said. “It’s kind of like, for almost 24 years (of crime and punishment focus), I have an opportunity to redirect some of that energy to rehabilitating others.”

He said as the first class to go through the Module 3 training, it’s been a memorable experience.

“It’s serious but I spent 10 weeks learning a lot of things I didn’t know before,” he said. “(The academy) includes firearms, tactical and casework.”

In 2002, Luis Bersamin started his CDCR career as a correctional officer at CIW.

“I left in 2011 and came back in 2014. I went through the Basic Correctional Officer Academy again and was assigned to CSP-Los Angeles County in Lancaster. I promoted to sergeant and then came here to the parole academy,” he said.

According to Bersamin, this is the next step in his CDCR career.

“Being a parole agent will allow me to be in the community and not behind the walls,” he said. “The mission of parole is different. As parole agents will be be proactive. That’s the biggest difference.”

Bersamin said learning about parolees and their families will also be a major change.

“Getting to know the personal side of an inmate behind the walls would be considered overly familiar,” he said. “But on the parole side, you need to know it to be effective in your job.”

He said there was one key element he learned at the parole academy that he believes will serve him well.

“Learning to be able to deal with the parolee in their domain instead of an institutional setting,” he said. “The academy was stressful and enjoyable at the same time.”

‘Today’s inmate is tomorrow’s neighbor’

Undersecretary Ralph Diaz stressed the department has a long history, as does the R.A. McGee Correctional Training Center.

“Many have come here since 1984 to witness a graduation. You are in a location with a long history,” he told the graduating agents and their families. “I’m sure you’ve all heard ‘today’s inmate is tomorrow’s neighbor.’ We started using this phrase to get our staff inside our institutions to think about how we treat them to make them better neighbors.”

Diaz spoke of parole agents as being in the community to protect the public.

“You are (also there) holding parolees accountable,” he said. “That’s why you’re here. You’re going to be out in those communities. You are the preeminent parole agents in the nation. You will be on the front lines to lower our parole populations.”

DAPO Director Jerry Powers, who has served decades in law enforcement before joining the department earlier this year, said making the switch from an institution to parole is difficult for new agents as well as parolees.

“You’re going to make a transition. In an institution, it’s very regimented and scheduled,” he said. “You’re going to have to learn to be creative and think on your feet. We’re hoping to take your skills you learned in the institutions (and) you can reorient your interactions with those who were former inmates. You’ll make the decision if you’re going to allow them to stay in the community or send them back.”

Director Powers acknowledged the challenges facing new agents.

“You’re working with individuals who’ve preyed on our society and are prone to doing so,” he said. “Please be safe out there.”

For the groundbreaking Mod Squad, the 40 agents raised their right hands and took the oath toward the end of the ceremony. When it was over, they hugged, laughed and looked toward their new roles in the department.

Andrew James, who was elected class president, said the Mod Squad is the first of a new type of agent.

“Our class set the framework for future agents.”

Candid behind-the-scenes photos below by Don Chaddock