Story and photos by Ike Dodson, CDCR PIO
Office of Public and Employee Communications

Layle Shellman removed the straw hat protecting his bare head and the fresh six-inch scar that curved along his fading hairline and scowled up at the sun’s unforgiving rays. He peered out onto the main yard at Folsom State Prison (FSP) and addressed 1,350 inmates who aided The American Cancer Society’s fight against cancer at the Sixth Annual Mini Relay for Life.

“Skin cancer… It’s the real deal,” Shellman exclaimed, gesturing to the furrow in his scalp. “I can’t even tell you how many surgeries I have had, but I will tell you that I will not quit fighting.

“We can win the battle if we stick together, remember to fight the fight and celebrate life.”

His words were met with a roar from Relay for Life participants who exalted survivors and completed an extraordinary experience on two prison yards. The event started with an emotional walk at nearby Folsom Women’s Facility (FWF) and culminated with the grand production at FSP.

More than 1,400 inmates from both facilities collected a combined $16,118 in funds for The American Cancer Society. Donations were raised through inmate fundraisers, along with contributions from participants’ families, staff and community members.

The American Cancer Society had several representatives at both facilities to join the walk and thank inmates and staff for their participation.

Ron Rackley, warden for both facilities, expressed his gratitude to all the participants.

“I just want to say ‘Thank you’ to the teams that put this together,” Rackley said. “This is a great day ― bigger than I anticipated, and I have to extend my congratulations to everyone involved.

“I hear the term ‘cancer victim’ thrown out there and that’s not how I view things. I also hear the term ‘survivor,’ but for me, they are ‘heroes.’ They are the strongest human beings that you can imagine. It’s the heroes that we want to recognize, and I want to make it clear to all of you who are participating today, that you are all heroes just the same.”

Participants were divided into teams. At FWF, Shannon Kass’ squad “A Walk to Remember” finished first in fundraising. She beamed when discussing the event, but struck a somber tone when explaining her passion behind it.

“My mom passed away from cancer, and unfortunately I wasn’t doing much for her when I was out there,” Kass explained. “Our team raised $736, and it’s really important to me, because it shows me that I can really make a difference. I just want to give back to the families and try to make a bad situation better.”

Community Relay For Life events are generally held overnight as individuals and teams camp out, with the goal of keeping at least one team member on the track or pathway at all times throughout the evening.

FSP and FWF versions of this included a similar journey that lasted about six hours. Including the women’s facility, over 1,400 inmates came through with contributions.

None were more honored than Linda Coleman, who enjoyed a solo lap to kick off the women’s walk. The 57-year-old cancer survivor illuminated the process and support that saved her life.

“I knew I had to humble myself and be a conqueror in life,” Coleman said. “I found some very caring people in my path here at FWF and I thank them all for their help and encouragement, even in my darkest times.

“It helped carry me through.”

The American Cancer Society funds and conducts research, shares expert information, supports patients and spreads the word about prevention, all in a mission to free the world of cancer.

Longtime volunteer William Van Duker and his wife of 51 years, Jane Van Duker, walked on both Folsom yards and talked with participants eager to share their connection to the survivor community.

“I am very pleased that the inmates are able to participate, and it shows the forward thinking of leadership on the part of the prisons, to allow this sort of thing,” William Van Duker said. “Inmates can be quite generous in the use of their limited resources, and they have a passion to not only participate, but also contribute.”

The FSP and FWF health care staff gave cancer education presentations at both facilities.

FSP medical CEO Theresa Kimura-Yip said she was touched to see inmates stand against the disease.

“It’s a beautiful day to fight cancer,” Kimura-Yip said. “Every day we see the effects of the disease and its diagnosis on our friends, family and peers. According to the National Cancer Institute, this year alone we will see 1.5 million new diagnoses, and that will touch every single one of us in some way.

“The good news is that from 2004 to 2013, there has been a 13 percent decrease in the number of cancer-related deaths, and that means everything you are doing today and every dollar you raise is making an impact.”

Medical staff were organized by Malychanh Williams, supervising registered nurse at FSP and FWF. She took on a special role for the close-knit group of female inmates who walked and took in the splendor of a full recreation yard at FSP.

“It takes months of planning to get to this day, and without the assistance of the Peer Educators and my Relay for Life team of volunteers, this event would not be possible,” Williams said. “It’s a big sacrifice for inmates to give money when they make about 40 cents an hour, and it helps that their families and friends got involved.

“This event shows that inmates have a good heart and they want to do better for themselves and the community.”

Antonio Calles and Ubalda Cervantes emceed and coordinated the massive production at FSP that included live music, presentation of colors and comments by Warden Rackley, survivors and medical staff. A throng of participants stayed busy, circling the dirt track for hours.

“I have been in prison for over 18 years, and one thing I have seen develop is the way inmates find ways to show humanity through a great event,” Cervantes said. “Everyone has been affected by cancer, one way or another, and this event is a great cause for our loved ones.”

Calles, who spent most of the day in front of a microphone directing traffic, marveled at the uniquely diverse involvement.

“No matter what issues are going on, this is something that causes everybody to put all those things aside,” Calles added. “I can’t go out there and save a life ― none of us can― but we can help save a life through this program.

“We can make amends and take a very big step.”

Those steps, made together on recreation yards, are remarkably powerful. Inmates and staff encourage everyone to walk along. Visit www.cancer.org and join the fight.