Maximum security prison sees benefits in rehabilitative programs

Story and photos by Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR Public Information Officer
Office of Public and Employee Communications

Inside a maximum-security prison in Los Angeles County, the residents of one yard are breaking down stereotypes of incarceration with a focus on rehabilitation embraced by staff and inmates alike.

Welcome to the Progressive Programming Facility (PPF) at California State Prison-Los Angeles County (LAC). What started in 1998 as an idea for a peaceful place for men to do their time has evolved into a program-rich community – a calm neighborhood of sorts, where inmates, staff and volunteers work side by side to keep the positive environment thriving.

Warden J. Soto, who has been with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) for  28 years , said he fully supports the PPF and is happy to see its success. He credits LAC staff and inmates for not only creating the PPF, but also helping it grow and continue to inspire similar changes throughout the state.

“It’s a lot of inmates who want to do the right things for the right reasons, and the staff being able to recognize it,” Soto said. “The biggest buy-in for any institution for that dynamic is the staff has to support it. And the staff is more inclined to believe in it when they see it visually happening in front of them, and that’s what’s happening.”

Correctional Capt. Crystal Wood, who oversees the PPF, describes its residents simply: “You have to want to change.” But it’s not just about a desire for a different life – men who come to the PPF must have demonstrated that they are done with gang activity, racial politics and rules violations. The acceptance criteria are strict, and violations such as drugs and cellphones virtually guarantee a new facility assignment.

“They have a place where they can educate themselves, have programs and work with each other and not have racial barriers,” Wood explained.

The idea of the PPF, then known as the “Honor Yard,” began when inmates and staff began to discuss possibilities for change. It was the 1990s, prisons were overcrowded, violence was prevalent and the department was looking for ways to address those issues without compromising public safety. Inmate Kenneth drafted the plan for the PPF, which was supported by inmates and the LAC administration as an opportunity for real change.

“You have to find people who really want to do it,” Kenneth said, echoing Wood’s sentiments. “And when you find guys who want to do it, they’ll create a yard like this.”

The PPF is, indeed, peaceful, but with a steady hum of activity not unlike a school campus. A quick scan of the yard will find inmates training rescue dogs, attending college classes, raising money for charity, participating in sports and fitness challenges, creating beautiful artwork and attending numerous self-help programs.

“All of us believe, fundamentally, for this to work you have to have things for people to do,” Kenneth said. “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop, and I’m not really a very religious guy, but a truer thing about human nature was maybe never said.”

One of the newest rehabilitative programs at the PPF is Paws for Life, a partnership of CDCR and Karma Rescue. Warden Soto and Capt. Wood started the program to help both inmates and the animals. To date, inmates have trained nearly 60 dogs from Los Angeles shelters, training them in basic commands and socialization to prepare them for adoption. Each week, Mark Tipton of Angel Dog Training works with the men in the program, which has multiple benefits for both trainers and animals.

“It does two things,” Tipton explained. “It’s a second chance for the people and the dogs, because all these dogs came out of a kill shelter. It also gives these guys a chance to be able to interact with a dog and get the unconditional love back.”

The men are with the dogs all day, feeding, grooming and training them. Jon, the inmate program leader, said that even though there are about 30 men enrolled in Paws for Life, the program is actually for everybody, as inmates and staff interact with the dogs and enjoy their company.

“Each night after count clears, the dogs go out to the yard and guys line up and wait to pet them. It’s really cool,” Jon said. “And we use the guys out there to help us train. We’ll make a circle and we’ll teach them the commands.”

In addition to learning skills and giving back, the men in the program also benefit just by being around the dogs. Inmate Abdul pointed out that many of the dogs had been abused and abandoned before coming to LAC, something many inmates can relate to.

“People in this environment might have similar characteristics to the dogs,” he said. “Some of them are isolated, but if you can learn how to bond with the dog, you can use those techniques to learn how to bond with other people who may be isolated. It helps me out in learning how to establish healthy relationships.”

A long list outlines the many programs of the PPF, including substance abuse treatment, a veterans’ support group, a creative arts program, numerous educational offerings and several community service groups. Carlton is one of several inmates who help the local Lions Club refurbish eyeglasses for people in need.

Using a machine that reads prescriptions, he scans donated glasses and labels them, cleans them and prepares them to be given back to the Lions Club, which then distributes them around the world.

“It feels good to give back – we’re not being so selfish any longer,” Carlton said. “We’re giving back to the community and other people who can’t afford glasses, who can’t see.”

James also works on the eyeglass project, and even recruited Carlton into the PPF’s crocheting program. It’s an unlikely scene – a group of grown men in CDCR uniforms crocheting together – but one resulting in beautiful yarn creations that are donated to local charities and families in need.

“When I started, he laughed at me,” James said of his friend Carlton. “Then he saw some finished products.”

In the art room, inmates of varying ages and races work alongside each other, creating art that rivals any professional works. A table displays entries recently returned from the county fair, where inmate artists’ submission earned numerous awards. While painting a lifelike portrait of President Obama, inmate Carlos said that in addition to artwork, he’s also active in college, has a job at the institution and participates in sports and self-help groups like anger management and victim awareness.

Fellow artist Brian said that he’s grateful for the PPF because he realized a long time ago that he wanted to lead a positive life, even inside prison. And so long as he continues to demonstrate his willingness to change, he said, “Here, I’m allowed to do my own time, my own way.”

The PPF, Carlos agreed has been a way for him to turn his life around and focus on the future.

“I can focus on learning something that can actually benefit me, the system, the prisoners, my family and the community,” he said. “And that’s what CDCR stands for – rehabilitate.”

Most of the inmates at the PPF are serving long sentences, and many – like Kennth – are serving life without the possibility of parole. Hartman emphasized that no matter how long a sentence is, it’s better to serve it in a positive way.

“No matter how nice it is, it’s still prison and you can’t leave,” he said. “But we try to make it to where you have something to get up in the morning for. You say, ‘Today’s the day I have to show up for this class,’ or, ‘I have to be part of that group,’ or ‘I have a game this Saturday.’ All of those things help give a person some meaning in their life.”