Program emphasizes self-help, employment, positive relationships

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

The year isn’t even halfway over, and it has already been a big one for FOPS.

FOPS stands for Female Offender Programs and Services, a division of CDCR tasked with the supervision and rehabilitation of California’s female offender population. While about 5,000 women are housed in the state’s three female prisons, a carefully selected number are serving their time at community-based re-entry facilities, going through intensive programming to prepare them for success after incarceration.

All this is done under the supervision of FOPS Associate Director Jay Virbel, who emphasizes that while the programs are available, they are only successful through the hard work of the women who choose to take part.

“It’s not about the program,” he said. “It’s about the participant. It’s about yourself, and your strength, and the understanding that you can do this.”

What is a CCTRP?

In partnership with community organizations, CDCR oversees four Custody to Community Transitional Re-entry Programs. The program allows eligible female offenders with serious and violent crimes who have been committed to state prison to serve the remainder of their sentences in the community. Each facility – in San Diego, Santa Fe Springs, Bakersfield and Stockton – offers a rigorous curriculum of self-help, educational, vocational and employment counseling, with the focus on becoming productive, healthy members of society.

Participants must have 24 months or less to serve, and go through an intense screening and interview process. Once they arrive at CCTRP, they are electronically monitored and supervised by CDCR parole agents and partner staff. Today, more than 260 women are participating in CCTRP.

The program is completed in phases, with more privileges earned as steps are successfully completed. Group and individual sessions take the women in-depth into substance abuse treatment, trauma counseling, life skills development, healthy relationships, relapse prevention, parenting skills and more. The women program from early morning until evening, with time set aside for healthy recreational activities like exercise and gardening.

After a lot of hard work and approval from the CCTRP staff, the women can take their employment skills into the real world, where staff help them find employment at all types of jobs. CCTRP requires women to save a large portion of their earnings, which has helped many participants leave with significant savings.

CCTRP is 100 percent voluntary, and any woman involved in CCTRP will tell you it is one of the hardest, but most fulfilling, things she has done.

“I felt like I got hit by a train for the first month and a half because I dug so deep,” said Alisa Adams. “But it’s so worth it because now I just feel good every day because of this program.”

New beginnings

Adams and Bambi Boyer are part of a group of CCTRP participants who recently made a huge decision. They voluntarily transferred from San Diego CCTRP to Stockton, which opened its doors at the beginning of April. There they are known as “big sisters,” helping guide new arrivals through the CCTRP process, offering encouragement and knowledge gained through their experience in the program.

The 50-bed CCTRP, operated through a contract with WestCare, is housed in a renovated hotel, which has been upgraded and redesigned into dorms, large classroom and group spaces, bright gathering places and a garden. Each big sister is housed in a different group room.

“We’re like house managers,” Adams explained. “We’re going to help all the girls who come into our rooms. We’re big sisters, we’re mentors, we’re role models – just being the best person that we can be every day.”

They are also there to ease the transition, which can be jarring to women just out of prison. Boyer, who served 18 years in state prison, said that even after two years at the San Diego CCTRP, there are still things, like technology, that are an adjustment.

“I know firsthand how it feels to come from an institution to just go straight into a situation like this,” she said. “I can help new girls with the initial shock of coming into a community setting.”

The staff and mentors help the women learn about daily responsibilities such as healthy eating, transportation, new technology and mindful spending.

“This program really helps you to take those baby steps if you have been incarcerated for a long time,” Adams said. “Also, it gives you a chance. I made many selfish decisions to get myself here and now it’s time to be part of a community and make selfless choices.”

Virginia Sparks, acting director at CCTRP Stockton, said in addition to the many groups going on during the day, there is also time for healthy activities, including an early morning “boot camp”-style exercise class and, a favorite among the participants, a garden. Fresh greens and tomatoes are already growing in the raised-bed garden, and the remaining boxes won’t be empty for long.

“They tend it,” she said of the participants. “We left the other ones empty because they’re going to pick what goes into it.”

That’s all part of the process. In order for CCTRP to work, the women must take ownership. That includes not just staying accountable for themselves, but also working as a group to develop schedules and plan activities. Staff, both CDCR and WestCare, put an emphasis on collaboration among themselves as well, working as a cohesive unit to make things flow.

“We’re all excited about getting this project off the ground and getting it going in a positive direction,” shared Correctional Counselor III Mike Brown, who works alongside Parole Agent IIs Maria Garcia and Bao Nguyen at CCTRP Stockton. “It’s motivating – everybody bought into it and said, ‘Hey, let’s band together.’ If we join together as a full force, I think it makes running this program that much easier.”

The work is hard, Sparks said, both for participants and staff, but for all involved, it’s worth it. She’s been working in the corrections and re-entry field for 16 years, and said one thing never changes.

“When the women arrive, and you see the joy, it makes it all worthwhile,” she said. “It makes me want to do it another 16 years.”

Celebrating success

As CCTRP Stockton was opening its doors to its first participants, CCTRP Santa Fe Springs was opening its doors to the community, holding an open house to celebrate its one-year anniversary.

This CCTRP is operated through a contract with the Los Angeles Centers for Alcohol and Drug Abuse (LACADA), which has formed numerous partnerships with the Santa Fe Springs community. Working with the Southeast Area Social Services Funding Authority (SASSFA), LACADA has partnered with American Apparel, which operates a warehouse in the area. Several CCTRP participants have received full-time jobs there, and CCTRP thanked both SASSFA and American Apparel for their support.

“This program really embodies what’s good about Santa Fe Springs and the community we work and live in,” said City Manager Thaddeus McCormack, addressing the crowd assembled for the anniversary celebration. “LACADA in particular is a source of pride for Santa Fe Springs. That pride is embodied by the hardworking people who go through the program here and benefit, and come back into society as productive members.”

Just like the CCTRPs in Bakersfield, Stockton and San Diego, the 82-bed Santa Fe Springs location puts a heavy focus on programs. Women are in classes and groups throughout the day, ranging from substance abuse treatment and vocational programs to community service and, a favorite in Santa Fe Springs as well as Stockton, gardening.

Program Director Fran Valenzuela said it’s not easy to get into CCTRP, and the women who do want to come must be serious about committing themselves to positive change.

“They have to prove themselves by participating in programming while they’re in the institution to prove that they are sincere,” she said.

Valenzuela added CCTRP Santa Fe Springs offers intensive trauma treatment, as many female offenders have experienced trauma in their lives, which often contributes significantly to their criminal behavior.

Even participants who work full-time still make time to attend group sessions and daily house meetings. One of those women is Leticia Mahe, who works 40 hours a week at American Apparel. Her life has seen tragedy, as she lost a son who was only 19 years old, and later committed crimes that cost her both her freedom and her remaining son. But thanks to CCTRP, when a judge researched the program and saw the results of her hard work, he decided that she will regain custody of her son.

“I had no hope and I was broken,” Mahe said. “But being in this program, having the staff we have here – they do what they do for us because they really care about us – I came a long way.”

“I have hopes,” she added. “I have dreams. I’m strong. I have courage. I’m going to be a vessel for my child and my grandbabies and I know that I’m going to be able to do this.”

Tamara Evans, who is at the end of her fourth prison term, has built a significant toolkit thanks to CCTRP. Since coming to Santa Fe Springs in January, she has taken classes on anger management, nonviolent communication, grief and loss, AA, NA, self-esteem and relapse prevention. She’s preparing to enter the employment phase of CCTRP, and said she’s ready to find a job and begin a new life.

“It has prepared me to build a strong foundation,” she said. “I’ve always had a problem reaching out for help. I didn’t know how to. Now I have all the great tools they teach me in groups to reach out for help, to build a great support team.”

As they rang in their first year, participants echoed one another, voicing their appreciation for Valenzuela, Assistant Director Liliana Rivas, Correctional Counselor III Rosa Franco and the rest of the CCTRP staff and partners for supporting them on their journey.

Participant Patricia Vega ran into Virbel while leading a tour of the CCTRP, and took the opportunity to thank him for the work FOPS and CDCR are doing to help offenders transition into society. Virbel pointed out the program works because of participants who are willing to do the hard work on themselves to find success.

“You made the program,” he told her. “Everybody volunteers to come here. You have to raise your hand to experience it, and I’m so glad you did.”