Warden Cynthia Y. Tampkins and CRC Sensitive Needs Yard inmate participants.

By Lt. Sarah Watson, AA/PIO
California Rehabilitation Center

In 2014, Warden Cynthia Y. Tampkins, of the California Rehabilitation Center (CRC), started an inmate Book Club. The first book read was, “Cooked,” by Jeff Henderson. From that point on, the book club’s journey began to what is now the most sought-after group among inmates.

Institution staff have found it’s not sought-after simply because it’s a group led by the warden, but because it’s a group in which they can be open. The inmates gain a greater respect for reading, other inmates, family, and even their victims, and they’re able to discuss their views and opinions through the topic of the day.

Warden Tampkins wanted to have a Book Club for both General Population (GP) and Sensitive Need Yard (SNY) inmates to get them reading and working on their lives while in prison. She calls it the waiting period. The Book Club meets on the second Tuesday of every month unless the Warden’s schedule prohibits. There are currently 65 GP and 53 SNY inmates participating and the list continues to grow.

Staff members from various custody ranks and non-custody positions have visited the Book Club. They have made comments to the inmates of their experiences as well as made suggestions, such as the Warden Book Club should be made mandatory for all inmates.

The inmates who have volunteered to participate understand they have the freedom to share their life experiences as they relate to the topics.

The participants come from various cultures, ethnic backgrounds and walks of life. They have found a place to talk about their past and not be judged. No one walks away without getting help if they need it. Referrals have been completed as needed and the inmates have thanked the Warden for not only the Book Club but for the help they have received.

What are they reading?

“Cooked,” by Jeff Henderson, is the story of a famous Las Vegas chef who spent 10 years in federal prison where he found his calling. Jeff Henderson, now known as Chef Jeff, was making over $30,000 a week at the age of 21 cooking and selling crack cocaine in the streets of Los Angeles.

At the age of 24, he was sentenced to 19 years on a federal drug-trafficking charge. While in prison, he worked his way up from dishwasher to the chief prison cook. While incarcerated, he discovered his passion and upon his release became a professional chef. The moral of the story was turning your negative into positive with commitment, redemption and change.

“The Journey from Pain to Purpose,” by Charlyn Singleton, is a powerful, motivational tool for people in all walks of life: young or old, male or female, rich or poor. This book is based on the biblical story of Joseph; however, its lesson is about the process that takes place as we journey through life. The reader is provided with hope and encouraged to focus on their dream. This book allowed the Book Club to discuss family dynamics as it relates to parenthood, sibling rivalry and jealousy.

“Big D (Victorious Through God’s Grace),” by Donald Garcia, who is one of the original founders of the prison gang known as the Mexican Mafia. Once released from prison, he became an inspirational speaker to high-risk youth, inmates, and others about how he was able to turn his life around. While reading this book, the group was also able to discuss the pitfalls of substance abuse.

“Buddhist Boot Camp,” by Timber Hawkeye, was not a religious book as the title suggests. It was about training the mind with a boot camp method. It offers a non-sectarian approach to being at peace with the world, both within and around us. The inspirational quotes and teachings offer mind-enhancing techniques anyone can relate to, reinforcing what we intuitively know but have somehow forgotten.

“Rich Dad Poor Dad,” by Robert T. Kiyosaki, advocates the importance of financial independence and building wealth through investing, real estate investing, starting and owning businesses, as well as increasing one’s financial intelligence to improve one’s business and financial aptitude. “Rich Dad Poor Dad” is written in the style of a set of parables, ostensibly based on Kiyosaki’s life. Inmates submitted written budgets and discussed the benefits of establishing savings while incarcerated and future investment strategies.

“Writing My Wrongs,” by Shaka Senghor, is a college lecturer and MIT consultant who at age 19 was sentenced to 45 years for murder. He served 19 years of his sentence, seven of which he spent in solitary confinement. His life changed after he received a letter from his son who said, “My momma told me why you are in prison, don’t kill dad please. That is a sin. Jesus watches what you do.” This is a book about life, death, forgiveness and making amends.

Statements from inmates who have participated in the Warden’s Book Club:

Inmate Travon Perater, one of the longest participants, said he had read many books while incarcerated but a passion for reading was cultivated while participating in The Book Club. Perater said The Book Club has brought many men together who would’ve never spoken. It’s a clear-headed, mind-changing environment that leaves men wanting more from the books. These books have given him a better outlook on himself. Warden Tampkins, he said, “has made it worthwhile to experience the warmth of true freedom, not being judged on our past.” He thanked Warden Tampkins for thinking outside the box and making rehabilitation worth it.

Inmate Osmar Castro stated: “ ‘Writing My Wrongs’ was such a great pick for the Warden’s Book Club that inmates outside the group decided to read it. I am sure that all inmates can relate to the life struggles that Shaka had to endure.

“Mr. Senghor is living proof that we can be locked away in body but our mind and our soul can be free. As soon as I opened the book and read the foreword, I was hooked! My need to get to the end became a necessity. This book not only gives hope, it also inspires its readers to rise from the ashes. Shaka is a living testament to the human spirit and is proof that we can all overcome life’s adversities and show the world that we refuse to be just one more statistic.”

Inmate Marshall Jones stated: “It never ceases to amaze me about the journeys I take with the choices of books for our monthly Book Club meeting. The subject matter, while reading, stimulates my mind by showing me a point of view that I would not have thought of without reading our monthly selections. Because of the diverse backgrounds and different nationalities of the book club members, I get to see that I am not that much different from the next man. We are all similar in making mistakes, big or small, but the book club allows me to slow down, think, and then process information with the guidance of each book selection.”

Inmate Jones went on to say, ‘The ‘Buddhist Boot Camp’, written by
Timber Hawkeye, sounds like religious propaganda but turned out to be a book about helping yourself through positive thinking and meditation. This is just one of the books that helped me rethink my thoughts on life.

“Being educated, you learn that you never stop learning, and being part of the Warden’s Book Club, I learned some new ways to think about certain topics and relearned to think about some of the old. Something else about the Book Club, you get a woman’s point of view.

“Having Warden Tampkins, (Lieutenant Watson), and Community Resources Manager Ms. Grays share their opinion with us is invaluable. Just so you know, they do not hold anything back! In my personal opinion, I feel everyone should experience at least one book through the book club. This journey has helped develop my social skills, public speaking, compassion for others, and has given me confidence in my decision making”

Inmate Robert Sosa stated: “My opinion on the Warden’s Book Club and the book is that it was great! This was my first time participating. What struck me most was, coincidentally, I happen to have related to the story Shaka Senghor told.

‘Writing My Wrongs’ was a book that I honestly couldn’t put down. It touched my heart from beginning to end. Reason being is that I too was tried with murder at the age of 19 years old. As of right now, I’m at the beginning steps of turning a true tragedy into an open door to success.

“I feel Shaka Senghor truly set a path for success before my eyes. The Warden being present makes it even more inspiring, made someone like me see that the system has the tools to succeed. That she’s devoted and willing to witness us build, to become mentally fit to return to society. Her participation to me was acknowledged. I’m eager to read whatever the next book may be.”

Warden Cynthia Tampkins said, “When I read, ‘Cooked,’ I was enthralled by his story and I wanted to share it with everyone. I thought if he could go to prison, change his life, become the first African American chef at a major hotel chain in Las Vegas, be interviewed by Oprah Winfrey, and have his own show on the Food Network, why can’t CRC’s inmates?

“I considered if I could plant the seed in just one inmate and show them how an incarcerated man was able to turn his life around then so could they. My intention was to share just the one book not to start a book club. Well that one book caught on like wild fire and here we are today reading our sixth book. I have no intentions of stopping. I believe the books and discussions are changing inmates’ lives.”