Place4Grace builds bonds through love of reading

Photos, story by Krissi Khokhobashvili
CDCR Public Information Officer II

On Father’s Day and all year long, organizations like the Place4Grace are working to ensure families impacted by incarceration stay connected and supported. Through Place4Grace, men incarcerated at Valley State Prison (VSP) were able to hear about the importance of being connected and rehabilitation from an Emmy Award-nominated actor with a powerful story to tell.

“I’m proud of who I am today – I’m proud of the father I am today,” said Richard Cabral, an actor and writer known for his roles on the TV series “American Crime” and “Southland.”

Speaking those words, and reflecting on his life as an artist, activist and family man, Cabral said it wasn’t too long ago he was in the same place as the men he stood before.

“I know what it is to be stripped of my freedom, to miss my family, to write letters and call collect,” he shared. “I want you to know that I at one time sat in the same position as you.”

Cabral was a guest of Place4Grace founder Karen McDaniel and Program Director Sutina Green, who met him after watching his one-man play, “Fighting Shadows,” in Los Angeles. Moved by his experience finding professional and personal success after spending five years in prison and on parole, the women invited him to share his story with men serving time.

McDaniel and her team serve prisons throughout the state for the Family2Child Literacy Project, a program in which incarcerated mothers and fathers record audiobooks for their children, who are then sent a copy of the book and the recording at no cost to the family. The aim of the program is to keep families connected while also encouraging in children a lifelong love of reading. The program has proven so successful that it has expanded to 14 adult prisons through CDCR’s Innovative Grants Program, and to a Division of Juvenile Justice facility to serve young fathers.

In addition to the recordings, these events are also an opportunity for Place4Grace and guests speakers to share words of encouragement and advice for finding success – and for the men to be reminded that even though they are in prison, they are still men, they are still important part of their families, and they are still worthy of second chances.

“You are a man, you are a father, you are a grandpa, perhaps, or you are an uncle,” McDaniel told the group assembled at VSP to record books for their loved ones. “You are men to us.”

Like many of the men in blue before him, Cabral’s criminal past started at a young age – he said he started going to jail when he was only 13. And while he takes responsibility for his past choices and mistakes, he said the absence of a father figure in his life impacted the path he was on in his youth.

“My father left me when I was 2 years old, and it left a hole in me that I could never replace,” he said. “I don’t blame my father for my choices, which pushed me into a life of crime, but I believe things would have been different if my father was there.”

Cabral entered CDCR at 25 years old, at a time when the state was grappling with historic prison overcrowding. Cabral said programming was limited while he was incarcerated, and urged the men at VSP to take advantage of the exponential increase in programs CDCR is now able to offer.

“It doesn’t matter what has happened the last year or where you’re at today,” he said. “You have a choice to make it whatever it is – especially for your children.”

After prison, Cabral began seeking ways to break out of the gang lifestyle while still being able to make a living, and found Homeboy Industries, a Los Angeles nonprofit that serves formerly gang-involved and previously incarcerated people through employment, counseling and legal support. While working in the bakery, Cabral also participated in therapy and self-help groups in addition to parenting and family relationship classes, and began to build a solid foundation of success.

It was during this time a scout from the TV show “Southland” visited Homebody to recruit extras to play gang members, and Cabral chuckled as he explained that his style fit the image they were looking for to a T.

During filming, Cabral felt a spark ignite in him, and sought the guidance of Homeboy founder Father Greg Boyle, who told him he would support him in any endeavor. Armed with support and the knowledge that he had a place to fall back on if it didn’t work out, Cabral entered the world of acting, and hasn’t worked a nine-to-five job since.

“Meeting Father Greg Boyle changed my life,” Cabral said. “The belief he had in me was the most shocking – I didn’t know how a man could give me a chance when the rest of the world hadn’t, when the rest of the world told me I was a failure and I wouldn’t amount to anything. Homeboy gave me the chance to discover the other side of me, which I never knew existed.”

Mike Tankersley, who listened to Cabral while he waited to record a book for his niece, said he was inspired and encouraged by the discussion.

“It gives me a little more hope,” he said. “It does make a difference that he’s from inside, and he got out and made it.”

Tankersley said that when he paroles he will be 53, and is well aware of the challenges starting over will bring. But hearing Cabral share his experience, and urging the men inside to follow their passions and stay bonded with their families, gives him hope for a better future.

“I thought it was empowering,” he said. “I liked how he said no matter what the circumstances are, or what we’ve been though in the past, we have a choice now, today, to change our future. Really what it boils down to is what you set your mind to, and staying open to the universe. Be open-minded, and opportunities will come. I really believe that.”

Cabral also emphasized the importance of building a strong support system, be that with family, friends, community organizations or a combination. He pointed to organizations like Homeboy Industries, the Anti-Recidivism Coalition and Place4Grace as great examples of people who can help, from job placement and counseling to being a sounding board or friend when a kind ear is needed.

“There are plenty of us – even people who haven’t been incarcerated – who support you guys fully,” Green said. “Don’t ever think that you are alone. We may have not been incarcerated, but somehow we have been affected, whether we have our own loved one incarcerated, a father, family member, friends – somehow we’ve been touched by incarceration.

“That’s why we do what we do.”