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

Karissa Krater can’t outswim a great white shark either, but she is pretty much the Michael Phelps of Special Olympic athletics, and nabbed her 50th gold medal at the 2017 Summer Games in late June at UC Davis.

A month before the 2015 Special Olympics International Athlete of the Year reached the half-century mark in neck swag, she delighted a host of inmates at California State Prison, Solano (SOL), by participating in the first-ever Inmate Flame of Hope Run.

Flanked by 198 participants who raised at least $25 each for Special Olympics Northern California, Karissa and fellow athlete Tiffany Zamora bolted around four recreation yards, beaming inside a sea of smiles, high-fives and cheers.

Karissa’s mother, Christa Trinchera, and Special Olympics Northern California’s Associate Director of the Law Enforcement Torch Run, Camille Cooney, joined the athletes on stage, thanking inmates and staff for hosting fundraisers that amassed nearly $6,000 for local Special Olympics.

CDCR is a longtime partner and benefactor of Special Olympics, but SOL inmates are the first to join the cause with fundraisers and a torch run. Participants crafted an array of crocheted and wooden flames, showed plenty of hustle on the yards and swarmed volunteers and athletes with support.  The inmates donated their own money and their family members also participated by sponsoring their loved ones.

“The reaction we got here was absolutely incredible,” Cooney said after listening to fervent words of encouragement from inmate donors. “It shows the general public there are contributions being made to these athletes from men and women within the correctional system and it also shows our athletes the kind of magic that enables them to do their sports.”

“It removes the stigma and barrier between us and the system and creates this bond of understanding between these two groups ― shows they can make positive change together.”

Inmates organized the affair, which included two presentations and four runs, featuring the Solano Veterans Group color guard, a special electric-guitar national anthem, a brilliant rendition of “God Bless America” by Keith Ash and other live performances.

Special Olympic athletes and volunteers addressed their sponsors and inmates had a chance to inspire strong performances at the looming Summer Games.

“There is a lot of hunger from people in here who want to give back to society and show rehabilitation does work,” one of the inmate organizers, Simeon Sami, said. “It starts with the individual, and men in here have stepped up to show the change which can take place for anyone, no matter what they have done.

“This is just the beginning. It’s a historical moment for CSP Solano and we know everybody who carries the torch after us is going to raise it up high.”

The event was heavily supported by SOL staff. Correctional Capt. Marlaina Dernoncourt, Community Partnership Manager Tonya Parker Mashburn and Correctional Lieutenant John Ojo welcomed the group and facilitated the event and its fundraisers. Former Assistant Warden Chris Arthur ― now retired, and a Special Olympics coach ―attended as a volunteer and offered his acknowledgement to the staff and inmates who contributed.

“Marlaina and company have had such a huge impact on Special Olympics,” Arthur said. “For them to get Solano to this level of participation with all the inmates is amazing.”

Correctional Officer Eric Handy enjoyed the most active role in the Inmate Flame of Hope Run. He led all four runs on the recreation yards, proudly hoisting a wooden torch in front of the pack.

“Special Olympics is something bigger than us, and I wanted to be the guy to bring staff together with the inmate participants,” Handy said after his final jaunt. “Some of these guys were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and I could have been in their same position.

“It’s good to see the inmates and Olympians come in here smiling and having a good time, showing how a little support and a little donation can change the future from inside prison.”