Story by Roger Rybkowski, Palma School communications director
Photos by Lt. Roland Ramon, AA/PIO
Correctional Training Facility

Members of the Phoenix Alliance, a program run by inmates at the Correctional Training Facility (CTF) in Soledad, recently presented a check to Palma School, an all-boys Christian Brother school in Salinas, to provide financial aid for a student in need. The $6,564.30 gift is part of a commitment made by the Phoenix Alliance to fully fund a student through high school at Palma in gratitude for the school’s involvement at the prison.

During a Friday evening ceremony that included inmate testimonials, music and even cake from the prison bakery, the Phoenix Alliance presented the check to School President Brother Patrick Dunne, C.F.C., and School Principal David Sullivan. Two recent Palma alumni who participated in the Steinbeck readings, Oliver Mirassou (2017, now attending UC Santa Cruz) and Nick Ottone (2016, now attending the University of Notre Dame), were invited to speak along with Director of Campus Ministry Jim Micheletti, Assistant Director Mia Mirassou and Lt. Roland Ramon, prison information officer and the spearhead for many of the inmate groups. Staff members and parents were also in attendance.

Working together

In 2014, Dennis Donahue, former Salinas mayor, Palma alumnus and member of the Palma School Board of Directors, suggested to Campus Ministry Director, Jim Micheletti, he contact prison officials to see if any collaboration could be made between the prison programs and Palma’s campus ministries.

Meetings with then-Warden Marion Spearman, Capt. Ed Borla and Lt. Roland Ramon determined that the Life C.Y.C.L.E. inmate program might benefit from student participation. Life C.Y.C.L.E. (Careless Youth Corrected by Lifers’ Experience) is an inmate program wherein those serving life sentences use their knowledge and experience to mentor younger offenders who will eventually be paroled and return to society. The first series of discussions initiated by Palma School was about father-son relationships. Including students in the meetings had an immediate and profound effect on all who participated — more so than anyone could have imagined.

“Our students are challenged to push themselves outside of their comfort zones when serving a marginalized population,” said Micheletti. “This collaboration is exactly in line with the goals of the school’s Founder, Blessed Edmund Rice, and with what we hope to achieve through campus ministry.”

The students found themselves immersed in an environment that evoked both curiosity and anxiety. The discussions with incarcerated men were frank, honest and sincere and often the topics were so raw one could not avoid feeling it in his gut. All the while, the demeanor on both sides remained polite and respectful. The result of their five-week collaboration was a student-created book, “Brokenness and Blessings,” wherein stories contributed by students and inmates are presented without author to highlight the dichotomy between the upbringing of the two groups.

“Empathy” is the word that best describes these collaborations. As Palma campus ministry puts it, “empathy is your pain in my heart.” At the center of this partnership is the willingness to embrace each other as brothers, regardless of race, economics, or opportunities seized or lost. These “exercises in empathy” are ultimately about restorative justice with an emphasis on the needs of the victims and victimizers to find possible correction in addition to mere punishment. Respectful dialogue on an equal footing on the themes that matter — sitting in circles and reporting out — is healing and humane.

Since the collaboration’s inception three years ago, Palma School students, parents and faculty have met with Life C.Y.C.L.E. to examine the works of John Steinbeck. Steinbeck’s books speak to the downtrodden and misunderstood while most of his stories are told right here in the Salinas Valley. The parables found in Steinbeck’s themes are relatable to everyone, but especially to the men behind the prison walls.

Life lessons through literature

Through “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Of Mice and Men and “The Pearl,” the groups engage in conversations that begin with the books’ characters and progress into personal stories. The students have a front row seat to a life unimagined. The inmates revere the students’ maturity and intellect and deeply appreciate the respect with which they are treated. Seeing themselves on equal footing with students who are destined for some of the most prestigious universities in the country gives the inside men a sense of purpose and self worth. Many of the inmates have never had a visitor after decades of incarceration which adds even more meaning to the meetings. Through these collaborations, the men who thought of themselves as rejected develop hope, a commodity in short supply behind bars.

The Phoenix Alliance is another ILTAG at CTF that comprises many of the same members as Life C.Y.C.L.E. Their purpose is to affect positive change. The men named their scholarship “Men Built for Others” to reflect what they aspire to become. To fund the scholarship, they raised money from within the inmate population. Through an outside advocate, they were also able to create a crowd-funding website, (https://www.crowdrise.com/men-built-for-others-scholarship-fund/fundraiser/CROP) through the Careering Responsible Opportunities Programs (CROP) Foundation. The website has raised $7,961 to date.

The Phoenix Alliance began as an ILTAG called the Higher Education Library Project (HELP), which was created by an inmate with a vision in 2007, who has since paroled. Their first purpose was to establish and maintain a library of text books for inmates pursuing their AA degree who could not afford to purchase them. Their second purpose was to fund a scholarship for Achieving Academic Excellence, a program at Hartnell Community College in Salinas that brought academically and economically challenged students into the prison for three-day empowerment workshops. The workshops were called Leadership4Life, and the first scholarships were presented in 2008.

In the early days of Leadership4Life, the program received marginal support. Through the extraordinary efforts of Leadership4Life’s founders, Lt. Roland Ramon, CTF’s Public Information Officer, and Renee Barnes, retired CTF teacher, it slowly built the momentum that has sustained it for the past 10 years.  Hermelinda Rocha, Hartnell Instructor, was also a vital part of its success. It was her belief in the message that the men offered her students that allowed the workshops to thrive.

In 2015, the state began purchasing textbooks for inmates, and HELP transformed into the Phoenix Alliance. They continue to support the ACE scholarship and have now added the Palma School scholarship. The group also facilitates Leadership4Life, providing a transformational perspective that is grounded in the empowering concepts of responsibility, choice, commitment and the freedom to shape a future worth having to Hartnell’s Ethnic 1 Studies students.

“The Phoenix Alliance is a unique, model ILTAG, not only because it positively affects the community on an on-going basis through Leadership4Life, but the men providing this service are doing it with no outside incentive (i.e. time off of their sentence, special recognition),” said Barnes. “Each man on the executive body has been incarcerated for many years and some still have a lengthy stretch before they are released, but they are self-driven and committed to living a purposeful, generous life while in prison.”

Members of today’s executive body of the Phoenix Alliance have earned degrees from AA through Masters of Philosophy and Psychology, along with certifications in drug and alcohol counseling, all while incarcerated. Warden Shawn Hatton has been an ardent supporter of the Phoenix Alliance, among other prison ILTAGs, since his appointment in April 2017.

Life C.Y.C.L.E. and the Phoenix Alliance are two programs at CTF Soledad that illustrate when inmates make a commitment to restorative justice and making amends through programs they initiate and conduct, they can affect positive change for themselves, the inmate population and the surrounding communities.