By Dian Grier, LCSW
California Correctional Institution
On Aug. 3, California Correctional Institution (CCI) Mental Health Department sponsored an unprecedented event once again. Last year, this group won an ethics bowl against California State University Bakersfield. This year they focused their talent and energy on prison reform.
Often, and rarely, are prisoners asked their opinions on what might work in their rehabilitation process but CCI asked, and the inmates responded by creating a research-based presentation to answer this question. In attendance were Warden Joe Sullivan, Healthcare CEO Rhonda Litt-Stoner, Chief of Mental Health Dr. William Walsh and other institution staff.
The original question asked to this group of inmates was, “If you were given the position of Warden and told to create an effective prison for change, what would you do?”
At first, the concept perplexed some of the inmates, as they had difficulty wrapping their heads around such a broad topic, but then they started considering why they have changed and what has helped some inmates change while others do not.
They eventually divided into several groups of three or four to address different topics. A few of the topics researched were: increasing the mental health programs to include every inmate, addressing addiction more aggressively, changing the sterile environment of the prisons, increasing funds for transition into life after prison as well as more opportunities for Correctional Officers to train and be a larger part of the rehabilitation program.
The inmates spent six months gathering data from the library, getting input from their families as well as from the group leader. They studied foreign prison systems as well as other prison systems within the United States in order to determine what works and what doesn’t work.
The presentations were well received by staff. According to Rhonda Litt-Stoner, CEO, “CCI’s Mental Health Department has done it again! It never ceases to amaze me the raw talent possessed by the inmates and the staff’s ability to draw it out through unconventional methods. It was obvious that the gentlemen put a lot of research and hard work into their projects, all bringing a different perspective on prison reform. It will take these types of innovative approaches to continue to invoke their innate abilities and to teach them conversation techniques to use when addressing conflicts without resorting to violent means. Kudos to (group leader and program creator Dian Grier) and the entire debate team.”
Innovative programs such as this debate team are an integral part of a pilot program at CCI that is being run through the Mental Health Department.
These types of unusual groups pique the inmate’s interest and some continue to conduct research for many more years after being a part of these groups.
When inmates are given a chance to participate in groups that interest them, the benefits are immense, according to organizers. The inmates learn social skills, gain confidence and learn to work with others in a meaningful way. Often issues of race and other types of judgment fall to the wayside as they learn to respect one another and communicate in a way that creates true connections.
Jennifer Peters, who was in the audience, sad she thought the speech on correctional officers was outstanding.
“The hard work put into these speeches was unmistakably a job well done,” she said.
The speeches that touched on reform included ways to keep staff and inmates safer as well as how to increase communication and understanding for both Inmates and correctional officers.
According to Ryan Metier, who spoke about correctional officers and inmate reform, his first attempt at his speech consisted of pointing out flaws rather than learning to understand and empathize with the difficult challenges correctional officers face.
As he continued to work on the speech, his thinking and his view on correctional officers shifted into finding solutions and common ground – a far more effective approach than engaging in the “blame game” or looking at the problem from one perspective, he said.
Metier said, “Through the guidance of Ms. Grier and insight from other inmates and other correctional officers, I have learned to fully listen to both sides of any issue or judgments I may have. This way I have learned to be truly empathetic.”
Mental health group sessions currently include debate and speech, drama, creative writing and speaking.