‘PREP’ — Helping ‘lifers’ re-enter society
On a recent Wednesday evening, a dozen or so ex-cons --- mostly former lifers who served 20-to-40-year sentences --- sat around a wooden coffee table in the back room of a wood-frame house in South Los Angeles, talking about their “lifestyle addictions” to drugs, gangbanging and crime.
During the first 15 minutes of the weekly meeting of Criminals & Gangmembers Anonymous, after repeating “The Serenity Prayer,” members took turns reading “The Problem — As We Understand it,” CGA’s 12 steps to recovery, and “Our 12 Traditions to Safety.”
Then the men in the Partnership for Re-Entry Program (PREP) got to the groupthink session’s main topic: ego.
“Most of my life was based on egoism,” said the 60-something-looking guy with a grey goatee and mustache leading the group. “It wasn’t until that I started coming here that I realized this. I was trying to justify my behavior, but I’m the one who has to change. It’s difficult to go to somebody else in prison to ask for help and trust.”
Heads nodded in all-too-knowing agreement.
“I’m still a work in process,” he went on, confiding that some steadfast urges crept through his mind when he spotted a Brink’s guard carelessly step away from two money bags left on the sidewalk. “But I didn’t do anything, because this program works for me. I had to leave the beliefs I had in prison there. And I’m not going to let anything or person send me back to prison. It’s why I come to these meetings and am in this program.”
‘Slow, subtle process’
The first step for these out-of-prison lifers in PREP, after seeing their parole officer, is often getting their birth certificates so they can apply for General Relief assistance and other social services they’re entitled to, including food stamps and social security disability. Then it’s making sure they meet the conditions of parole, which usually lasts five years. On entering the program, the men pay $100; after, their rent is based on a sliding scale according to what they can pay.
“But I’m going to say the greatest challenge is they’ve been locked up in a prison for 30 years, and they really inculcated a prison institution life,” said Sister Mary Sean Hodges. The Dominican Sister of Mission San Jose started PREP more than 10 years ago and still runs it with Daughters of Mary and Joseph Sister Teresa Groth under the auspices of the Los Angeles Archdiocese’s Office of Restorative Justice, but as a separate nonprofit.
“And so when they’re released, to get the institution out of them and into society, that’s a very slow, subtle process,” the 71-year-old former teacher and principal continued. “Some people have a whole lot more of that inside them than others. And along with that is a trust issue. So I think that’s the hardest.”
And that’s where the meetings come in at five rental residential locations, including a tan stucco craftsman home with a gabeled roof called Francisco Home Leighton. The imposing craftsman, built in the early 20th century, was bought and renovated by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Council of Los Angeles for the specific purpose of housing ex-prisoners. Together, the homes house 53 mostly lifers today, ranging in age from 35 to 86. The average number of years served by residents is 30.
Besides Criminals & Gangmembers Anonymous, the prison re-entry ministry also has a Monday night ethics group and two “Real Talk” sessions every Saturday where the men share their beliefs and thoughts on a given timely subject. Everyone is required to attend at least one of these meetings.
The homes also have weekly group meetings to foster socialization and community building. And there’s Bible study. Plus, many of men are required as part of their parole to attend AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) or NA (Narcotics Anonymous) groups.
“We want them to stay with us a year-and-a-half so they can achieve the two transitions,” Sister Hodges said. “One is getting rid of the prison mentality, so the adjustments are to their psyches. And the other is they’ve put in place enough of the financial stuff, like finding a job, to be able to move on. Now, that’s where we’re running into difficulties.”
Sister Groth, 56, notes that there’s great diversity among the men who come to PREP in terms of ties to families they’ve left behind years before.
“Some of them have very strong family support — financial and just presence — and some have nothing,” she reported. “Some get things sent to them right away after they’re released like laptops, cell phones and plane or bus tickets to come home for a visit. And others have absolutely no family. In fact, their family demands help from them. So they come out to a dysfunctional family.”
To help the parolees find jobs, PREP recently started Starfish Services. The limited liability company provides upholstery work as well as “ready-to-show” real estate services, where a team of men gets a vacant property up to codes and ready to be put on the market. Many of the men have learned skills as electricians, plumbers, welders, painters and janitors while serving their lengthy sentences.
Over the years, PREP has also developed a correspondence course on life skills to send to inmates. Some 2,300 have signed up for “Turning Point,” a 40-lesson course based on the principles of restorative justice. Those who take it work at their own pace, writing reflective essays for each lesson. Subjects range from how to budget after being released to doing right by one’s victim.
And a related Biblically-based program on anger management — actually written by an inmate at Chuckwalla Valley State Prison near Blythe — that started last year already is going out to 800 inmates.
“The courses have been very effective,” said Sister Hodges. “We get a lot of excellent comments about them, that they really are helping the men do the reflection and help them change their life focus. So a lot of the men who come to live here have already done a course, but it’s not a requirement.”
The contact point between inmate and PREP often happens when the inmate writes to the residential supportive program desperately seeking a letter he can take to his next California Board of Parole hearing, showing he’ll have stable post-release housing along with, at least, the possibility of employment.
“For many of them, that’s the only thing that keeps them in prison for many other years,” Sister Groth pointed out. “So it’s almost like sponsoring them out of prison. We even get calls now from Sacramento [California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation] asking: ‘Can you take him?’”
“Because housing is that element that’s so necessary,” said Sister Hodges.
Two years into the U.S. Marine Corps after enlisting in 1977, Ralph Beeman was doing pretty well as a leatherneck at Camp Pendleton until a buddy asked him to come along while he collected a debt. Things turned ugly quickly. And the friend ended up killing the guy who owed him money, making Beeman just as guilty as if he had done the violent deed himself.
Sentenced on a second-degree murder conviction to 15-to-life, he served 31 years at three different California prisons. He started going up for parole board hearings back in 1988, but kept getting turn down because he had no stable place to stay “outside.”
Then he heard about Sister Hodges’ program from a friend. When he wrote her a letter, she wrote right back accepting him into PREP. And the next time when he went before the board, his parole was approved. Five months later, he walked out of San Quentin and arrived at the big craftsman home, where’s he’s lived for the last 23 months.
“Oh, if it wasn’t for Sister Mary, I’d still be in prison, and that’s because I didn’t have any place to go,” the 52-year-old Salt Lake City native said with a nagging cough. “And I could have gotten out four or five years before. This place provides an excellent opportunity for decompression because people are safe in this house. They’re with people who understand what you’re going through, and it allows people to adjust at their own pace. Some are really quick, and some are really slow.”
After a moment of thought, he mused, “The hardest thing to overcome is the stigma of being in prison, because nobody wants to hire you. Plus the fact that most of the lifers coming out have got 25 to 30 years in. They’re approaching young old age. So getting work is a big factor, and with the economy the way it is today, it’s even worse. Unless you know somebody who’s willing to give you a chance ...”, and his words trailed off.
But Beeman says he’s “doing good,” even though he’s given up looking for regular employment after coming down with rheumatoid arthritis and COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). He’s a house manager at PREP and runs two “Real Talk” support groups. He also likes going to juvenile hall and camps to address youth offenders.
“I want to give back,” he said. “And if I can prevent one kid from going to prison, then I’ve paid back.”
With his grey mustache and semi-wild hair, Albert Cecil Taylor looks considerably older than 61. The 41 years and nine months he spent in prisons, mostly in California, have taken their toll.
Forty-one of those years were for a murder he committed when he was just 19, stabbing to death a new member of his youthful strong-arm robber crew over some disagreement. All were tried as adults. Then, after he served more than four decades in the Golden State, he had to do another seven months in Florida on a previous
Returning to Southern California on a Greyhound to join PREP, he couldn’t stop watching the passing scenery. In Texas, the bus ran into a snowstorm. “There were cactuses with snowy arms,” he said, smiling and shaking his head. “It was beautiful, you know. I couldn’t close my eyes ’cause I wanted to see everything.”
After settling in at the Francisco Home Leighton in early January, there were many adjustment shocks. He couldn’t believe how women dressed these days, leaving “nothing to your imagination.” Sitting out on the wide front porch, he watched in amazement as kids shot by on their skateboards. And he’d never used a computer, sent an email or received a voice mail.
But it was the simple act of going to a supermarket that frightened Taylor the most.
“You know, I’ve walked the halls of hell in prison, fighting and getting beat up by guards my first ten years, mostly because I had a real bad southern accent and had to defend myself. Then I became a Christian in 1981 and calmed down,” he declared. “But when I got out and came here, it terrified me to go to the grocery store. There were so many people and I felt so out of place.”
But the ex-lifer is feeling more and more at home living in PREP’s caring community. He’s not only gone shopping at a local supermarket, but also explored the neighborhood, been to the DMV and applied in person for General Relief benefits.
“This program is a necessary thing,” he stressed. “There’s guys inside prison just like me with no options. This place is like reclaiming lives. You know, we’re valuable as individuals. I tell people all the time, ‘Look, I’m a good man, but I made some bad, bad mistakes.’ But now all I’m responsible for is my present and my future.
“See,” the man who had spent four-plus decades behind bars added in a gravelly voice, “when you have nothing, when you have no help and you’re totally an outcast of society and any social order, and somebody extends a helping hand” — and the parolee tears up — “you don’t take that lightly. So this program is a blessing.”