Vanguard Incarcerated Press: JDP Collaborates with Brother 2 Brother to Mentor Youth

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by Jesse Carson

“You’re not here for being bad or wrong,” says a young man in prison blues to a handful of people, “but because someone cares about you.” Robert Yim, 32, is addressing five fellow incarcerated men standing in for at-risk youth during a mock run of the Juvenile Diversion Program (JDP) on Facility E of the Mule Creek State Prison on May 27. Yim and his 13 fellow JDP mentors were preparing for the arrival of five young men from the Sacramento area who would be coming June 24 for a daylong workshop. “We’re here because we care,” Yim added.

The Juvenile Diversion Program “is not a Scared Straight program,” says mentor Jerry King, 31, who points out that two of the incarcerated facilitators were in Scared Straight when they were at-risk youth themselves (ironically, one man’s Scared Straight mentor is also currently housed at the prison). Instead, JDP is a person-centered mentorship program designed to coach young people on the impact of their choices and the availability of resources to help them make positive decisions. The day is highly orchestrated and intentional, and mentors go through months of training before ever interacting with a juvenile participant.

The June 24 workshop started off unexpectedly, with the Brother 2 Brother organization bringing 15 young men instead of the anticipated five. Facilitators typically assign the youth to a mentor in advance, but the mentors didn’t miss a beat as they matched mentors and participants on the fly. After introductions — in which mentors gave their name, prison ID number, age, names of victims, conviction and sentence, and the amount of time served — the young men were asked why they were present and what they hoped to learn during the day. As might be expected, most shrugged in response to the first question, but 14-year-old Tyson summed up most participants’ feelings: “The minute I walked in here, I realized I don’t ever want to be in prison.”

The young men, aged 12 to 17, came along with Brother 2 Bother’s CEO, Mervin Brookins, as well as its president, Aaron Cardoza, and Rob Decamp, one of the organization’s mentors. Brookins, a former life-term inmate who served 24 years, says programs like JDP and Brother 2 Brother change the narrative. “Not only are people changing,” he says, “they are excelling. We have to show the unique value of the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated.” Brookins works closely with his community to facilitate the success of young people, and helped write the alternative sentencing policies for the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office. Brother 2 Brother, along with two other diversion programs, accepts referrals for young people heading down the wrong path, bringing in hundreds of juveniles for mentorship, life skills training, meals and clothing, and a safe space to spend time.

Cardoza, who served 10 years for carjacking and robbery, has been free for 20 years. Brookins pulled him in to help start Brother 2 Brother seven years ago, a move that finally got Cardoza out of continuing to do “stupid stuff around the neighborhood.”

Decamp, who was serving a life sentence from the ages of 14 to 36 before Senate Bill 1437 passed (which amended the law to distinguish between those who unknowingly participate in a homicide and the killer themselves), worked with the Anti-Recidivism Coalition before coming to Brother 2 Brother earlier this year. Coming to prison young, he didn’t have much hope for release — the rate of parole dates granted by the Board of Prison Terms when Decamp first came to prison was 1.2 percent — but during his 16th year of incarceration he finally started to participate in rehabilitative groups and prepare for the parole board. He’s glad that he did, because even though he didn’t have to appear before the board he can use what he learned to make a difference in the lives of young people who may be on a path similar to the one that led him to prison. He gets excited talking about Brother 2 Brother’s safe space for kids, open Monday through Friday to provide sports, video games, cognitive behavioral therapy curricula designed to address gun violence and emotional intelligence, and certification as specialists in Microsoft Word and PowerPoint. “It’s growing,” he grins. Brookins then boasted about the program’s youth sports organization, which is for young people from 5 to 15 and brings them together regardless of neighborhood to bond over a shared love of sports.

The issue of ’hoods and gang affiliation is important, as several of the visitors were from the violent Del Paso Heights area of Sacramento and are either in a gang or closely affiliated.

Retired Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn laments that the construction of a highway in 1982 and the closure of the ARCO Arena in 2022 literally cut the Del Paso Heights neighborhood off from the city’s economy, exacerbated by the closure of the nearby McClellan Air Force Base in 1995. The area suffered, and according to KCRA 3 reporter Jason Marks was hard-hit by drugs, then gangs, then tough-on-crime policies.

“The drug scene just changed the whole thing,” says Eugene Washington, a pastor who has been a barber along Grand Avenue for more than 60 years. His business has been broken into so many times insurance will no longer cover the barbershop, in which he has even caught people selling drugs. “[Drugs] wiped out that village,” says Dr. Gina Warren of the Neighborhood Wellness Foundation, noting that incarceration leads to broken homes and more struggles for young people.

“It wasn’t out of greed … it was out of trying to take care of myself,” explains Ezell Humphrey-Grant, who says he founded the Nogales Crips gang and became one of the area’s drug kingpins before dedicating his life to helping young people after over a decade in prison.

“Whoever gives us the most love and acceptance has the most influence over us,” asserted mentor Richie Gomez, 48. “Violence equals respect, and violence equals safety,” said Sean Neal, 50, of the lessons he learned in the streets. This so-called safety comes as a cost, though: The area consisting of Del Paso Heights, Oak Park, Valley High, and Meadowview saw over 423 gun crimes in 2021, compared to 945 in Sacramento overall.

“I learned that there’s an endless amount of people in your life that are willing to help you get in trouble,” reflected Frank Rojas, 44, a JDP mentor since 2021.

“Being down for a homie doesn’t always mean riding with them,” Brookins shared with the young men. “Sometimes it means holding them back.” A significant portion of the day was spent challenging the “G Code” and pointing out its impact on people’s lives. During the Power of Beliefs Workshop, mentor Mike Owens, 49, used some hypothetical scenarios to identify participants’ many exceptions to the Code (which consists of three tenets: Don’t snitch; Civilians, women, and children are off-limits; and Do your time without whining). But “the truth is only the truth if it’s the truth from every angle,” Owens declared about the G Code’s inconsistencies. During the walkthrough in May, he made a poignant observation that affected everyone in the room. After remarking that we only have control over our choices and decisions, not their consequences or ripple effect, he challenged one of the stand-in youths for hoping that his family wouldn’t suffer the results of his lifestyle. “If you’re really interested in keeping it 100 [percent honest], when you go back home tonight, you kiss your baby girl and you look her in the eye and you tell her that you’re willing to risk her life on a coin flip,” Owens said, leaving the room in thoughtful silence for the next several minutes as some men wept. “Citizens protect their community. Gs protect the gang,” he added softly.

“The G Code may protect your family for a moment,” offered Jacob Robles, 31, a mentor since 2018, “but the Man Code protects your family for a lifetime.”

Prior to the workshop, the young men were taken on a tour of the yard, beginning with the education area. Neal pointed out the consequences of not going to school if assigned, such as a loss of privileges and even time added to one’s sentence, and remarked on the irony that the facility’s legal library, “the most important room on the yard,” is the smallest. Drawing their attention to the gun tower overlooking the yard, he reflected on how the dangerous environment means staff aren’t taking any chances: “People have been shot and killed just for playing around,” he said. “The homies didn’t tell us about that.” He went on to point out the abundance of cameras, razor wire, and “Out of Bounds” stenciling on walls before stopping in front of building 20. Looking first at the toilets surrounded by a low cinderblock wall, he commented on the lack of privacy, then remarked that the large 3-by-3 window they were standing in front of looked into the toilet area of one of the cells. “No privacy,” was all he had to say.

The group then spent several minutes in the cell shared by King, Owens, 39-year-old mentor Ronald Prasad, and three other men. The roughly 20-foot square holds a six-cubic-foot locker for each of the men, two bunk beds, two single beds, two steel sinks, a small metal desk, a stool, and a steel toilet. The young men were unsettled by the living conditions, and eager to move on; Walter, 15, refused to even enter the cell.

The tour swung by the work change building, through which inmates must pass on the way to and from vocational classes, the maintenance area, and prison industry jobs. Neal paused to comment on the difference between minimum wage — $17 an hour — and the average pay at one of the best-paying jobs in prison — 35 cents an hour. “At that rate, it would take two years to buy those shoes,” he said, pointing to the footwear of one of the young men. “That’s assuming you don’t owe restitution,” he added, meaning that 50 percent of one’s wages are withheld for court-ordered fines. Stopping by the canteen, he drew the tour’s attention to the posted prices. “Forty-five cents for a Ramen soup,” hesaid. “It’d take you three hours at the best job to afford one soup. How about that?”

The tour stopped at the chow hall for lunch and some conversation time between mentors and youth. “This is data collection through one-on-ones to build rapport and trust,” explains Robles. “We get them to open up through light-hearted and open-ended questions.” The idea, he says, is to identify a young person’s core need, their anchors (the stable people in their lives), and goals. This is where the training really kicks in. “In JDP, we train in microskills like active listening, soler [Sit up, Open posture, Lean in, Eye contact, and Relax], and social mirroring,” says Luis Sosa, 42, a mentor since 2022. “The training is intense, and the accountability is always there. We may not always be feeling 100 percent, but we have to show up — it’s about the kids.”

“If you want to spend your time doing good, I’m here for you,” says Erica Albertson, a correctional counselor and the group’s sponsor. Albertson has worked for the department for 18 years, with experience as a correctional officer and in the Investigative Services Unit. “I’m here because I want to see this program work,” she says. “In the end, even if we don’t effect change, they [the kids] can’t leave here saying, ‘I didn’t know.’”

“I think it’s very therapeutic,” adds Stephanie Jacques, a social worker with five years’ experience in the department who sat in on the event. “They [the mentors] have to be there for the kids, which helps them with their own work.”

In discussing the workshop afterward, Jacques praised the mentors. “The power of the vulnerability makes me the most proud. You guys planted those seeds so thoughtfully, so intentionally. It was so warm and so inviting. The atmosphere that you guys created melts away those cold walls constructed by youth who’ve lived through trauma.”

“Life hands us really hard situations we get born into,” Owens told the group of young men. “We have problems that aren’t always our fault, but it’s our responsibility to solve them.”

“It’s never too late to start making good decisions,” added Gomez.

Another of the day’s main focuses is the Personal Promise Workshop, developed by Yim and Robles based on psychologist Carl Rogers’ theories. Rogers suggested that every person can function as their best selves if only given a safe, empathetic, and non-judgmental environment. The workshop assumes that the youth are already the experts in their own lives, and mentors use non-directive techniques to help them focus their self-exploration on their true aspirations. The young people are asked to specify a goal — phrased as a promise — then identify the people or things that could help or hinder their reaching that goal as well as why it is important. In discussing these promises, the mentors and Brother 2 Brother staff were asked to make promises of their own to see those goals realized. “One of the biggest mistakes of my life is rejecting the help from the people who care about me,” shared Rojas.

“Know that you’re not alone in your promise,” said Robles. “You’ve got a whole team behind you wanting to see you succeed.”

The young men shared their promises with the whole group, met with applause and a handshake from their mentor. Most goals related to graduating college or providing for their family, but several made a possibly life-saving promise. “I promise to never join a gang,” said Tyson.

Like the other young men in the room, Tyson has a good chance of success if he takes advantage of all the resources available to help him out. Brookins shared that, among the community leaders, judges, and political figures he’s managed to get involved in mentoring Brother 2 Brother’s youth, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg is one of Tyson’s mentors.

The JDP mentors did not ignore the realities of life outside the prison walls after the workshops are over. King acknowledged the photos that had been lined up along the wall all day, four participants and one formerly incarcerated JDP mentor who were taken by gun violence. It was a somber moment as he told their stories, and some of the mentors wept recalling their friend Mo who had paroled after 20 years only to be killed during a robbery at work. “What we don’t want is for you to be another one of these photos,” said King, “or another person wearing a blue shirt with us.”

“The fact that you guys came shows that you want something different,” praised Yim. “Keep strong. Keep moving forward. Do something positive with your life. You guys are way better than this blue shirt. You guys are way better than that 45-cent soup.”

As the group wound down, preparations were made to follow up with the young men. For now, that consists of letters through Albertson and Brother 2 Brother, but video calls at Brother 2 Brother’s offices are also in development and the youth are expected to return in a few months. In addition to continued mentoring, some of the young men threw down the challenge of a basketball game as well, which was met with smiles and excitement.

The day ended with affirmation of the young men by their mentors and an invitation for the visitors to share their thoughts. Les, 17, brought proud smiles to the mentors when he said, “I learned I’m more than what everyone thinks.” Cardoza, blown away by the experience, proclaimed to the mentors, “You guys are a part of the community, even in here.” Decamp could only shake his head. “I was very, very surprised.”

“I’m a brother who will never forget this experience,” added Brookins, “and I will never leave you behind. This is, without a doubt, the best program I have ever seen in prison, even out on the streets.”

To read more about the Juvenile Diversion Program on Facility E, see the article in the June 2022 edition of the Mule Creek Post (https://fliphtml5.com/bookcase/zudxq) or the mentor bios in the February 2023 edition; Facility A JDP mentors are featured in the June 2023 edition. To learn more about Brother 2 Brother visit the organization’s Facebook page. For information on how your organization can get involved with the Juvenile Diversion Program, contact erica.albertson@cdcr.ca.gov.

Originally published in the Mule Creek Post.  Jesse Carson is the editor in chief of the Mule Creek Post.

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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