Prison is no place anyone would want to be; restricting, dark, unsafe and punitive. It is a place we isolate a segment of our society whose conduct prevents them from remaining within the larger population; individuals who have, to one degree or another, hurt others. It is a place where one’s independence and self-worth is stripped away and replaced with total subjugation and control. The word “prison” usually conjures up very negative imagery: bad people, horrible environment, survival of the fittest; where people leave more sophisticated and evil than when they arrived.
But this isn’t always the case.
I recently had my world view of “Prison” challenged with my first visit to the California Men’s Colony (CMC) located in San Luis Obispo. Historically, CMC has been one of the largest prisons in the world. Currently, between their two facilities, they house nearly 6, 000 inmates. Needless to say, entering into this is massive fortress is daunting – a very ominous experience!
So what occasioned me to make this visit – a gift to the Family Care Network, from prisoners no less!
Several months ago, the Family Care Network was contacted by a representative from the California Prison Industry Authority (CAL-PIA) with a very unique request – a group of prisoners wanted to know if they could make a donation to our organization. Of course we obliged, but with much intrigue to say the least. One’s imagination can go wild conjuring up ideas on how prisoners obtain funds for such a donation; what we learned was amazing and heartwarming.
This past December, a prisoner serving time for murder and working in the CAL-PIA program, approached a program administrator stating he wanted to set aside part of his “earnings” to give to a charity. Mind you, prisoners working in the CAL-PIA program earn between .30 and .95 cents per hour! Never before had there been such a request. Considering “economies of scale”, the administrator challenged the prisoner to see if he could find others willing to do likewise. He took on the challenge and began promoting the idea amongst fellow inmates working within the 10+ CAL PIA industries, (i.e., shoe and boot manufacturing, weaving, printing, jacket manufacturing, silks screening, et cetera). Teams were formed within each industry including team captains. Of the 600 or so inmates working in CAL-PIA, nearly 250 signed on to participate in the fundraiser.
Now came the next major hurdle – state bureaucracy! Because this has never been done before, the idea needed to be approved at the highest level of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation; plus, it needed to be determined if and how these funds could be managed within the prison accounting structure. Thanks to the diligent efforts by CMC Warden, Josie Gastelo, this project was approved.
Before the donation drive commenced, the group of prisoners selected the Family Care Network to be their beneficiary. How this happened and why was not disclosed, but we are incredibly thankful and humbled by their generosity.
Fast-forward to this past May 12th when I was joined by our Board Chair, Kim Oldfield, and Resource Development Supervisor in receiving a check of nearly $1,500 from a group of about 30 Team Leaders. This was genuine sacrificial giving. Inmates voluntarily taking from the little amount they receive to help children and youth have good endings to challenging stories not so dissimilar from their own. As Ms. Oldfield described, by giving back in this way, these men made themselves “part of a community that [their] eyes will probably never see.”
All three of us representing the Family Care Network were humbled and very impressed by the experience. Ms. Oldfield encapsulating all of our thoughts when she said, “My heart was touched in such a way, I really can’t describe.” But the blessing continued as we were given a tour of the CAL-PIA programs. This tour can be summarized in one word – impressive!
These inmates are not performing make-work jobs, they are learning high-end, very marketable skills. Each of their manufacturing units are top quality, with amazing equipment which requires high skills to operate. They manufacture over 80,000 leather boots per year, tens of thousands of socks, thousands of yards of specially woven fabric used to manufacture T-shirts and other apparel, thousands of units of safety apparel for Caltrans, the CCC and Calfire, and over 40,000,000 license plate stickers in addition to tons of high quality printing ranging from flyers to books which are produced right here in San Luis Obispo. Once more, none of this is paid for through taxpayer dollars; rather it is all funded through the revenues generated by these industries. Every manufacturing supervisor or instructor we met was incredibly skilled, enthusiastic and impassioned about the positive difference they are making in the lives of these inmates. I believe this was manifested in the kindness and generosity displayed through the gift we received from this group of special inmates.
For Mrs. Oldfield, the experience opened up a whole new world to her, one she hadn’t known existed before, her sharing, “I have been humbled and I want to live my life in such a way that I consciously make myself aware of the other ‘worlds’ I may not yet know. No longer will it be ‘out of sight out of mind’ for ‘I will remember the prisoner.’”
At our check presentation ceremony, Warden Gastelo challenged the group to double their donation next year. And we believe they can do it. Additionally, efforts are already underway, initiated by the prisoner who started this effort, to replicate this giving program in every CAL-PIA facility throughout the statewide CDCR system. Yes – there can be light in the darkest of places.