As part of my usual attendance at the BPH’s monthly Executive Board meeting this month, I was able to sit in on several training sessions for commissioners and deputy commissioners, on topics from CRAs to domestic violence. And as part of my usual remarks to the board, I invited anyone interested to come to CMF in Vacaville on any given Friday to see our R.I.S.E. (Rehabilitate, Implement, Succeed, Excel) group in action.
We want the board members to see the hard work, openness and personal effort the men put into internalizing the changes they need to make in their beliefs, thinking and actions to achieve rehabilitation and be successful on parole. RISE is a 12-week, comprehensive course that has been running at CMF for nearly 6 years and has had a major and positive impact on the lives of many men there—as their testimonials will tell you. Things can get very intense in the group, and it rocks and rolls, emotional highs and lows, revelatory moments and new beginnings.
So I was very happy to hear from some of the commissioners that they would indeed come to the group, to check it out. One recent Friday, 3 commissioners sat in for most of the session, (O’Meara, Cassady and Purcell) and our students did not disappoint, being open and honest about their challenges, causative factors and the changes they are working to hard to accomplish. I knew our students would be interactive, because they’ve learned the importance of honesty, communication and pro-social ideation.
But I was so pleased and gratified to see the trio of commissioners so willingly interact with the men as well, openly and personally encouraging them, speaking about what they hope to see in parole candidates is the sort of things they were seeing from the students in the group. Each spoke to several men personally, and all of them urged our RISE students to continue their efforts, and for those that were currently under an LWOP sentence, not to give up as the laws WILL change.
It was an exhilarating event, and the men were abuzz about the personal interaction with parole commissioners—who were, really and truly, human. But it gets better.
This past Friday yet another commissioner, this time Kevin Chappell, former Warden at San Quentin and a commissioner since 2016, spent the whole 2 hours of the class with us, sitting in the discussion circle and chiming in with gusto. Chappell even admitted that he has one of the lowest grant rates (I wasn’t going to out him, but he did it himself), but was unfailingly encouraging and positive to the RISE group.
But the real Ah-Ha moment came when a very young man, very early into his long and daunting sentence emotionally cracked and opened up with his confusion, despair and fear about his future and fate. I was so moved and proud of our RISE men, who immediately came alongside him with literal hands-on support, encouragement and offers of real assistance. This was not the usual bravado response most people would expect to see from ‘criminals,’ but I knew it was authentic, because we’ve come to know the men in our group for who they really are, absent their past actions and thinking.
What was also authentic was the response from Commissioner Chappell, who, after the class ended, count cleared and the men began returning to their housing to get ready for chow, stayed back, taking the young man aside, sitting alone with him, and quietly listening, talking and really hearing the angst, person to person, man to man, not commissioner and criminal. The two spent a good 10 minutes in quiet and personal talk. I don’t know what the conversation entailed, I didn’t ask and don’t need to know.
What I do know is that this youngster left the room still emotional but in a better headspace than when he first broke, a weak but real and hopeful smile as he went out the door. That reassurance, that contact, that hope, was a gift Commissioner Chappell gave to a lifer one fall day in Vacaville.
And I will be forever appreciative to him for that.