That was the year that was
The world will remember 2020 as the year of CoVid, and while certainly CoVid had a major impact on activities at Life Support Alliance, a look back at the year also shows a year of unexpected growth. And while our plans at the start of 2020 had indeed planned for expansion on many levels, that expansion came in ways, areas and at a speed we hadn’t contemplated.
Our well-considered plans for 2020 included 6 family seminars throughout the year and state, continuation of our practice of visiting a different prison every weekend to present workshops and classes, expanding the 12-week RISE program at CMF to other prisons. And that’s the way things started, including prisons workshops until mid-March, our first seminar in February in Sacramento and weekly RISE classes.
Of course, all that came to a screeching halt in mid-March, when CoVid shut down the world, including CDCR. On March 14 LSA presented the last, to date, in-person program, the first session of Connecting the Dots at Folsom State Prison. By the next weekend, prisons were closed to everyone not in custody or securing custody.
And while we haven’t been meeting with prisoners or families, since that time, it hasn’t stopped the work that we’re committed to doing or our virtual contact and work. Here are some of the highlights of 2020, some unexpected, but all productive.
· Fourth session of the 12-week RAC credited RISE program at CMF saw LSA able to complete 11 of the 12 weeks of the course before the CoVid lockdown halted classes.
· Completion of both parts of the 2-part Connecting the Dots course on all 6 yards of Avenal State Prison for about 200 men; Part 1 of the Dots program for the Veterans Group at Folsom State Prison 35 participants and on the 4 yards at High Desert State Prison to a cumulative audience of about 150.
· In mid-May, we converted the Amends Project workshop to a correspondence course for prisoners. Several dozen certificates have been awarded and orders and responses continue to come in.
· A few weeks later we were able to release Connecting the Dots program in correspondence course form; to date over 140 correspondence courses have been sent to inmates in every state prison, several state hospitals and even some prisoners in other states.
· Our biggest and most challenging correspondence course efforts in 2020 was the Mental Health project. In mid-June we acquired CDCR-created curriculum for in-cell study courses in Anger Management and Depression. Despite intense efforts on our part to convince CDCR HQ to make these widely available, CDCR turned a deaf ear, so we began efforts to disseminate those courses. And disseminate we did; by the end of the year over 800 requests had been met and mailed out. These are formidable packets, not just in information but in sheer size: 15 ounces of paper and costing (via reduced media mail postal rates) nearly $3 per packet. Media mail, while a financial savings, also means the packets take longer to arrive at their destination.
· And that means those responses must be reviewed and approved before certificates can be issued—an on-going process. There are 2 courses in each mental health packet, each eligible for a certificate; meaning that we’re looking at potentially more than 1,600 courses to review and certificates to issue.
· We were able to conduct one family seminar early in 2020, and despite not being able to present a full schedule of those events, our interaction with families has increased, on a virtual basis. In late March, shortly after the CoVid lockdown began, we began sending daily reports of the CoVid situation in the prisons, at first to our members and later, due to demand, creating an entirely new communicants list, containing not only family members, but CDCR staffers, reporters and legislators who were kept informed of the CoVid situation, mitigation efforts. From inception to the end of the calendar year we missed daily posts on only 3 occasions.
· During all of 2020 our newsletters, California Lifer Newsletter and Lifer-Line, continued, though with some changes. While Lifer-Line continued to be delivered monthly via email, because of CoVid restrictions issue of CLN were delayed. Although all issues were eventually published, our Board of Directors made the decision that going forward, CLN will be a quarterly, not bi-monthly, publication. The number of subscribers to both newsletters increased in 2020.
· Our correspondence with lifers—and other inmates—also increased in 2020, via letters and even, for those with tablets, emails from time to time. Our usual correspondence level for the last several years averaged about 200 letters per month, after the lockdown that mail level increased to around 250 letters per month.
· Moving into new areas as needs and opportunities presented, LSA cooperated with CDCR in efforts to transport released prisoners home early in the pandemic, when the department was trying to keep those released inmates off public transportation. LSA’s director and board members picked up one man released from CIM and transported him to Oroville and another from CHCF for delivery to his home in Oakland and facilitated in travel arrangements for others.
· We’ve also continued to develop contacts in and relationships at CDCR and the political arena, within the BPH, DAPO, legislative offices and the Governor’s office. These communications and working relationships are vital to our mission of keeping the plight and situation of lifers in the attention of those making and enforcing laws.
· In late summer, in a long-contemplated move, LSA moved to new, expanded suite of offices, providing more workspace for both our programs and volunteers. And just in time! The social distancing of CoVid precautions became possible in our new digs, along with providing room for our growing correspondence programs. Once social distancing and meeting sizes open up, we’ll host an open house for all our friends and supporters.
· Part of those growing space needs were precipitated by LSA’s success in late summer in being awarded a grant from CDCR to conduct an expanded version of the RISE program at CSP-SAC. The grant period covers 2 session, continuing into 2022, and will allow us to bring a 16-week version of RISE to as many as 90 prisoners each session at SAC.
· Though originally intended to be an in-person course, CoVid requirements caused us to convert this program to correspondence, resulting in a 108-page workbook, replete with homework assignments and offering credit to those participating. Our hope is the next sessions will be able to be done in person, but we’re prepared to continue by correspondence if necessary.
CoVid has taught us many things, other than social distancing and how to properly wash our hands. We’ve had to become adept if not proficient at video meetings, creating correspondence courses (I should have studied lesson planning), and being flexible and creative. While we hope to begin in-person events this year, in the meantime we’re exploring the logistics of holding family webinars by video or zoom call, in case restrictions remain in place the rest of the year.
Similarly, while we’re sending out correspondence courses to those still inside, we’re hoping CDCR will open up video possibilities there as well, and if they do, we’re ready to provide program content via either DVD or video. As these possible plans jell we’ll keep everyone informed, particularly in terms of webinars for family members on parole and policy changes. Correspondence courses will never replace our in-person presentations, but the option to reach those interested individuals at outlying prisons that we may not be able to travel to is an option we intend to employ.
We’re hoping to secure one or two interns when the fall classes start at Sac State, so the process of outlining an intern program is underway. We need the help—there are many projects that could benefit from ‘boots on the ground,’ the ground being our office here in Sacramento.
If you’re in the Sacramento area and would like to become more involved, please hit us up for a meeting or call. While we greatly appreciate the help and willingness of our supporters throughout the state, the honest fact is that we really need local bodies, able to make and sustain a commitment of a few hours (or more) each week to help with logistics, record keeping (remember all those 800+ packets?) and similar necessary jobs.
If you’re up for learning our programs and becoming a workshop presenter/facilitator, we’d love to have that help too, though that could entail some travel once the prisons open up to in-person programming and isn’t for everyone. And we are always in need of volunteer mailers.
In the upcoming months we will be offering two new programs, one on preparing parole plans and the second on lifer-wifer relationships. While our intent and hope is to present these in person to those still inside, correspondence versions will also be available.
So that was our year…and we didn’t even count all the phone calls, emails and social media messages we fielded in the dark year of 2020. Hopefully we were able to bring and sustain a little light to find the end of that long tunnel to those on the inside and their friends and families, waiting for them out here.