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There are programs on entrepreneurship, personal development and reentry available to California’s inmates—programs the outside community doesn’t often hear about.

Exercises in Empathy session

Sergio Zarazua sits among his fellow inmates during an Exercises in Empathy session.

Aga Popęda here with more information about local programs aiding inmates imprisoned in Monterey County. In January, I had a chance to learn about Exercises in Empathy: A Transformative Justice Initiative, which happens at the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad. As it turns out, this is one of several such programs.

Since we published a cover story about Exercises in Empathy, I have received many letters from Weekly readers—most of them curious and supportive of such programs. Many people expressed an interest in working with the imprisoned population as volunteers; others simply spoke about the need for such programs to exist.

While the community participation aspect seems pretty unique to Megan McDrew’s EiE program, there are other services available to inmates that the outside community doesn’t often hear about. A couple of weeks ago I had a chance to speak with another person who, like McDrew, delivers important services to the prison population. Scott Taylor is a local facilitator for Defy Ventures, a nonprofit founded in 2010 that started in New York with the goal of reducing mass incarceration and recidivism by promoting well-being, entrepreneurship, employment and personal development training. Taylor has been running the CEO of Your New Life program at the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad and, more recently, the neighboring Salinas Valley State Prison. 

“Before you can manage a business, you have to manage your own emotions because customers will make you angry,” Taylor says, to give me a sample of where he starts the course that usually takes up to 10 months and involves up to 50 inmates at once. Part of it is a business pitch competition (“30 men pitching their business ideas to 30 volunteer business leaders, mostly from the [San Francisco] Bay Area,” he says about the most recent event) but it’s mostly an educational experience; there is a curriculum, textbooks and a graduation with a gown and a diploma, as well as a letter to the parole board at the end of the course. Taylor is typically the sole instructor—sometimes he brings in one more person to help participants chart a course for life after prison.

“We provide entrepreneurial training in a context of personal development,” he says. “We teach you how to plan your life one week, one month, one year after you leave the prison. We discuss potential romantic relationships. Then we move to business strategies.”

Another nonprofit that plays a significant role in the lives of local inmates is CROP, an organization dedicated to reforming California’s criminal justice landscape through innovative, holistic approaches to reentry meant to reduce recidivism. CROP’s director of programs, Jason Bryant, was sentenced to 26 years to life in prison in the early 1990s for a series of robberies, the last of which tragically resulted in a man’s death. He shared his story, and the organization’s current mission, in a 2020 CNN documentary.

CROP also facilitates the Ready 4 Life program, a reentry program designed to equip former inmates with the tools they need for success in the community. The program is delivered over 12 months; program participants receive personal leadership coaching and professional workplace development support, as well as training on digital literacy, financial wellness and robust workforce training to prepare them for careers in the tech industry.

The transformative justice movement is still young. More programs in different formats, with members of the community participating or not, could still be designed. The trend is spreading beyond academia and theoretical postulates, with more places in which inmates are treated like patients, students and customers. In this young space, all initiatives are worth trying.    

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