Last Fall, YouThrive Program Manager Adrian Maldonado and Youth Specialist Vernon Pope-Banks took a group of youth to lunch at an unusual location: San Quentin prison. Eating with the incarcerated men of San Quentin was an essential component of this unique field trip aimed at dispelling the romantic myths of prison life and the gang lifestyle.
At YouThrive, our goal is to equip young people who are immersed in or on the precipice of troubling behavior with the mindset and coping skills to stay on a positive path through school and career, and to be contributing members of their family, school, and community. Thanks to a decade-long relationship with San Quentin’s R.E.A.L (Reaching Expanding Adolescent Lives) Choices program, YouThrive provides youth with real-life mentors: incarcerated men who regret their past decisions, share their personal stories and encourage the youth to make different choices.
Many youth think that living the gang lifestyle is cool, that valuing education is “soft”, and that going to prison will give them “street cred” – a value which holds a pull so strong that it often leads to dangerous choices. “But going to prison is not cool or fun,” says 30-year veteran Correctional Officer Ernest Pullium, who runs the R.E.A.L Choices program. According to Pullium, “The youth are not going to listen to me, or to their folks, or even to Adrian or the other YouThrive counselors when we tell them they do not want to end up in prison. But they listen to the inmates.”
"Thank you for telling us about what life is really like in jail (prison) and what we can do to stay out of there and keep our heads straight...it has made me start to think about stuff and is keeping me out of trouble. I realized prison would not be as easy as I thought it would be."
R.E.A.L. Choices inmates have been trained by YouThrive counselors in youth development best practices, restorative practices, adolescent anger management, and introductory counseling, and they work to engage the youth in making positive choices for themselves. They share their personal stories and talk about how each choice makes a difference in the trajectory of your life. They also talk to the youth about the importance of education. One inmate told a YouThrive youth, “I wish I would have taken education seriously before I got here.
“This is not a ‘yell and scream at your child’ program,” said Maldonado. “Our time at San Quentin is intended to help dispel the romanticism and myths of prison life, while helping to develop awareness of long-term consequences, legal consequences and the potential costs of living the gang lifestyle.
“I definitely thought about when you said to be your own person. I think I'd like to be a CO but first I need to focus on staying out of trouble and getting a regular job and do the things men are supposed to do."
This collaboration is also making a difference for the incarcerated men, who realize they have done a lot of wrong, and now want to help. According to Pullium, “They do well after going through this program. They get good jobs and become productive citizens.”
The trip to San Quentin complements YouThrive’s gang prevention and anger management curriculum, which helps youth develop ‘pro social skills’ such as effective communication, building empathy, and listening – real life skills about how to be a young man. YouThrive focuses on being proactive, being responsible, and thinking about the future consequences of the choices made today.