Nerd Alert! This culturally diverse, inmate-led, self-help group is dedicated to teaching communication skills and reinforcing problem solving, literacy, and literary comprehension, using the Magic: the Gathering card game and a fun, positive, and respectful environment as its mediums.
In 1993, I was 13 years old and completely obsessed with Magic: The Gathering. Near the Mission Valley area of San Diego, there was a small hobby shop called “Game Empire” and I was a steady customer. Magic was still relatively new at the time but droves of fans would gather to play, host small tournaments, and trade with each other. I did not play much back then, preferring to collect and trade cards, but the experience was sublime and intoxicating for my young mind. I felt comfortable and at home within the group of “regulars”, many of whom had nicknames like, “Stench”, “Artifact Face”, and “Mana Burner”. It was all in fun and I loved every second.
I have many good memories of that time in my life. In 2013, after reminiscing with a friend, we decided we would try to get back into the game. Thanks to our generous administration allowing us to order and receive Magic cards and materials, we have been able to invest and cultivate an interest here on “A” Yard. “The Gathering”, an inmate-led self-help group, was created in 2016. Our first priority is establishing and maintaining a stable, diverse community of like-minded men who enjoy playing Magic: The Gathering. By using the structure and creative context of the game, we seek to strengthen our members’ critical thinking and decision-making skills. Plus, it’s fun!
Over 50 dudes are playing Magic: the Gathering on a daily basis. Occasionally we host our own tournaments, with prizes ranging from Fat Pack Boxes and Deck Boxes to Planeswalkers, card giveaways and the almighty Riot Piker. (Inside joke) Men from diverse backgrounds come together and enjoy this wonderful game, and I am proud to be a part of this group.
With the release of the new set, Aether Revolt, I will be buying a booster box, because you never know what you might get...and that’s the best part. Happy Gaming from us nerds!
Daniel Whitlow, “The Gathering” Facilitator
Each day I wake up around 4:30. I clean and try to stretch out the old muscles but mostly it is time to catch up on paperwork and plan ahead for the new day with the dogs. See, after decades in prison I have finally found something to dedicate myself to, something bigger than myself that just happens to give back to the community as well as help others save the lives of dogs and now, help in the training of dogs that will someday become Service Dogs for Veterans. Those of you who have been in prison for many years understand how easy it is to lose your faith in humanity. The days slowly blur into one long day that never seems to end, full of stupidity and the boring repetition of prison life. Then Paws For Life came along and my eyes opened up to a whole new world. It now has meaning.
Each morning I walk out to the sound of dogs barking, barking with happiness to see their trainers coming to get them. Each day I watch my Paws For Life brothers put aside whatever is going in their lives to love their dogs, to take care of them in a way that has touched even this old hardened heart. I smile as I watch men debate (yes, argue!) over the best way to brush and groom their dog! I watch men try to convince the guy who passes our dog treats how “their god” needs some more treats, or toys, for this or that very serious reason, all because they love their dog. I have watched men walk miles with their dog who would much prefer sitting and eating a honeybun or candy bar in the cell! Yes, because they love their dog!
Each day, I watch men take care of these amazing animals for hours and hours, for no pay. Most of these men, myself included, have LWOP so we are not doing this for pay and we are not doing this to get out of prison. We are doing this because we love these dogs so much that we have dedicated ourselves and our time to helping them grow into dogs that will be adopted into families that will love them as much as we do.
Karma Rescue brings dogs to us that are sometimes abused and neglected in ways that I don’t even want to put into print. So these dogs need love and a lot of attention. It is a lot of hard work, many long hours are needed to bring these dogs back to life and show to them that not everyone in this world will hurt them. I watch not just one or two but every single one of these men in this program get down on the floor with these dogs and show with their actions that they love their new dogs and earn their trust.
I have watched this, round after round, and each time a group of dogs goes out those gates, a part of me leaves with them. I admit, it is HARD watching them go, but it is their time, it is time for them to be free and go to their new homes, where they will be loved for the rest of their lives. I watch my friends and brothers in the PFL program and I have learned that we haven’t lost our humanity, it is still there, we just need a reason to let it out.
Inmates from two graduating flagship programs at the Progressive Programming Facility (PPF) on A- Yard in Lancaster State Prison, celebrated their achievements in a joint ceremony that took place in the prison’s
visiting room on Friday, March 24th.
Proud relatives and friends, sitting side by side with prison administrators, looked on as more than fifty
students from the venerable Men For Honor (MFH) Victim Sensitivity class and the Alternative to Violence Project (AVP) class, walked across the proverbial stage to accept their diplomas.
At one point, a graduating student and proud father accepted his diploma with both of his young sons walking underneath the folds of each arm. It was a heart wrenching dichotomy of a man serving two lifelong roles – one as a loving dad; the other as a penitent prisoner.
Absent was the ceremonial tune of “Pomp and Circumstance,” and missing were the traditional cap and gowns. The only music that played was the sweet melody of personal achievement, and the only gowns worn was made from the humble threads of recaptured humanity.
The PPF on A-Yard is the only prison yard of its kind in California. It is a place where the inmates voluntarily choose to snap the vicious cycle of traditional prison politics, such as racial and gang violence, and take a proactive role in their own resocialization. They eagerly enroll in classes like Victim Sensitivity and others.
The classes they take are by no means a cake walk. Both the Victim Sensitivity and the Alternative to Violence classes represent huge steps on the road to rehabilitation. The Victim Sensitivity class, for example, requires each of its students to engage in the grueling, often emotional, task of experiencing the trauma of their own crimes from the viewpoint of the victim. It is strictly designed to evoke emotional insight into the effects of criminal behavior.
Jamon Carr, who is serving his twenty-third year of incarceration and is an alumnus of the Victim Sensitivityclass,summeduphisexperienceintheclassbysaying,“ItmademehatethepersonIwas.” Theclass, headded,taughthimabouttheenormousimpactthatcrimehasonvictims,theirfamiliesandthecommunity. “It taught me how to make amends, directly and indirectly,” Carr said. Now, he spends much of his time helping troubled youth from making the same kind of critical mistakes he made as a young man.
The A VP class teaches inmates how to resolve conflicts without violence and uses and experiential model to help inmates discover the guiding principles of non-violence, self-respect, caring for others and community.
Ms. Marion Bogan, and AVP facilitator who is serving a sentence of Life Without The Possibility of Parole (LWOP) gave an emotional speech on how AVP changed his life and how it helped him rebuild the relationship with his teenage daughter who sat in the crowd with tears in her eyes. His speech evoked a standing ovation.
But the day for speeches belonged to Ms. Alverta Bayliss, who gave a passionate and tearful lecture on how she overcameherownmisgivingsaboutaninmate’spotentialtochange. Yet,inherroleasafacilitysponsor,sitting in on the classes and watching the prisoners, day after day, face their own emotional hardships while never giving up, convinced her that inmates can and do change.
“I watched them turn from inmates into men!” she said with unmistakable fervor in her voice, her face wet with tears. When she was done, the entire audience lauded her in the longest standing ovation of the day.
The ceremony, however, would not be complete without recognition from the Warden, Ms. Debbie Asuncion, who congratulated all the graduates for their accomplishments. Ms. Asuncion even bragged that the PPF on A-Yard had earned itself state-wide recognition for its remarkable achievements over the years.
The ceremony ended with family, friends, administrators and inmates intermingling in cordial conversation while feasting on prison-made chocolate brownies provided through the Community Resource Manager (CRM) Erika Lake. It all had the somber feel of normalcy, involving normal people in a normal place, but it was anything but normal. It was the hopeful, celebrating the exceptional in a truly unusual place. It was celebrating change.
Congratulations to all the graduates.
In 2007, a petition was submitted to this institution’s administration asking permission to form an Inmate Leisure Time Activity Group (ILTAG), exclusively for the benefit of veterans. The prison approved the request, and with the help of my brothers, we created V.E.T., Veterans Embracing Troops. To share a little about my military roots, I am a decorated U.S. Army vet. My father, Emerson Maytubby McCarter was a decorated retiree of the U.S. Air Force, a P.O.W. for 5 years and a survivor of the infamous Bataan Death March. My grandfather, Pete Maytubby, was a Code Talker in World War 1 and Chief of the Chickasaw Nation.
Our group contains vets from all branches of service. Vietnam vets, Korean P.O.W.’s, Iraq and Desert Storm vets, and others. Our goals are to help raise funds for outside veteran groups and related organizations, and to assist all veterans incarcerated on this facility.
Today, after ten years of active service, our group is proud to have assisted many wonderful organizations, like the Blue Star and Gold Star Mothers, Thank-A-Vet, Fisher House, and more. We painted a veterans mural to pay homage to vets, and it was showcased in books, magazines, and an HBO special.
In 2017, V.E.T. began a letter writing campaign for vets serving overseas. We are raising funds for a local cemetery that has vets buried without headstones or markers. In addition, we established a portrait donation program for Gold Star families. V.E.T. will continue to be ‘all we can be’, as veterans of the armed services and patriots of this great country.
From V.E.T. and myself, God bless you and God bless the United States of America.
Andrew Kicking Horse
U.S. Army Veteran
The Men For Honor Inmate Leisure Time Activity Group began with a focus on health and fitness. ILTAGs are permitted by the institution to confront idleness, encourage creativity and advance pro-social activities among the population. In 2003, the men decided to change its focus toward self-help and personal development. The first class offered was critical thinking and debate. It was a thought-provoking, foundational class that gave its participants their first set of social skills to contrast the often violent and abrasive prison culture. Men who weren’t accustomed to public speaking learned new skills. Others who had never looked at their own biases and myopic world views were suddenly forced to debate both sides of an issue.
The effort was such a success that a creative writing class followed. As a result, several participants were published through this effort and our individual and collective horizons broadened. Articles proliferated and new writers flourished. Google results of individuals and Men For Honor, sent in by friends and family, were like trophies in the hands of men who had accomplished little else in life. A collective esteem was fostered.
Over the years the group has stepped up its game and created criteria for potential peer-led instructors. Each instructor is required to have had formal training in the subject offered. The group also began modifying the formal curricula of colleges, universities and the by-laws of recognized business organizations to fit the unique needs of the incarcerated population.
Men For Honor has since rotated a myriad of self-help classes. Whites and blacks now openly practice and speak Spanish with their Latino peers. This is astounding considering that the typical prison environment is deeply segregated along racial lines. A common language of openness, along with a collective willingness to understanding diverse cultures, can bridge the widest divides, encouraging a deeper span of respect never before imagined. Making amends is also an important theme.
To instill the complete meaning of making amends participants are taught the three elements of this noble action: 1. direct amends, meaning to give or assist directly to the person harmed; 2. Indirect amends means to give to a cause(s) that the person harmed may have embraced, or to give back generally; and 3. Life amends, which means to live a consistent and enduring life of direct and indirect amends.
In that vein, Men For Honor, and its participants have raised over $11,000 since 2007 for charities such as the Red Cross, Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles and Human Rights Watch, among others. Participants also write hundreds of youth diversion letters per quarter to admonish at-risk youth about the dangers (and consequences) of the criminal lifestyle. They use their own life stories as cautionary tales.
All Men For Honor core-class subjects differ, but the overall substance of the topics overlap. For instance, New Choices, Different Directions, a course on the negatives of gang banging, emphasizes the harmful ripple effects to the members of these criminal enterprises, their families, their communities, and of course, their victims. As with all Men For Honor courses, empathy for others is a reoccurring theme. The Lifer’s class, parenting, victim sensitivity and communications class all share the goal of replacing negative practices with healthy coping skills. These pro-social interpersonal skills help our participants defuse volatile situations, instead of viscerally reacting. When we transform our participants’ thinking, we create a more amicable and hospitable environment for all – staff and prisoners – which reduces the possibility of recidivism and victimization beyond these confining walls.
The heavily fortified, razor wired fence gate opened. Trucks had dumped loads of organic soil, lumber, and gardening tools onto the prison yard the day before. Now, twenty excited men, including myself, formed into work groups. We had all been looking forward to this day that seemed to take forever to arrive. The past nine months, we had been studying about permaculture (agricultural) systems. We learned that permaculture, like organic gardening, views plants as part of a whole system that requires planning, observation and vigilance.
I was one of the first men to sign up for the “Insight Gardening Program” offered at California State Prison – Los Angeles County. I had not grown any vegetables, herbs, or flowers since I had lived in a commune, back in the 1970’s. My excitement was a nostalgic blend of anticipation.
The instructors, Dave and Armando, brought their experience planting in this desert atmosphere, at 2,710-foot elevation, while our weekly class contributed intense devotion and determination. Characteristics used in our past crimes were now used for the good of the environment. Our class divided into three groups: “the Ranchos,” “Permaunit” and my group, “the Green Thumbs.”
We shared ideas regarding the designing of a small, fifteen hundred square foot area. Some of us even with anti-social personalities managed to work well together. Early on, Dave and Armando brought in various flower and vegetable seed packets for us to see. Later, on another occasion, they surprised us with numerous different types of fresh flowers.
As we dissected the flowers, a friend of mine, Omar, got emotional and the room went silent. All eyes were on him as he began to speak softly and slowly. “I haven’t touched a flower in twenty-nine years.” The profundity of his comment was not lost on us, as most of us knew Omar had been on Death Row for seventeen of those years. Most of the men listening felt his heavy heart and tears clouded our sight. Other men then opened up and shared their experiences as we proceeded doing something most people around the globe take for granted. The touch and feel of the soft flower petals was quite a contrast to the concrete and steel of prison. I shook the pollen loose and found myself smiling. Colorful stems and petals decorated my desk as pollen stuck to my fingers. It was a beautiful mess. Our group grew closer and more trusting after the encounter.
All our in-class studies really help. I learn about the effects of Genetically Modified Organisms (G.M.O.’s) and what elements make for a healthy soil, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and
potassium. We also learned about different watering techniques, beneficial and harmful insects, types of organic fertilizers and were given examples of various soils: sand, clay, and loam (a loose mixture-combination).
Many of us had not performed physical labor or any type of intensive exercise in a while. We each chose our work assignments from a prepared list compiled by Dave. I picked digging trenches and once finished, I joined the wheelbarrow brigade. We mixed the existing heavy, dry, and sandy earth, with the fluffy, nutrient-filled soil brought in by the trucks. As the sun struggled to break through the clouds, we worked as a team. When one of us got tired, another man took over, no questions asked. We busted ass. There was not much talk as we worked. The time for talking was over.
Eventually, it was time to implement our design plans. A worldwide landscaping company that designs gardens met with us on numerous occasions, volunteering their time and expertise. A few even showed up to work alongside us. During the initial discussion, most of the visitors were women who had never seen the inside of a prison. They were apprehensive, to say the least. All they knew about prison was what they had seen on television or read in the newspapers. Some were timid, understandably nervous, and uneasy as the meeting began. Eventually, they let their guard down and we all worked as one for the common goal.
Before the volunteers left, each made a brief statement. Most had expected an uncomfortable and hostile setting. By the end of the project, they said we had changed their perception of men in prison and described us as pleasant and warm. They thanked us before departing and I noticed it was an emotional farewell for us all.
As our project progressed, we agreed on a custom-designed, two-tiered, curved plot of land. The barren and bleak area transformed and came to life. As men walked the yard, they stopped to watch us. Maybe for them it was just prison—to us, it was to slice of heaven. We completed the project in a few days. Unfortunately, the herb and flowers waiting in small containers to be planted were eaten by a local family of hungry rabbits, right down to their roots! I am sure it was a treat for them and if they could speak, they would thank us!
I was not the only one whose body was sore afterwards, but the sweat and toil was well worth it. The planting of eight or so tiny potted plants commenced a couple of days later. Each was marked with a plastic identifying stick that included rosemary, oregano, sage, coriander, marjoram, thyme, lavender, and other aromatic scents. The colorful poppies, columbine, snapdragons, alyssum, foxgloves, and other flowers would follow. Dave and Armando laid them on top of the fertile earth in the symmetrically planned locations. We dug the holes and carefully placed them in. What a pleasure it was to feel the stalks and leaves and to see the extensive root systems as we firmly patted the soil around them. Following the cherished moment, watering was next—not too much, just the right amount to get the ground damp.
Our allotted time was up; prison rules dictated the end. Part of the class was assigned to water the garden daily, due to the fact our class only met on Fridays. That evening I reflected on the proud work we had accomplished as a team. I walk past our garden every day, imagining how neglected the area used to look and how tranquil and beautiful it looks now.
Dave and Armando’s time and effort made all this possible by successfully navigating through the prison bureaucracy and we are so grateful. Some staff members have also been supportive. Other California State Prisons have been creating gardens. A woman named Beth got the whole idea started. She flies in from time to time to check out our progress. I am sure she will delighted by its design and beauty! Soon, we will add vegetables. The plan is to donate the anticipated bountiful harvest to the Lancaster Food Bank.
I pray our little piece of heaven on Earth will last for many years to come.