18 inmates graduate from California prison leadership program

Graduates of the Junior Mentor Leadership Program received their diplomas at the June 3, 2021, graduation at Valley State Prison. (PHOTO: CDCR)

Eighteen young men graduated Friday from the Junior Mentor Leadership Program at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla, where younger inmates work to earn college credits and receive training in skills like anger management, relationships, and reentry planning.

The Youthful Offenders Program, YOP, was established in 2014 through Assembly Bill 1276. The class allows the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to grant special classification consideration to “youthful offenders” who are under the age of 22 and were admitted to prison on or after July 1, 2015.

There are currently 10 California prisons with a Youthful Offenders Program, however, Valley State Prison is the only facility with a Junior Mentor Leadership Program — established in 2018 with help from ReEvolution, a non-profit built to reduce incarceration and build communities.

“I view the Youthful Offender Program as a critical component of rehabilitating and developing youth into positive members of society,” VSP Warden Raythel Fisher said. “The mentors serve as role models and share their own experiences dealing with the pitfalls of incarceration. The program centers on self-accountability, goal setting, conflict resolution and the development of a sense of responsibility.”

CDCR said the program was created to “give youthful offenders the opportunity to be housed in lower-security facilities with more access to rehabilitative programming and positive influences.”

Cesar Gonzalez was one of the 18 to graduate. He arrived at VSP at the age of 19 to serve a 12-year sentence, where he was encouraged to join the YOP to get back on the right track.

“The YOP gave me a choice, the right choice,” Gonzalez said. “When I graduated from the program I had learned about positive choices and everyone around me painted a good picture of what happens when I do the right thing. This experience gave me a sense of control in my life. Before prison, I was involved in gangs on the streets and this was now a different type of interaction with new goals.”

VSP staff and prisoners alike worked together to complete the leadership program throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The groups strived to follow public health and safety guidelines and were able to graduate on schedule.

Friday’s ceremony featured guest speaker Paul Galloway, a former junior mentor instructor. Galloway was recently paroled from VSP but returned to tell the graduates to work hard and stay out of trouble.

The 18 graduates will now complete 500 hours of internship and will serve as mentors to other young men in the YOP.