At this California prison, 'we are no longer prisoners. We are professionals'

Lancaster, CA - February 28: Graduating inmate Richard Teer, 46, in cap and gown ready for Offender Mentor Certification Program graduation ceremony at California State Prison on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023 in Lancaster, CA. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Richard Teer, 46, in his cap and gown ready for Offender Mentor Certification Program graduation ceremony at California State Prison in Lancaster. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Before the graduates strode in to the strains of "Pomp and Circumstance," their prison blues peeking out from under their gowns, correctional officer John Janvrin encouraged them not to rush.

"Remember guys, you worked real hard for this. Real hard," Janvrin reminded the incarcerated men as they lined up in a back room, reread their notes, fixed their bow ties and adjusted the gold tassels bobbing from their mortarboards. The music began to play.

"Don't walk too fast," Janvrin told them as they began their procession. "Let 'em see you."

For more than a year and a half, these 20 men had been working for this: their graduation from training as alcohol and drug counselors. It was an accomplishment that could help them secure jobs both inside and outside the California prisons. It had also become a brotherhood they dubbed the Storming Cohort: Scarred Team of Recovering Men Inspiring New Generations.

A man in cap and gown adjusts the gold sash around the neck of another man in cap and gown
Andrew Sanchez, 29, left, helps fellow graduate Raymond Maldonado, 43, get ready in black cap, bow and gown. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Beyond the razor-wire and high fences of the state prison in Lancaster, in a visiting room strung with gold and black balloons and celebratory signs declaring, "On to the Next Chapter," the men walked in a procession before loved ones and state correctional officials to be recognized. Some said it was the first graduation they ever had.

Stepping up to the lectern, graduate Ivan Stine said that "this program was the most difficult and rewarding experience of my life."

"Myself, along with these other gentlemen in these fine caps and gowns, have embarked upon a 1½-year journey of self-discovery, self-disclosure, self-examination, self-honesty and self-healing, in an effort to achieve the dual goal of becoming certified addiction treatment counselors — and overall better human beings," Stine told the seated crowd. "Each and every member of this cohort courageously opened up their heart and exposed raw their deepest secrets, hurts, fears and shame."

They had gotten lessons in neurobiology and pharmacology, ethics and the law, family dynamics and relapse prevention. They had spent hundreds of hours being educated on addiction and counseling, preparing for a required exam. They would soon start putting in thousands of hours as interns — the final step that would ultimately lead to them gaining state-recognized certification as alcohol and drug counselors.

a man in cap, gown, and yellow sash, with others in the same around him
Brian Neumann, 61, and fellow graduates all dressed in black cap, bow, gown and yellow sash ready for the Offender Mentor Certification Program graduation ceremony. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Even getting into the program was an accomplishment, as it's reserved for people who have gone years without serious violations of prison rules, penned a 500-word essay on maintaining their recovery and helping others, obtained at least two references from prison staff and gone through an interview process.

The intense, selective program is as demanding as a full-time job, prison officials said, and a training program that usually lasts a year had been interrupted repeatedly as the Lancaster facility grappled with the coronavirus.

Then there was the "storming" that this group had undergone together — the term for a tumultuous stage in team development that inspired their cohort name and ultimately forged them into a supportive fraternity. But the name had also come to stand, metaphorically, for the storms they wanted to pull themselves and others through.

"Today we are no longer prisoners," Stine declared. "We are professionals."

His shoulders were draped with a graduation stole of canary yellow, emblazoned on one side with the words "Offender Mentor Certification Program." On the other: "OMCP." It is a state program that has existed for more than a decade, beginning with an inaugural class at the state prison in Solano County now chronicled in a documentary film.

men in caps and gowns and yellow stoles smile as they walk down an aisle
Kristopher Kirschner reaches out to his mother, Eileen Peterson, as new graduates walk in for the certification program graduation ceremony at California State Prison. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

But this was the first class to graduate from the Los Angeles County facility — and the first men to graduate from the program at a "Level 4" site, state officials said. Level 4 means "we're in a high-security institution for those that are considered to be the most violent and dangerous men in prison," Diana Weston explained to the crowd that Tuesday.

Weston is director of criminal justice contracts for Options Recovery Services, which helped develop the program and now operates its seven sites across the state. She went on to talk about the labels that could weigh the men down: Criminal. Addict. Failure.

Now, she said, these graduates had taken a chance and earned the right to be labeled something different: "Substance use disorder counselor," or "professional healer." It was a new label they needed to carry forward, she said, because "there's so many hurting individuals carrying those negative labels that need your help."

"If this is really, truly about rehabilitation, we should be doing it for everybody," Weston said in a later interview. "And that's what's happening."

The men had borne a number from the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. They got a new one during this process — their registration number for certification as an alcohol and drug counselor, said Alvin Barksdale, director of the OMCP program in Lancaster.

Richard Teer, who said he had been incarcerated since 2015, could already recite that number from memory. It was the first thing he had ever completed, he said, holding the crisp piece of paper that had been handed to him during the ceremony, along with a certificate of recognition from U.S. Rep. Mike Garcia (R-Santa Clarita).

Four men in cap, gown and yellow sashes practice speeches
Richard Teer, 46, right, and others practice their speeches at the Offender Mentor Certification Program graduation ceremony at California State Prison in Lancaster. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

"I never thought I could be anything other than what I've been all my life," Teer said. Now, he said, he had gotten his GED and started picking up college credits in psychology, communications and social science. His goal, once released, is to return to work again in the prison system. "And this shows that there's an opportunity for us. That we're needed and wanted.

"It's funny that even though I'm in prison," he said, "this is the happiest I've ever felt in my life."

Drug overdoses claim thousands of lives annually in California, and the threat has not skipped over its prisons, where nearly 300 people have died of overdoses between 2012 and 2020, according to statewide reports. Prison officials have worked to bring down deaths through an initiative that offers substance use treatment, including medications to help people shake off addiction.

"There are so many people that are incarcerated in California that need help. We can't get to everybody. And then you step in," Brant Choate, director of the state division of rehabilitative programs, told the men in their mortarboards. "And you're part of our answer. ... That's how special you are."

The California program is set aside for people with more than five years left to serve on their prison sentences, and after finishing their training, many head on to other prisons to serve as paid mentors to people undergoing addiction treatment. Some were preparing themselves for the parole board or already eyeing a release date; a few members of the Storming Cohort had already been paroled and were working as interns to finish the hours needed for their certification as alcohol and drug counselors.

Men in camp, gown and a yellow sash smile, clap and cheer
Graduating inmates applaud a presentation by a fellow graduate of the Offender Mentor Certification Program at the graduation ceremony. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

More than a dozen people across the state have graduated from the program, been released and gone on to work as contracted staff at California prisons; others who have been paroled work at community programs providing addiction treatment.

Among them is Jamal Johnson, now an internship supervisor with Options Recovery Services, who had worked at outpatient and residential recovery programs after being released from prison a decade ago, one of the "First 50" graduates of the state program. He now works with the program at the Lancaster prison.

"Without the program, I don't know where I would be," Johnson said. He had been arrested as a teenager, he said, having never had a job before. "I grew up as an alcoholic, a drug dealer and a gang member" — experiences that now help him build a "therapeutic alliance" with his clients, he said.

"They know that I empathize with their position that they're in," Johnson said. "Because I've been there."

Al Sasser, another one of the "First 50" graduates, credited the "parallel process" of working on the self and helping others. "We have this saying, 'The more I work on me, the better everybody else gets,'" said Sasser, who is now working with a San Luis Obispo-area prison. What sets the OMCP apart as a program in the prisons, he said, is that it "enables you to see past the gates."

Yet the program has also been life-changing for graduates who are unsure if they will ever use their skills on the outside. "I used to hear people say they wake up in prison — and they're not in prison. And I didn't get it," said Frederico De La Cruz, 58, who has been in prison for decades on a life sentence. "Now I do."

"I wake up. I'm in the same bed. Same walls," he said, holding fast to his certificate after the ceremony. "But it doesn't translate to me the same. I wake up different. I'm able to go out and be different."

During the ceremony, De La Cruz recited a poem he had written. "We are living proof that even those who are guilty of the most wrongful deeds/Can pluck from the flowers of love and hope and sow these very seeds," he read.

two men in cap and gowns and yellow sashes walk through a door, one with his hands in the air
Graduating inmates lead by Michael Coats, 57, enter the hall for the Offender Mentor Certification Program graduation ceremony. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

His younger brother Rudy, who had made the trip from Fontana for the ceremony, looked on beaming at De La Cruz in his black robe. Around them, other grinning families embraced their new graduates and settled in at tables to eat barbecue, baked beans and cupcakes frosted in yellow and white. An instrumental cover of "Lean on Me" played in the background.

"I don't got that physical freedom," De La Cruz said. "But I have that spiritual freedom right now."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.