"Back to CYA on a Mission"
Six former wards came back to the California Youth Authority (CYA) earlier this month. This time they volunteered to return. They were on a mission to deliver a message to the wards at N.A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility, which houses California's most violent youth offenders ages 18-24. The diverse panel of ex-convicts purposefully stepped through the fences of Chaderjian as law-abiding citizens. They each wore visitor's passes clipped on their shirts and security alarms attached to their belts for their safety in the event that a riot "kicked off".
Once inside the razor wired fence, I observed the former wards, some who were once rival gang enemies, hugging, exchanging phone numbers and sharing personal family photos with each other. Meanwhile, a large group of heavily guarded and structured wards were being escorted on to the dim, sky lit, concrete gym floor. The CYA alumni's immediately began greeting the wards with warm smiles and hand shakes. Once seated, Chaplain Carlton McAllister, a CYA alumnus, introduced the panel and offered a faith filled prayer and a joyful song of praise. As I scanned the audience, I observed many of the wards staring at the panel speakers during the song, appearing to wonder what the panel members were about and what they had come to say.
"You need to stop being punks, anyone can run behind a gang, but it takes a real man to live for Christ and to stand alone." A quiet hush fell over the gymnasium. You could have heard a prison-made cuff-key drop, as Levon Davis, now also known as Dr. Levon Davis shot these words toward wards with a force that captured their attention. Dr. Davis, a once harden criminal convicted for a double murder stood before the audience of offenders a transformed man who presented a bold, thought provoking, and inspirational message. "If it comes down to you and your friends, your friends are going to snitch you off. They ain't going to take the blame for you," Davis said confidently and boldly. Some of the audience members snickered, while others nodded their heads in agreement. "Why hold loyalty to someone who is not going to be loyal to you? When it comes down to it, the only thing that is really stable, that will get behind you, is God. Christ is the Answer." Davis spoke these words with conviction and from experience.
Davis has had experiences that have now distinguished him from his past life style and previous mistakes. He has excelled since his release almost 10 years ago from the CYA and is a rehabilitated man, a scholar in his own right. Davis earned his PhD in counseling, is president and founder of Blessed Faith Bible College, which is accredited to the doctorate degree, he owns and operates a Christian music production company, and if that isn't enough, he is a devoted husband and pastor of Blesses Faith church in Sacramento, California. He has come a long way from the cellblocks he was confined to over 10 years ago and the reality of his life is that his new beginning was initiated behind the bars of the CYA. Davis told the audience that he took advantage of every vocational program offered to him at the CYA and in addition, he enrolled in a correspondence college while serving his sentence. Davis credits the CYA and his strong faith in God for his successful transition into society. The CYA provided him with the resources and opportunities to succeed, and it took his initiative and commitment to turn those opportunities into reality.
Another success story and former guest of the CYA was Noel Patillo, son of celebrity gospel artist, Leon Patillo. This former ward also had a word for the wards, which he communicated, in part, through rap. His artistic flavor and talent got the spirit moving throughout the gymnasium, and the audience was tapping their feet and bobbing their heads. His words were profound and chillingly descriptive. "My parents were separated, my dad was always on the road, and mom was a dope dealer. I grew up in a dope house," said Patillo. In a private interview he told me that his dad always told him that he needed to "get it right" because God had something for him.
Patillo, a former Bay Area gang member who was incarcerated for attempted murder believed his path on the straight and narrow came in a round about way. "God kind of tricked me in to getting saved," said Patillo. He confessed that initially his interest in going to church was more so an interest in the opportunity to see the women who would occasionally volunteer in the institutional chapel service rather than an interest in God. This passionate interest eventually led to Patillo's exposure to a man from an outreach ministry who began to speak the Word into his life. Patillo stated that the man ministered the Gospel of Jesus Christ to him for three consecutive days, and on the third day, the man said the sinner's prayer with him. "I felt a change at that moment. I no longer wanted to fight, because I was always mad. I was angry, because I was locked up, because I took a rap for my cousin. Even though I accepted Christ in my heart, I was still riding with the Bay Area, but my heart wasn't in it. I finally got some courage, and I just told them I wasn't ridin' no more. I was going to do my program and take care of my kids."
After his amazing transformation, another miracle took place in Patillo's life, the miracle of his mother receiving Christ and him being the person to lead her through the prayer of salvation. "She was up visiting and God had been talking to me for a couple of months about this new life he gave me, and I said okay. That week she came up there, I brought my Bible with me, and I took her to Romans 10:9 - If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead you will be saved. This was someone who taught me the ways of the street, and here I was talking to her about Jesus. Then she just opened up her heart and started crying. I said the sinner's prayer with her, and she accepted Christ. She started going to church after that." Behind bars Patillo had received freedom from his physical and mental shackles and now he shared the gift of freedom through Christ with his mother.
After his release in May of 1995, Patillo earned his Associate of Arts Degree in Computer Technology. He is currently working toward his Bachelor of Arts Degree in Computer Technology. He is a youth pastor at True Vine Ministries in West Oakland, and he operates and owns a legal broker business. He has accomplished much despite his shaded past, and the CYA was where his miraculous transformation began.
Vanna In of Cambodia appeared before the wards looking like a preppy college student; however, his former lifestyle was anything but that of a college student. "I had no problem going to make a name for myself, or putting a gun to somebody's head to rob them," said In. He told me that he wanted to join the largest and worst gang. "If I was going to join a gang, I wanted to do it right. I wanted to join the most ruthless one." In a private interview he disclosed that he came from a verbally and physically abusive home and that he was driven by his anger and the need to feel accepted at any cost, and at anyone else's cost. He went on to tell me about his amazing conversion while awaiting trial for a gang related murder.
"When I was in jail in '94, I started reading books by Chaplain Ray, who had all these books of inmates whom had given their lives to God. I was more interested in the stories than what God had done in their lives. I was reading the books just to kill the time. Then I was reading this one book called "Al Capone the Devils Driver" and in that book before each chapter there was a verse, and the verse that captured my heart was John 15:16 - For you did not choose me, but I chose you; I said what? Why would God call me after all the things I have done. I heard a soft voice that said, "Give your life to God" and as soon as I heard that, I closed the book. Then I started reading the book again, the voice said the same thing again, "Give your life to God", but this time I said, okay. God you must be real, because you came to me a second time. So I woke up one of the brothers that use to witness to me and asked him to pray for me. It was about 2:30 in the morning. I use to worship a statue. Buddha never taught that we can be loved and forgiven and that God wanted to have a relationship with us. God gave me hope. When you have hope in God, no matter what you go through, you know your going to make it."
After In's spiritual awakening, he stated that he began reading the Bible daily and while incarcerated at the CYA he came across a young preacher named Levon Davis. "In January of 1995, I went to a Chapel service, I said wow! Look at this guy preach, and he's an inmate, so I said, if God can use him, God can use me." What a realization for this young man that God could use him for good. This revolutionary thought transformed his mind and ultimately his life.
I asked In what advice he would give to inmates to help them avoid the pitfalls of the streets once released? In said, "Separate yourself from the negative influences. What I learned from Y.A. was very good. I learned that insanity is doing the same thing expecting different results." In's achievements are commendable and the lessons he learned at the CYA were instrumental in helping him to break the vicious cycle of negative behavior in his life. The CYA provided the resources and the opportunity for positive change, and the hope he discovered in God gave him the will power and determination to follow through.
Joshua Ortega repeatedly stated in his high-powered message, "God is good!" He said, "I read the stories in the Bible and it seemed like Jesus was a pretty good guy," as he gave a joyful chuckle. Ortega gave his life to Christ after picking up a Bible while incarcerated. He stated that he experienced joy at the CYA although his sentence was 35 years to life. He stated that the joy he experienced upon giving his life to Christ was equivalent to the joy that he now experiences after having his sentence miraculously modified by the court. He is now enjoying his freedom in society, has a great job, and is an active member in his church. Ortega commanded the floor with his presentation.
Richard Chandler took the floor and reminded his captive audience to look at the big picture. Chandler, a former gang member, spent 12 years of his life in the CYA and State Prison. He stressed the importance of family and considering how a person's actions affect their loved ones and everyone around them. It was a message that emphasized a principle that many CYA counselors work to teach wards on a daily basis, accountability.
Shakir Villalobos, a former gang member from East Los Angeles, spent seven years in the CYA for a gang related murder. At age 12 Villalobos was jumped in to his neighborhood gang. "I was looking to find my identity, I was doing anything for their approval", stated Villalobos. "If there is something on the outside that you're not on the inside, then you're on no one's side."
Villalobos was released from the CYA seven years ago and has been happily married for the past 4 years. He is the father of two beautiful daughters and is gainfully employed as a construction worker. He credits his success to the mentoring that he received at the CYA from Darwin Benjamin, a former Youth Correctional Counselor (YCC), and Chaplain Carlton McAllister. Villalobos stated that he still maintains a close friendship with his two mentors and remains accountable to them. He laughed as he told me how Benjamin calls him from time to time to ask him how his marriage is doing. He stated that he responds by saying, "Fine", and then Benjamin will ask to speak with his wife.
Villalobos continued by sharing an analogy he received from Darwin that helped him explained how he connected with Christ and how he was able to view his relationship with Christ. "We all know how to dance for the neighborhood. When Jesus comes up to you, he doesn't want you to stop dancing, he just wants you to change partners. When I heard that from Darwin, it just clicked in my mind, there is no difference. I wanted to switch my life to Jesus."
There was one powerful testimony after another being shared with the wards at the CYA, and they cheered and applauded each speaker enthusiastically. At the end of the program, they all lined up and prepared to leave the gymnasium in an orderly fashion. I was able to witness something powerful from the looking glass of a photojournalist, which was very different. I was fully equipped with a duty belt as a Youth Correctional Counselor and prepared to respond to any occurrence, but I experienced a perspective from behind the lens of my camera that was gratifying and hopeful. I perceived that some of the gang tension had dissipated; many of the wards were leaving with smiles and their faces appeared to be illuminated with hope rather than snarling or shouting obscenities at their known rivals. They stood in line to leave the gymnasium and extended respect to the panel members by shaking their hands. From my perspective, some mental shackles were broken and some potential bridges were being constructed even if only within the minds of the wards. It was good to know that the wisdom of the panel had been imparted to these young men.
All of the panel members currently service their communities through outreach programs within their churches. Vanna In also works as a counselor at a non-profit organization helping high-risk youth obtain employment. "We are looking for guys that want to change, but can't find a job because of their lack of skill, education, and criminal history." All the speakers left their contact information for the wards, for guidance and assistance. Chaplain Carlton McAllister and N.A. Chaderjian Gang Coordinators, Don Nickerson and Bob Galano orchestrated this All-Star, successful event. They received heartfelt accolades from some of the panel members who expressed their appreciation for their encouragement and mentorship during their incarcerations.
McAllister, Nickerson, Galano and a team of others whom helped host the event, are optimistic about the future of the wards at the CYA. A large part of this optimism can be attributed to the new administration at N.A. Chaderjian. The institution has been plagued with gang violence since it opened in 1991. The administration's approval of the organizer's request to use former inmates as an arsenal to be deployed against the on-going campaign against gang violence has pioneered the way for the implementation of progressive and innovative programs at N.A. Chaderjian. The former inmates must meet certain criteria to participate in the program, including but not limited to being law-abiding citizens and possessing a willingness to pour back into an institution that was instrumental in their personal success.
Nickerson shared his thoughts about the success of the event. "Chaplain McAllister gathered an excellent group of young men to speak to our ward population. Their personal testimonies and the opportunity to make real change was inspiring. I have to believe they planted seeds in the hearts of the young men who attended the assembly. It is my hope that we can have future events that challenge our wards to become men of character and integrity."
It appears that the program had a positive impact, because the percentage of incidence of gang violence in the institution has decreased as compared to past years and many gang members are severing their gang ties.
Photos and Story by Ray Johnson/Npaphoto.com">Npaphoto.com
(Photos and Captions are available)
Rayford Johnson has been a photojournalist for the Sacramento Observer Newspaper going on 18 years. The newspaper has won numerous of distinguished awards. He also is publisher of Npaphoto.com">Npaphoto.com.
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