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Thanksgiving in Jail: Blues, Blessings

'Choices' helps inmates make change, and supplies the tools for a life that works.

The pain of incarceration digs deeper on a holiday.

Men on the sixth floor of the Maguire Correctional Facility in Redwood City speak bluntly of the personal costs -- the forced absence during a loved one’s passing, or a parent’s birthday.

But if holidays can pack an emotional wallop, these men say they have plenty to be thankful for. Companionship. Sobriety. Hope.

These men are participants in “Choices,”  a program of the Delancey Street Foundation. 

“It’s a blessing to be alive,” said inmate Thomas Blue.

Wednesday, the men sat down to a Thanksgiving dinner of turkey (veggie burgers for the occasional vegetarian), mashed potatoes, vegetables, cranberries and cake roll.

Each table included a mix of ethnicities. They chat amiably.

“That’s not something you see in most (jail) pods,” said veteran sheriff’s deputy Robert Brennan.

Choices seeks to rebuild inmates hammered by their own bad choices. In it, inmates learn the most basic of skills --  communication, for starters, and parenting. They take math classes. They make cards and T-shirts. They can finish high school. They can help one another.

The program motto is “each one, teach one,” and it forges bonds. Everyone is a mentor.

Nearly all the crimes that landed these men here had their roots in addiction, leading not just to petty crimes but to desperate and savage acts, Brennan said.

“This place transformed me,” said Nick Barbanica. “I’ve seen so many people change. When they first get here, they’re like immigrants coming to a new country.”

But all must choose the program, and must meet certain criteria to get in. Primarily, they must eschew violence, including violent language and threatening behavior. They must be clean and sober. And they must commit to shedding the hard shell that comes with street life.

“People here want to change their lives around,” said Cardell Ashley.

They won’t find it an easy ride, said Brennan. Program director Shirley Lamarr, herself an alumna of the streets and the jails, doesn’t fall for bluffs and doesn’t settle for halfhearted.

“She doesn’t baby these guys,” he chuckled. “She’s tough.”

For some, this is their second or even third try – like Ashley, who calls himself “a retread.”

“I’m listening this time,” said Daniel Koval. “This time I know I need it.”

The program came about when Mimi Silbert, the president and CEO of Delancey Street, and board member Teri DeLane connected with then-Sheriff Don Horsley. Horsley, now a county supervisor, wanted to provide inmates with an avenue for change, and the tools of a life that works.

Today, the program encompasses nearly 200 inmates in two pods -- one in the men's facility, one in the women's.

Inmates who graduate from this program are three times less likely to be arrested, convicted or incarcerated, according to a study by the San Mateo County Health Department.

“It’s called giving back,” said Blue.

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