When planning for the trip to the South Facility of Pitchess, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I had assumed that we would be visiting our TUMI students exclusively, and that we would never be more than a few yards from an armed escort. The actual visit was quite the opposite from what I had expected. Jeff Steele, a volunteer from Awana Lifeline (a Serving California partner), was our guide. He was unarmed and friendly, greeting each man we passed by name. The jail seemed much like a boarding school; excluding the multiple 18-foot tall fences topped with the most barbed wire I’ve ever seen.
On this visit, I saw many different faces, each grappling with his situation in a different way. I saw scared faces, most likely from first-time inmates who were trying to figure out what they needed to do to get through the circumstances they had found themselves in. I saw hardened angry faces, those of men who still seemed to be at war with themselves and everyone else. I had expected to see these faces, but the most amazing faces that I saw were those that seemed relaxed, and (dare I say) even happy. It turned out that many of these calm faces were those of veteran TUMI and Awana Life students.
It was evident from the questions these men asked during class that many of them were struggling with their faith and the desire to better themselves. They received support from their classmates as well as the volunteer instructors facilitating the discussion. I heard something that I though I’d never hear, but something that I fully understood, “I’m glad that I’m in prison this time.” Rodger, the speaker, was not saying that he was happy to be locked away, he was saying that he was happy that this time, his incarceration had brought him to TUMI, which has fundamentally changed him for the better. It helped him to figure out the kind of person he wanted to be. People are far from perfect, but often times we are not willing to accept or face that fact, especially when it is about ourselves. The men in the TUMI class had all accepted this in order to begin their journey.
From my visit, I realized how powerful and effective TUMI actually is. These programs do much more than just fight recidivism; they are changing the culture of the prison grounds for the better. They are teaching inmates to love their neighbors, to let go of hatred or judgment, and to focus on improving themselves. These programs give those who are seeking the strength to change the tools they need to become leaders. TUMI allows inmates to exchange their anger and stubbornness for a sense of purpose and humility. The self-transformation that these men displayed was authentic. This was real fundamental change in their focus and understanding of life. These individuals have been guided to something greater than themselves, and in TUMI they have found a much-needed place of redemption in the jail that houses them.
I was very impressed by the quality of the facilitators. Both Jeff and Jon, TUMI instructors who guided us through our visit, were extraordinary. Watching them interact with the inmates during the discussion made me realize that the work they do is effective. They are guiding these men, in their journey of transformation.