CDCR Secretary runs tribute lap at RJD

CDCR Secretary Ralph Diaz and Superior Court Judge Craig Mitchell with inmates holding a banner that reads "Skid Row Marathon, RJDCF."
CDCR Secretary Ralph Diaz (left-center), with L.A. County Superior Court Judge Craig Mitchell (center), and former offender Rafael Cabrera (left) celebrate after running the tribute lap around RJD’s “Echo” Facility yard.

In a special event held at RJ Donovan Correctional Facility (RJD) in San Diego, CDCR Secretary Ralph Diaz traded in his suit and tie for joggers and running shoes. He joined Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Craig Mitchell, founder of the Skid Row Running Club, and RJD inmates on Facility E in a tribute lap around the facility’s yard in honor of the powerful acts of recovery and redemption.

The Jan. 23 event featured members of the Skid Row Running Club sharing their stories of recovery from living on the streets of Los Angeles Skid Row, to running international marathons in Africa, Europe, and Central America, in a documentary Skid Row Marathon, which was premiered for approximately 100 inmates at RJD.

“Redemption is possible with faith, hope, and positive guidance,” Secretary Diaz said. “We see people change their lives for the better every single day due to the passionate work of CDCR staff and people like Judge Mitchell.”

Secretary, judge, incarcerated at RJD

Warden Marcus Pollard speaks to inmates at RJD Correctional Facility in San Diego.
RJD Warden Marcus Pollard speaks to inmates and attendees of the Skid Row Marathon documentary screening.

Many of the inmates who attended the event are facing long sentences, they saw a bit of themselves when Rafael Cabrera, who served 28 years in California state prisons for a gang-related homicide, was featured in the documentary as a member of the Skid Row Running Club and also spoke to RJD inmates about how he now lives a life focused on giving back.

Cabrera was 18 when he was sentenced to prison, he didn’t see the outside world again until he was 47 years old. Cabrera now not only runs international marathons alongside Judge Mitchell, but also volunteers at Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey where he was first committed when he was just 14 years old. He also volunteers every other weekend as a carpool driver to help families with transportation to visit their loved ones at a local detention center, a service he says he pays forward after they helped his mother visit him during his long incarceration.

Appointed to the bench by former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2005, and an avid runner, Judge Mitchell founded the Skid Row Running Club in 2012, after becoming involved with the Midnight Mission Shelter on Skid Row at the suggestion of a former offender who he sentenced to prison.

“At some point the conversation turned to ‘is there any way that (I) could think of to contribute to (the Midnight Mission),” Judge Mitchell said about how he was inspired to start the running club. “It started with just a few runners a few mornings a week.”

Between 300 and 500 people have since run with the group, now an official nonprofit. Every year, Mitchell takes his most dedicated Skid Row runners on a free trip to participate in an international marathon. In recent years, Mitchell and club members have participated in marathons in Ghana, Rome, Vietnam and Jerusalem. Some members are homeless or in recovery, and others are lawyers, social workers, students or off-duty LAPD officers.

After the premiere of the documentary, Judge Mitchell and Secretary Diaz stayed behind to shake hands and encourage CDCR staff and inmates to be hopeful for the future and to believe in the power of change. 

Warden: ‘Thank you to the RJD staff who volunteered’

“Thank you to the RJD staff who volunteered their time to put on such an inspiring event for the residents of this facility,” RJD Warden Marcus Pollard said. “I’m continuously encouraged by the daily commitment they show to creating a better future for those in our care.”

RJD’s education department was an integral part of bringing the documentary-screening event to the prison as a special treat for the inmates. RJD staff from the public information office, mental health leadership, community resources manager’s office, and Warden Marcus Pollard helped coordinate and host the event also attended by representatives from the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office and Assembly member Todd Gloria.

The compelling documentary Skid Row Marathon will make you laugh and feel moments of joy and sadness. The gritty documentary follows some of the most formerly-downtrodden as they fight for redemption, literally one step at a time. It can be rented or purchased on Amazon Prime.

By Dana Simas, Press Secretary
Office of Public and Employee Communications

Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility inmates gather to watch a documentary screening.
Residents of RJD’s “Echo” Facility who have displayed good behavior and engaged in positive programs were invited to attend the special documentary screening event.

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