Prison chaplains hold 101 ceremonies in 39 locations
Allowing seeds of peaceful coexistence, cooperation and forgiveness to take root in the state prison system were the goals of the first CDCR statewide Day of Peace and Reconciliation. Events were held the last week in January at 34 adult institutions and five community correctional facilities, marking the first time something of this nature has been done on such a massive scale. When totaled, there were 101 ceremonies held statewide. (See more photos.)
Behind the scenes, prison chaplains and community resources managers (CRMs) organized multiple events at institutions spanning the state from Pelican Bay State Prison in the north to R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility in the south. From concept to the actual week of ceremonies took less than three months.
According to organizers, the planning meetings, which included chaplains from all faith groups, began in early November 2019.
“Peace and Reconciliation is part of the broader picture of CDCR’s mission of rehabilitation. Many people, inmates included, will make positive life-changing decisions to better their lives and relationships with others on a spiritual level,” said Charles Richey, CDCR Community Resources Manager and Chaplain for the Religious Programs Oversight Unit.
The events were held wherever staff believed was best suited to maintain public safety and institution security.
“Based upon venue availability, seating capacity and custody concerns, the locations for the ceremonies took place in the chapels, gyms, visiting rooms, yards and dining halls,” he said.
All faiths were involved in the events.
“The Day of Peace ceremonies utilized the assistance of chaplains of all faith groups to promote peace and respect to one another,” Richey said. “All 35 CRMs and approximately 120 of the state’s 150 chaplains took part in the ceremonies.”
He stressed the importance of the events as fulfilling CDCR’s rehabilitative mission.
“Inmates who have made positive changes may reenter society as productive citizens instead of reoffending as criminals,” he said. “I visited seven institutions. In every institution, the inmate speakers spoke from their heart. It was obvious that they want peace and they appreciated this opportunity to make very powerful and heart-felt statements.”
Rabbi Benzion Lew, Jewish Chaplain for Calipatria State Prison, said the ceremonies helped the inmates focus on themselves and their own behaviors and attitudes.
“These ceremonies reflected a sense of self reflection and self-reconciliation as a basis to change their lives to a more peaceful and happy state of being,” he said.
Secretary Ralph Diaz wrote a letter to be read to those attending the ceremonies.
“It is a day for us to set aside our difference and celebrate the things that make us unique. I am proud that CDCR’s Chaplains have embraced this idea throughout the state,” he wrote. “Too often the reasons behind violent acts are a lack of understanding, lack of nonviolent communication and lack of respect. We need to understand as a society that our differences are a good thing, and that no matter someone’s cultural or social background, they bring value to the world simply by being here.”
Secretary Diaz acknowledged the event is the first step in a process to make lasting improvements.
“We can each do our part to respect each other and to work for peace among those with whom we work and live,” he wrote.
Nearly 7,400 inmates participated, according to reports from the institutions. Organizers also thanked the efforts of custody staff as well as free staff and CDCR leadership who attended and supported the ceremonies.
Overall, feedback from the inmates was positive.
“I do believe as an inmate who has been incarcerated for 20 years, and someone who at one time pledged loyalty to a gang projecting violence, that having events as this one will most definitely bring awareness for the need for peace and reconciliation throughout all CDCR institutions,” wrote an inmate at Valley State Prison.
Another VSP inmate wrote, “In my 20 years of incarceration and the last eight of them here at VSP, I would have never imagined that prison culture would evolve to what it is today. As the words from the memo of CDCR Secretary Ralph Diaz were read, they perfectly reflected exactly what took place.”
By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor