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Valley State Prison Youthful Offenders Graduate from Junior Mentor Leadership Program

CHOWCHILLA – Eighteen young men graduated yesterday from the Junior Mentor Leadership Program at Valley State Prison (VSP) where youthful participants earn college credits and receive training in leadership and accountability, anger and denial management, relationships and boundaries, and information about addiction, gangs and the impacts of crime as well as reentry planning, money management and restorative justice. The 18 graduates will now serve as mentors to other young men in the Youthful Offender Program (YOP) while they complete 500 hours of internship.

The YOP, established through Assembly Bill 1276 in 2014, allows CDCR to afford special classification consideration for youthful offenders under the age of 22 admitted to state prison on or after July 1, 2015. On Jan. 1, 2018, the law extended the age of youth to 25 years old. The goal behind the YOP is to give youthful offenders the opportunity to be housed in lower-security facilities with more access to rehabilitative programming and positive influences.

There are 10 CDCR institutions with a YOP. VSP activated its YOP in 2017 and is the only YOP with a Junior Mentor Leadership Program, established in 2018. The Junior Mentor Leadership Program is a partnership between CDCR/VSP and ReEvolution, a non-profit organization that provides programs to help address barriers to reentry for incarcerated youth.

“I view the Youthful Offender Program as a critical component of rehabilitating and developing youth into positive members of society,” VSP Warden Raythel Fisher said. “The mentors serve as role models and share their own experiences dealing with the pitfalls of incarceration. The program centers on self-accountability, goal setting, conflict resolution and the development of a sense of responsibility.

Graduate Cesar Gonzalez, who arrived at VSP as a 19-year-old after being sentenced to 12 years, met a YOP mentor who convinced him that he needed to change his ways and was told the YOP could help him.

“The YOP gave me a choice, the right choice,” Gonzalez said. “When I graduated from the program I had learned about positive choices and everyone around me painted a good picture of what happens when I do the right thing. This experience gave me a sense of control in my life. Before prison, I was involved in gangs on the streets and this was now a different type of interaction with new goals.”

Another graduate, Cliff Konopasek, said, “The YOP is everything for me. It means people don’t give up on youth offenders and if you set your mind to it, there are no limitations. It showed me that change is possible. I know I would not have changed if it wasn’t for the YOP at VSP.”

Today’s graduation ceremony featured guest speaker Paul Galloway who used to be an instructor for the junior mentors. Galloway was paroled recently and returned to VSP to inspire the graduates to work hard and stay disciplinary free so that they too can give back what was given to them.

Despite challenges presented by COVID-19, VSP staff members safely continued instruction for the leadership training program while following public health and health care guidance, allowing participants to stay on-track with their participation and to graduate on-time.

Some of the participants in the Youth Offender Program (YOP) at Valley State Prison with Snappy, one of the dogs being trained. The YOP also has a program where shelter animals are trained for eventual adoption.
Graduates of the Junior Mentor Leadership Program received their diplomas at the June 3, 2021, graduation at Valley State Prison.
Eighteen young men graduated on June 3, 2021, from the Junior Mentor Leadership Program in a ceremony at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla.

Contact: Joe Orlando, joe.orlando@cdcr.ca.gov, (916) 445-4950