by B. Wayne Hughes, Jr.
Centinela State Prison, located in Imperial County, California, is a place where roughly 3,500 male inmates are housed. In June 2016, Serving California (a foundation that helps ex-offenders, crime victims, and veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD), approached the Mighty Oaks Foundation about taking their Fight Club program – a curriculum designed for veterans suffering from PTSD or other disorders – into a California state prison to see if that program could transform the hearts of inmates.It’s well known that many prisoners suffer from PTSD-type symptoms as a result of living a life of violence or abusing drugs.
The mission of the Mighty Oaks Foundation is to reach the brokenhearted. The program is Biblically-based, with an emphasis on a personal relationship with God. Mighty Oaks has learned that in order to correct past behaviors, or change the way a man thinks or how he views the world, you first have to change his heart before true redemption can take place.
The warden at Centinela State Prison, Raymond Madden, asked that the first program take place in the maximum security yard. These men had one thing in common – they had committed serious crimes. Most are serving life sentences and are active members of prison gangs, or had spent years in solitary confinement. Twenty-seven men from the Level IV maximum security unit participated in the three-day event.
Inmate Etienne Moore’s story is an example of the program’s impact. At the age of twenty-four he was convicted of two counts of First Degree Murder, and received two life sentences without the possibility of parole. Etienne claimed he was, “. . . tried and convicted of a crime I didn’t commit.”
Sixteen years later he’s still fighting to prove his innocence. As a black man standing 6’5”, Etienne drew considerable attention to himself and was quickly assimilated into a prison gang, where violence and drugs became the new norm. When he heard about the Fight Club, and that the warden had invited some of the most violent and influential inmates to attend, he reluctantly signed up.
Etienne entered the program filled with anger and bitterness. But, after three days of listening to testimonies from military veterans who had fought overseas, now back home battling PTSD, Etienne’s heart began to soften. In addition to the powerful testimonies, there were one-on-one counseling sessions, interactive conversations and shared stories, classes on forgiveness, legacy, honor, faith, and family. At the end of day three, the Fight Club experience changed his life.
With a renewed fervor, Etienne immediately put together two important Fight Plans: strengthening his two-year-old marriage, and winning the battle for his freedom. Etienne’s wife was pleasantly surprised at the positive changes in her husband. This transformation also affected Etienne’s attitude toward being locked up. “I’ve gained a new focus to help young men who come into prison, to help guide them away from the gangs and trouble makers. I know I can make a difference by sharing what I’ve learned in the Fight Club.”
Etienne’s case is typical of the prisoners that have completed the program. The Fight Club challenge: “To reject passivity, accept responsibility, lead courageously, and that no man fights alone.”
Why would a “lifer” want to change his life? In California, a person who commits a homicide receives a sentence of twenty-five years to life. That means there’s still the possibility of parole. Parole is based upon several factors, including dealing with the crime itself, and remorse for their victims. That is where the Fight Club PTSD training comes in, as each offender begins to identify the areas in their life that need to be addressed, as well as the impact their actions had on their victims. If the prisoner becomes rehabilitated, the possibility of getting paroled becomes a reality.
The Fight Club manual is constructed like a boxing match with twelve rounds (twelve lessons), that help the inmates work through their various issues, and then develop a Fight Plan to deal with them. The prisoners are challenged to overcome their past experiences and move forward into a life of purpose – to face the giants in their lives and confront their fears – like David versus Goliath in the Bible. After finishing the three-day workshop, they’re given a Certificate of Completion.
The Mighty Oaks Foundation will conduct at least four more Fight Clubs at Centinela State Prison along with single-day follow-up meetings. They’ll also stay in touch through letters. In addition, they’ve been asked to hold Fight Clubs for the prison guards and staff who are excited about participating in this highly effective program. Finally, Calipatria State Prison, as well as other prisons, are requesting Fight Clubs. Not only are individual inmates like Etienne being transformed, but it’s also impacting the cell blocks where they reside, shifting the atmosphere of the prison.
Statistically, 90% of all prisoners will eventually be released. The question – what type of individual will they be upon their discharge? If we ever expect the culture of prison to change, we have to give inmates a pathway to personal renewal. If we do that, then we can end the fifty-four percent recidivism rate and make our communities a whole lot safer.
Wayne Hughes, Jr., California businessman and philanthropist, is founder and chairman of the board of Serving California, a foundation that helps ex-offenders, crime victims, and veterans diagnosed with PTSD and other disorders.