Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, July 30, 2018
I recently returned to Donovan state prison to spend the day working with David Amaya, a formerly incarcerated gentleman who now heads up the anti-recidivism coalition, or ARC. ARC is primarily funded by Scott Budnick, whom you might know better from a few films he financed and executive produced — in particular, “The Hangover,” (2009) one of the highest-grossing R-rated comedies of all time.
ARC provides a support network for formerly incarcerated men and women and strongly advocates for fairer criminal justice policies. My job was to talk to my favorite felons (Criminal Gangs Anonymous) on the subject of entrepreneurship. I have been involved in this prison effort for more than two years, first with Defy Ventures (currently experiencing some financial difficulties) and now with ARC, and ultimately an announcement of a new and improved entrepreneurship program at Donovan.
First, however, let me tell you a little bit about Amaya. I met him for the first time in my office. He wore a white shirt, collar buttoned and sleeves rolled down — so you knew there were tattoos — but he was definitely dressed for success. I told him to take the tie off, roll up the sleeves and let’s go get lunch across the street. Amaya is built like a fireplug, so I ordered three lunches, two for him and one for me. And then I listened to his story.
His father died when he was 12, and at 13 he joined a gang in Los Angeles. He rose in the ranks to lead the gang by 16 and ended up in prison by 22. His sentence was 15 years to life (attempted first degree murder, voluntary manslaughter and assault with a deadly weapon). Please pass the ketchup.
By his own words, he says he was not the most agreeable prisoner — and his violent behavior got him sent to Pelican Bay for 10 years. Pelican is where you do solitary confinement.
Now, stay with me. He is all in for the double cheeseburger and fries at Shore Rider, and I have not touched my food. His tone is matter of fact. But remember, he is one of the leaders of ARC now — so the question is what happened. What changed your life? I will paraphrase his words.
He said his wife and daughter came to visit one day. The visiting is just like you see on television with the telephone, the bulletproof glass so you can’t touch each other. And his daughter picks up the phone — she was 13 at the time — and she says, “Daddy, are you ever going to hold me again?” And right then and there, he decided he would change his life, make his daughter the priority in his life and become a model prisoner, get out and then change other people’s lives.
He spent the next eight years taking all the programs that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation offered, from anger management to parenting and victim’s awareness.
On June 25, 2015, Amaya was granted parole. In July 2017, he became a life coach with ARC. Now he is the top dog in facilitating programs for change by the inmates in the prison system.
Just like that. This story has stayed with me for a long time. Because, think about it, how easy is it to really change behavior? Most of us can’t even stay on a diet for a week or quit smoking, but the power of his family, of his daughter’s question was enough to flip the switch for Amaya. I am proud to be a tiny part of his effort.
Now, as promised, meet another formerly incarcerated individual, Alan Mobley, Ph.D. He is currently associate professor of Public Affairs and Criminal Justice at San Diego State University. In the early ’80s, he was one of the largest cocaine dealers in Los Angeles. (He had friends in Colombia.) His is a tale of redemption as well, but that is for another time. Mobley and a group from the Service Corps of Retired Executives, along with yours truly, are working to bring a new and improved entrepreneurship program to Donovan. Our customer is the inmate, and hopefully many tales of redemption and change are still to come. We are determined to try to meet that challenge. Future columns will give details.
For now, if you are inclined to assist us, either with human skills or financial ones, please send me an email, and I will start the list.
Rule No. 570: Let’s do lunch.