Although research on the role of volunteers in jails and prisons is limited, recent studies suggest that visits from community volunteers to incarcerated people may reduce the likelihood of re-offending. CeCe Gannon is one such volunteer. After her own son’s brush with jail, Gannon, then a therapist-in-training, realized how many people reentering society after incarceration—whether brief or extended—desperately need someone to talk to. She decided she could be that someone.
When Gannon’s son was 16, he was arrested at school for his involvement in the sale of a controlled substance, expelled for six months, and eventually sentenced to probation and community service. While he was being held at juvenile hall, Gannon visited him, and that opened her eyes to some of the barriers other people face while incarcerated, specifically, “There wasn’t anyone for him to talk to,” she says, recalling the lack of therapeutic services. “It stuck in the back of my mind when he got out. So when I had an opportunity and I went back there, the magnetic pull was incredibly strong.”
As a longtime teacher with a doctorate in psychology, Gannon began a second late-career act as a practicing therapist, and in time became a volunteer at the jail in Sonoma County, California. For her internship, she chose a juvenile hall, where young people await court hearings or placement in long-term care. She worked for more than two years, long enough to watch some people she had helped as teens get in trouble as adults and cycle back into the system. She has seen firsthand, over and over again, what a lack of rehabilitative services does to young people. “The nonviolent drug user who has gone to prison at 18, 19, 20—once these youngsters go to prison,” she says, “they don’t come back the same.”
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John Mesker remembers his initial impression when he first met Gannon at the juvenile hall in the mid-1990s: “Who is this hippie lady?”
Gannon connected with Mesker, then 15, in a way other adults at the facility hadn’t been able to, despite his confounded first reaction. She taught him how to use visualizations and his breath to calm down.
“She wanted to do art therapy,” Mesker says. “Here I am trying to prove myself as a violent person, and she’s asking me, ‘Do you like Belgian chocolate?’ ‘Do you read books?’ ”
It was around this time that Mesker was made a ward of the court. His mother—who struggled with addiction—was no longer allowed to write or visit. “Cece was my first dose of a normal person,” Mesker says, reflecting on the drug use that was a backdrop to his childhood and the bouts of homelessness and instability that plagued his family.
After her internship at the juvenile hall, Gannon started going into the county jail with the support of a Catholic organization and later through a project called Earth Hope, cofounded by Sister Helen Prejean of Dead Man Walking fame.
She now volunteers her therapeutic services, acting as a reentry counselor and teaching four courses at the Sonoma County Jail in Santa Rosa, California. Three are correspondence classes. The fourth she teaches in person, and its focus is cosmology, which she explains as a connection of science and spirituality, in which she weaves the history of the universe into self-inquiry exercises. “I’m here to help you wake up everything inside you to the best of my ability,” she says of her students. “The best insurance that they are going to do something differently is if they’re inside themselves more consciously.”
Gannon strives to make her class a respite from the otherwise stressful experience of jail. “I don’t corner people there ever,” she says. “They get cornered all day long.” She says that keeping the class interactive and varied helps her hold the men’s interest. She may do a 15-minute presentation, then show an excerpt from a DVD. She uses handouts. She breaks the students into racially mixed groups and has them work together. She never gives tests and she always plays music. These weekly interactions inspire her, Gannon says. “I’m just as excited going in every Tuesday as I was years ago, because something touches me and hopefully, I touch something.”
Friends and family members have asked over the years if she’s ever afraid at the jail, but Gannon says she rarely is. Instead, she emphasizes how much she relates to her students. “When that shell comes off, they are rich inside,” she says. “We’re not dealing with stupid people. We are dealing with a lot of addiction and a lot of ADD and ADHD and a lot of learning disabilities.”
She wants the men she works with to understand their potential and sometimes urges them to remember how young they were when they started using drugs harmfully. Many were in their early teens and are stuck at that age emotionally, she says.
“Who has kids?” she asks her class. A number of the men raise their hands. Then she asks, “Would you let your 13-year-old tell you when to go to bed, what to eat, what to do?” Inevitably, she’s met with a chorus of “Hell, no.” She takes them a step further: “So why are you letting the teenager inside you run your lives?”
“Then they sit up. They’re like, ‘Oh my god,’ ” she says. “That’s a big aha.”
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Much of Gannon’s work as a volunteer has focused on helping people get through the reentry process. She knows from years of experience how exhausting it is. “You have people coming from a very secure position where they’re told what to do and how to do it,” she says of jails and prisons. “Outside, there’s almost no help.” So Gannon has tried to fill that gap, driving people who don’t have licenses and helping them secure food and clothing. She helps them fill out Medi-Cal applications (for California’s Medicaid program) and guides those who need it through the months-long process of applying for Supplemental Security Income. Now 71, Gannon says she’s not taking on any more new people to help through the reentry process.
Her relationship with Mesker is ongoing. Over the past 20 years, Gannon has seen him many times, through highs and lows. She visited him when, as a teenager, he was sent to a boot camp in Nevada, four hours away from home. She counseled him after he was convicted of his first adult felony at the age of 18 and served a one-year sentence at the jail. She helped him enroll in junior college, taught him how to shop for groceries, and got him ready for his driver’s license test.
But it’s not only the logistical hurdles that people must overcome once they’re involved in the criminal justice system, Gannon says. It’s also the fragile emotional state in which many recently released people find themselves. “They’re falling apart frequently,” she says of the men she helps through the transition. “You have PTSD, but now you have to go in this group [to stand in line for benefits] and you’re sweating and having a panic attack.”
For Mesker, it was his addiction to amphetamines and alcohol that posed the greatest challenge. After a fatal hit-and-run that sent him to prison for the first time, he realized the impact of his addiction not only on himself but others. “Up until this point, I could always say, ‘My drug use is affecting me.’ I can’t say that anymore,” Mesker says. He spent 90 days at San Quentin State Prison being evaluated by psychologists to determine how he’d be sentenced. The eventual deal, secured through the help of a private attorney: a suspended four-year sentence and six months at a residential drug treatment facility. Violating these terms means doing the time. “This is the first time I’ve ever gone through a court case and had treatment attached to it,” Mesker says.
Now, after three months at a halfway house, Mesker is settling into the routines of his new job as a plumber. He attends 12-step meetings four times a week to help manage his addiction and relies heavily on a friend and ally, a 23-year-old fellow resident at the house.
After their court-ordered stay in treatment is finished, the two have plans to move to a sober living environment (SLE) together, a place where there’s a curfew and mandated Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Mesker has made a commitment to Gannon that he’ll stay at an SLE for at least 90 days.
Without affordable drug treatment programs and greater institutional support from the criminal justice system for reentry services, however, Gannon says it’s inevitable that recidivism in the United States will continue to be high. The best way to combat that, she believes, is to ensure that people who are incarcerated have access to basic reentry services like those described above, classes in budgeting and parenting, and the kind of values-shaping human development she teaches at the county jail. She points to prisons in Norway and Finland—models that prioritize rehabilitation over punishment and retribution—and, closer to home, to compassionate reentry programs such as those offered by Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles.
“I don’t think we’ve even begun to tap the potential of rehabilitation,” Gannon says. “The [incarceration] system has to start over from scratch.”
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Dani McClain reports on gender, race, policy, and politics. She is a contributing writer at The Nation and a fellow with the Nation Institute. Follow her on Twitter at @drmcclain.
Talia Herman is a freelance photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.