On a weekend afternoon about seven years ago, Yusef Wiley scanned the dining hall of California’s Avenal State Prison. Inmates in powder-blue shirts and navy pants shuffled across the outdoor recreation area and past a set of large windows into his domestic-violence prevention class. Wiley, then also a prisoner, counted at least 40 men sidling up to the metal seats protruding from the dining tables.
“Who was incarcerated for domestic violence?” he asked the inmates. Nearly half of the room raised their hands. When he asked who had ever emotionally or physically abused a loved one, the others raised theirs.
A usually taciturn man in his mid-40s stood up, and with a quivering voice admitted that he was incarcerated for killing his wife. Tears streamed down his face as he told the room he had never felt comfortable sharing his story with others in a large group setting before.
“It made everybody open up,” Wiley said. The room launched into a tell-all discussion about their personal histories with violence. To begin the process of the men making themselves whole again, Wiley encouraged them to dredge up harsh memories and to face their faults head-on.
It’s this commitment to transformation that led Wiley, a 46-year-old former inmate with a long-term sentence, to create the Timelist Group, a nonprofit organization that aims to fill the gaps left by the state’s rehabilitation offerings. He started the program 10 years ago while he was in prison and, upon his release in 2012, has expanded its menu of services to support California’s growing number of parolees with reentry.
Timelist comes at a time when the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is overhauling its system, following a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court order to reduce the state’s overcrowded prison population by over 30,000. Voters in the once tough-on-crime state voted in 2014 to recategorize nonviolent offenses and release thousands of nonviolent drug offenders. The sudden spike in parolees and forthcoming policy changes has triggered a greater need for rehabilitation programs that help inmates prepare to reenter society.
Marking the shift in cultural thinking about the criminal justice system, California also increased its inmate rehabilitation programs budget to $431 million, a bump of $100 million in the past year. This was a welcome change to prison reform advocates who cite a 2007 National Institute of Corrections report that found research-based rehabilitation and recidivism prevention courses to be more effective than incarceration at reducing crime.
But as states throughout the nation look to California as a model for rehabilitation and solutions to overcrowding, Wiley and other former inmates contend that many of the state’s prisons do not offer the courses needed for them to undergo meaningful change. While he was at Avenal State Prison, Wiley noticed that anger management and alcohol and drug abstinence courses were some of the state’s only offerings for self-betterment.
“It seemed like there was a gap in services, a gap in reaching individuals who had other issues besides anger, besides alcohol and drugs,” he said.
Timelist offers 12 courses taught by prisoners and staff members inside of prisons, with as many as 250 students altogether. The CDCR confirmed that two prisons currently offer the courses, although there could be more.
SAFE – which stands for Staying out of prison, Addressing addiction, Family in crisis, and Earning a legitimate income – is a four-week course that encourages inmates to write letters to their families about the behavioral patterns that landed them in prison. Inmates also hear from guest speakers who talk about their occupations.
Another course focuses on gang recovery, using cognitive therapy to dissect the thought processes that led many of the prisoners onto the streets and behind bars. Students go through mock scenarios to practice how they would react if one of their family members considered joining the same gangs.
“I try to stay away from certain language so that people don’t think that I’m a doctor or something,” Wiley laughed, “because I’m not a doctor.”
Wiley’s courses are based off of his personal experience as a member in South Central Los Angeles gangs during the 1980s. Fights and getting into trouble at school were the norm during his teenage years until an attempted robbery landed him in a juvenile detention center at 17 years old. Then in 1989, he got involved in a drive-by shooting and was sentenced to 16-years-to-life with the possibility of parole for homicide.
After a few years in prison, Wiley was accused of assaulting a correctional guard at Calipatria State Prison and was sent to solitary confinement for a year. It was there that he received a letter from his father urging him to change. He used the rest of his time in solitary confinement to read World Almanacs, literature, and books about Islam that taught him discipline, empathy, and perseverance. Although he grew up in a Christian household, he converted to Islam while he was incarcerated because the fasts, prayers, and emphasis on learning provided the structure he was seeking.
“Religion was the essence of my transformation,” noted Wiley, who is now a devout Muslim.
After he completed his year in solitary confinement, he received his GED and continued reading and writing screenplays. He created his first self-help course in the early 2000s and tested it out during informal groups on the courtyard bleachers. He taught his students that “principles were the key to change,” and told them to steer away from people who were bad influences.
Wiley said that he maintains a strong network with the hundreds of inmates who have completed his courses inside of prisons, and that none of them have relapsed into criminal behavior. Staff at Avenal State Prison confirmed that all of the inmates enrolled in Timelist courses at that prison have not returned after their release.
Cortez Chandler, a former inmate at Avenal State Prison, was struggling one day in 2007 to come to terms with his own life sentence for homicide when another prisoner told him about Wiley’s discussion in the courtyard. Chandler was particularly moved by Timelist’s domestic-violence program. He said it helped him realize that the root cause of his aggression was the fear instilled in him at a young age by his father’s alcoholism and abusiveness.
“A lot of people, when they were helping you with stuff, they were teaching you about the law. Nobody taught you about yourself,” Chandler said. But Wiley’s programs were different. “He taught us insight.”
Chandler went on to teach Timelist’s domestic-violence prevention program in prison until he was released in August 2015. Now he works as a Timelist staff member, running a sober living house called The Pathway Home in Los Angeles. There, he helps 14 recently paroled men write resumes, apply for jobs, and complete entrepreneurship and leadership classes through the technology company Cisco Systems.
At Timelist's headquarters in the San Francisco Bay area, about 30 other recent parolees have access to free life-skills programs. The organization's instructors teach the former prisoners how to apply for driver’s licenses and to build credit. They provide job training and commissioned work through the soap company Clean360.
Timelist’s $250,000 annual budget for the programs and transitional housing depends on donations and funding from the county’s probation department and the department of corrections. The organization is also in the process of merging with Roots Community Health Center in Oakland to offer additional services, such as enrollment in healthcare and food stamps. Timelist plans on addressing the barriers to housing access by renting out apartment units that don’t require criminal background checks to ex-inmates.
“Everybody thinks that people go to prison and they get the help that they need and they’re going to come out and they’re going to be okay. No, they don’t,” Chandler said. “You only get the help that you want.”
Why the programs created by Wiley and other former inmates are so effective is because prisoners are more likely to be inspired by someone who is relatable, said Elizabeth Curtin, department director at Social Justice Services for Community Resources for Justice.
“It is always more powerful for anyone in any situation to work with someone who walks a mile in their shoes,” Curtin said. “Offenders hearing from ex-offenders who are on the outside and doing well is very powerful.”
California’s prison system has begun offering more rehabilitation courses within the past few years, said CDCR Public Information Officer Kristina Khokhobashvili, but inmate-created courses still make up many of the available programs. Each prison offers different programs, but she said that at California State Prison, Solano, for example, 10 of the 120 inmate rehabilitation programs were created by prisoners. Some inmate-created courses receive money from the state, while others are funded by prisoners through fundraising campaigns such as food sales. She noted one popular program called Man Up in California State Prison, Solano, that teaches prisoners how to be good husbands and community members.
“A prison is like a city,” Khokhobashvili said. “[The inmates] live here, so if they’re going to be successful, they’re going to take a little bit of ownership or a lot of ownership in the communities that they live in and get involved.”
She added that inmate-created programs like the ones created by Wiley are easily adaptable in other areas, because the sheer size of California’s prison system allows the state to serve as a testing ground for rehabilitation services. Five years after Wiley’s release, Timelist programs are still being taught at Avenal State Prison.
“He was very proactive on programs,” Larry Chavarria, the prison’s community resource manager, said about Wiley during his time at Avenal. He noted that inmates who take a Timelist course seem to be more empathetic and have better communication skills during their parole hearings. “He had a very positive impact here,” said Chavarria, adding that 40 inmates had attended a Timelist course on July 11.
During the spring, Wiley returned to one state prison for the first time since his release to give a talk about Timelist to 150 inmates. He observed his own parole preparation class being taught by prisoners he had trained during his stint behind bars. Inmates thanked him for the course, and some said that they wanted to live near him if their parole was granted.
Wiley said that it was “moving and powerful” to see that his courses were still being taught. While lawmakers and correctional officers work to change the overcrowded prison system through laws and policy changes, Wiley hopes his courses will transform the system from within.
“We had to be in that process – the ones that had truly transformed themselves,” he said.
• Melissa Hellmann wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Melissa is a YES! reporting fellow and graduate of U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. She has written for the Associated Press, TIME, The Christian Science Monitor, NPR, Time Out, and SF Weekly.