In recent years, NorAm has included stories highlighting Palma's partnership and program with Soledad Prison, which has included Palma students and staff spending time with inmates who are part of the Life CYCLE (Careless Youth Corrected by Lifers' Experiences) Team. Palma students and staff have joined with inmates to read and reflect on John Steinbeck's works as they relate to their own relationships to lead retreats in the prison facility. Like so many other experiences, students and staff members from Palma and other ERCBNA schools have discovered that they often receive so much more from those they serve than vice versa. In addition to the incredible relationships Palma community members have created, inmates in Soledad's Life CYCLE program have raised more than $20,000 to support scholarships for Palma students, and have had profound impacts on student and staff experiences at the school. One of the focal points of NorAm, however, is the highlighting and promotion of advocacy and working in ERCBNA schools to promote the idea of dismantling the barriers that make and keep people marginalized in our societies and world.
Richard Mireles' story is one that epitomizes the stories that NorAm hopes to share, highlighting how the actions of staff, students and the community of ERCBNA can not only improve the lives of those we are called to serve, but also to inspire and be inspired by others to see the importance of advocating for change. Richard Mireles spent 21 years imprisoned and was recently released on parole. After being released from prison, Richard has immediately begun to advocate at the California State Capitol for other offenders who have been marginalized by the system. Thanks to the work of Palma's Jim Micheletti and Mia Mirassou and Richard's willingness and openness to share his story, Richard shared some of his experiences with Palma's program in Soledad State Prison with NorAm. Please read below:
"The Palma School/Soledad prison collaboration was one of the most meaningful things I was a part of in my 21 years of incarceration. The reason that it was so meaningful was because it was the first time prisoners got to sit in a small group with faculty and high school students to discuss books that we were all reading together. We started with John Steinbeck's books. Generally, most inmates have never read books before their incarceration. To get the opportunity to read a meaningful book that had significance for our own personal lives with high school students was a rewarding experience. Most of us saw these teenagers as at way better places in their lives as we were at their age, but we also all knew how easy it is to get off the right path and head in the direction that we did that led us to long prison terms. We saw this collaboration as an opportunity to share with them the wisdom that we had gained not only from the book (and how it related to our lives), but also from years of incarceration and encourage and affirm them on the path that they are on in their private all boys school.
I believe that the program can help others by breaking down the walls of assumptions that outside people generally have in their minds about what it means to be in prison. I think the majority of people think that those of us who committed crimes (even crimes that equated to us serving long terms), are continuously perpetuating criminality on the inside and generally this is not the case. Faculty and students from Palma came into the prison and realized that we are still human, we still have families, we still love our families and friends, we are not what we did, we are not defined by our past, and we have made significant strides to become new. I have personally earned a Bachelor of Science Degree and am 5 classes away from an MBA, not to mention receiving Senatorial recognition for becoming a CA state certified alcohol and drug counselor. I am not an anomaly. There are many men who have completely transformed their lives and are ready to be neighbors to society again, but most wouldn't know that because of the stereotypes that are perpetuated in today's society.
What makes this program different than others is it teaches these young men to love their neighbor based on their character, not based on their location or their past. It teaches these young men to commit themselves to living for causes that are bigger than themselves. It teaches them to see the humanity in even the most marginalized people in today's society. It leads them to appreciate their freedom and experience an opportunity to hear and learn from the most unlikely of society's resources (who still have value to offer in spite of our pasts).
The program taught us that we are still worthy of society's love. Palma School showed us that we still have value to offer; that we can be just as insightful with some of the best and brightest teachers and students; that we could give and receive love from strangers who care; that people don't care how much you know, unless they know how much you care, and Palma showed their care by their actions year after year.
I don't remember everything about the books we read, but I remember the smiles and encouragement we received. I don't remember every comment made in the small or large groups, but I remember the humanity they practiced by visiting us, sharing with us, loving us, and valuing us. This program is purely a God thing. God bless all involved."
NorAm and the entire ERCBNA Province thanks Richard not only for his openness for sharing his incredible story with our publication and the entire ERCB Network, but also for his dedication for continuing to advocate for those who are and have been marginalized through the prison system. As members of the ERCBNA Network, we will continue to pray and advocate for those individuals who have lost their voice in prison and continue to suffer from the misconceptions and stereotypes that Richard alludes to.
Palma continues to work with and advocate for inmates at Soledad and beyond. One way in which you can support the work that Palma and Richard are doing in advocating for inmates is by purchasing Richard's book, Men Built For Others. Part of the proceeds from this book go towards the scholarship that inmates have set up to raise funds for Palma students.
Click here for more information on Richard's book.