By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Importantly, other leadership roles are filled by inmates. In addition to attending groups run by Amity staffers, some of the more senior inmate members also run their own groups. Among those teachers is the man who dropped acid on the Colorado River and spent half his life in jail, Randy Journey. Others are literally lifers -- men like Ramon Canas. Standing in the Amity trailer one day, Canas drapes his thick arm protectively around the shoulders of a frail, angelic-looking 18-year-old Mexican kid in prison for assault with an automatic weapon. "He's been here for two weeks, and we're going to make something of him," says Canas paternalistically. A large, powerfully muscled Chicano whose close-cropped hair and wire-rim glasses accentuate his soft-spoken demeanor, Canas is doing 25 to life for first-degree murder, and has been in prison for 13 years. For six of those years, Canas has been one of half a dozen lifers working with the Amity staff as prisoner peer counselors in charge of their own caseloads.
"The lifers," says Mark Schuettinger, "have been a key ingredient in our program's success. They're very sharp, they've spent years honing their minds and studying everybody in the whole place. As lifers, they also have real status and, in Amity, a meaningful social role that enables them to be more than just a con waiting to die -- because, realistically, they're never going to get out. They've gone through enough changes during treatment to be emotionally honest about the atrocities they've committed, and to show how they're now taking responsibility."
For prison counselors Canas and Veronica Sluss and for Mark Schuettinger and Randy Journey, leadership involves some subtle politics. "One of the difficulties with the prison therapeutic communities that emerged in the early '70s was that the ex-addict, ex-con staff was often hostile to the corrections staff," says CEO Mullen, "which quickly made them unwelcome as a result.
"The key issue for us has been the balancing act the counselors have had to maintain in supporting the prison staff while not being considered sellouts by the prisoners. They have to keep their identities as former down-and-out convicts that inmates can identify with, while clearly establishing that they are no longer that person. We've had to create an alternative culture respected by both the corrections officers and the inmates within Amity and out in the yard." A measure of their success has come with Amity's expansion: At least four former Donovan inmates have become Amity counselors at other state prisons.
Another hallmark of that "alternative culture" has been the program's racial harmony, strikingly at odds with the racially charged atmosphere of most prisons. The Amity community is about 40 percent black, 40 percent Chicano and 20 percent white. Making that diversity work took a lot of time and effort, according to David Deitch. "You can bet that when they started, every prisoner was watching for any hint of favoritism. If you're a counselor in this kind of program and you spend more time with black guys than others, that will be noted. Convicts have nothing but time to watch and calculate."
Two of Amity's six lifers -- one black and one white -- became close friends early on in the program, and helped establish the tolerant tone. "Here in Amity," says inmate Ken Adams, "all the races are mixed together. There's no such thing as a black telephone sign-up, white tables, Mexican showers; no one worries about playing cards with another group. I can talk to anyone I want and not have to worry about someone asking me why I was talking to a black guy."
Adams is a walking testament to racial diversity -- his ancestry is a mix of Korean, Hawaiian and European. The group he attends in the Amity trailer includes among its seven members blacks and Mexicans, as well as a white man -- Kerry Woods. It's led by Veronica Sluss. On a spring afternoon, Sluss listens intently as Mark Dumas leans forward in his chair and addresses the other members. "I saw my brother on TV last night," says Dumas, an intense, reed-thin, 38-year-old African-American. "He'd just been caught with two guns and a bunch of crystal meth in El Cajon. Now he's facing a sure 25-to-life on a third strike. Me, I'm here on a second strike. If I come back again, my world until the day I die will be that acre out there in the yard." The others nod sympathetically, clearly understanding Dumas' desperation.
Seated across from Dumas is Anthony Bell, a former Five-Trey Avalon Crip out of South-Central. At 36, Bell has the foreboding look of Sonny Liston in his prime, except that while Liston's eyes were famously dead, Bell's are always busy taking you in, reading you with just a touch of amused contempt. He'd gotten by ã most of his adult life dealing dime and quarter bags of coke and heroin, and pulling robberies and burglaries. One day during a botched stickup of an Inglewood jewelry store, he shot the security guard in the head and, after being captured in a high-speed chase, found himself facing an almost certain murder rap. Miraculously, the bullet missed the guard's brain, and he lived. "Otherwise," says Bell, "I'd be sitting in death row now, thinking about suicide." Instead, he's doing 11 years, and trying, he says, "to open up to people and get away from violence. Now I'm here to work on my behavior. I have three kids -- two girls and a boy by two different mothers -- and I need to be out there for them."
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