Sacramento, CA

Changing Prison From The Inside-out: Cal State LA BA Prison Program Graduate Fights to End Involuntary Servitude

Robert J Hansen

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Samual Nathaniel Brown on graduation day in California State Prison, Los Angeles County on Oct. 5, 2021.(Photo by Robert Huskey/Cal State LA)

Q & A with Samual Nathaniel Brown

Sacramento, Calif. - Robert J Hansen

On October 5, 2021, Samual Nathaniel Brown, co-founder of the Anti-Violence Safety and Accountability Project (ASAP), creator of the 10P program, and author of the constitutional amendment proposal, The California Abolition Act (ACA 3), recently became one of the first along with 24 other men to graduate with a bachelors in communication from Cal State LA’s Prison B.A. Graduation Initiative on the yard at California State Prison Los Angeles County in Lancaster California.

In 2015, Cal State LA became the only university in California to offer in-person classes inside a maximum-security prison to inmates seeking to earn a bachelor’s degree in organizational communication. This opportunity was made available through the Second Chance Pell federal pilot program, “which aims to reduce recidivism rates and make communities safer by educating incarcerated Americans so they can receive jobs and support their families after they are released from prison.”

"Other schools prepare you to execute a task,” Brown said. “This school prepared us to change the world.”

After being incarcerated for over two decades, Brown will soon become the 13th student in Cal State LA’s prison education program to be released from prison.

Brant Choate, Director for CDCR’s Division of Rehabilitative Programs spoke to the graduates and stated, “This program is so unique—it is one of the only of its kind in the country and the nation has been watching you. Because of your efforts, you have set the stage and example that this works. This opportunity is going to be available to thousands in the future in California and across the country. Thank you for all you’ve done.”

“I am struck by the resilience and dedication you have demonstrated as you embarked on your educational journey,” Cal State LA Provost and Executive Vice President Jose A. Gomez said to the graduates. “You didn’t give up, you didn’t quit. I speak for everyone at Cal State LA—the faculty, staff, administrators, alumni, and our community—when I say that we are so proud of you.”

Brown is a shining example of how education can not only lead to rehabilitation but can also positively impact the communities he once helped to harm. In 2014, Mr. Brown developed “The Theory of Emotional Illiteracy Based Criminality” which connects Adverse Childhood Experiences with people choosing criminal behaviors as coping mechanisms.

Taffany Lim, senior director of the Center for Engagement, Service, and the Public Good at Cal State LA said the college cohorts are mentors to people on the yard.

“Some of these guys may never get out of prison," Lim says. “It's still a worthy investment because they've become huge advocates for education. Now their friends and family—oftentimes individuals who never saw college education for themselves—are pursuing higher education. They're mentors to people in the yard. They're like, 'Hey, don't make the same mistake I did. Go to school, find education, transform your life. Make a difference.'"

Kamran Afary, Cal State LA assistant professor considers Brown an educator for the programs Brown has created and the work he does for the prisoners. “He was a magnificent student and is an educator as far as I’m concerned,” Afary said. “He is a remarkable person and his ‘Theory of Emotional Illiteracy-Based Criminality’ really has had an amazing impact on real rehabilitation and self-healing here at Lancaster.”

In February of 2020 Samual Brown along with his wife Jamilia Land, collaborated with Fritzi Hortsman, founder of Compassion Prison Project to co-executive produce the documentary "Step Inside The Circle: Childhood Trauma Behind Bars" where Samual, Fritzi and the men on the "Honor Yard" delve into the depth of adverse childhood experiences and trauma in a prison setting. "When I spoke to Mr. Brown, our conversation led to a discussion about childhood trauma and his depth of knowledge about the impact of childhood trauma and toxic stress. This led me to visit the two classes he facilitates: “10P” on Friday evening and on Saturday morning.” stated Hortsman in a support letter to the California Board of Parole.

Hortsman went on to state that, “When Academy Award Nominee Rodrigo Prieto volunteered his services for one day, I sprung into action ... Mr. Brown went above and beyond my request. Not only did he assemble and recruit 250 men for the circle, he rehearsed them, he made sure all the obligatory permissions and forms were filled out, helped me choose a group of men to interview after the circle and made sure everything was taken care of from the inside.

We could not have done this without the express help from Mr. Brown. Producers are problem solvers. Producers see what needs to be done and then figure out how to get it done. Mr .Brown is a natural problem solver and a natural producer. I look forward to working with Mr. Brown when he is released and continue our collaboration on “Childhood Trauma Behind Bars” and on the many other projects that are sure to arise from our combined efforts. "

Journalist Robert J Hansen spoke with Samual Brown on October 13, 2021, in this exclusive follow-up interview:

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Graduates of Cal State LA’s pioneering prison degree program celebrate earning their bachelor’s degrees in October 2021.(Photo by Robert Huskey/Cal State LA)

Hansen: “What does it feel like having attained this degree from behind those walls?”

Brown: “When I was in the midst of actually doing it, I didn’t realize the feat that we were pulling off. It feels historic. It's actually sinking in.”

Hansen: “What impact does the BA program have on inmates making parole who otherwise might not have?”

Brown: “It helps tear down a great deal of those prejudices and stereotypes that we walk into the prison system with. Not only are we considered failures and people who are incapable of doing anything because we’re convicted, we have to turn around the perception of ourselves but also have to rehabilitate the image of people who are incarcerated. It’s believed that once you’re incarcerated that there’s no hope for you. That’s just not true. The impact it has had on them was showing them how transformative education is and how it bridges barriers between cultures.”

Hansen: “Professor Kamran Afaray, communications studies associate professor at Cal State LA told CNN ‘It's not a luxury, it’s a necessity.’ What does that mean?”

Brown: “Part of making amends for the harm I caused is getting an education. Now that I’ve turned my life in the right direction it’s only right that I go full-fledged in one direction. That means going for a doctorate. It’s a necessity because it demonstrates that I understand the harm that I caused before coming to prison and I want to be the exact opposite of that. I used to put all of my energy into criminality now, I put all of my energy into healing and doing positive things. The more educated a person is upon leaving prison, the less chance there is of them recidivating and coming back to prison. It’s shown that people with associate degrees have a 0.01 percent chance of returning to prison. Out of us 25 men graduating with bachelor's degrees, it's going to be an even smaller percentage. It also prepares us for reentry, potential employment, and a higher earning scale. For those reasons, it’s a necessity. I derailed education in my family. My mom, my sisters, my big brother got their degrees and I came to prison. I tarnished the image and it was very important for me to show that even though I came to prison, I am so much more than my last and first conviction. And anybody, if they want to apply themselves, can turn their lives around. So it’s a necessity to make amends, to reenter society with a real chance of finding gainful employment, and to set the record straight that we’re all so much more than the crimes that we committed to coming here.”

Hansen: “Earning a bachelor's degree after being incarcerated 24 years, what does it say for the education system vs the system of mass incarceration in American society?”

Brown: “To be able to combine the academic studies with my studies and then the self-help programming has made me become a much more well-rounded individual and strive for greater emotional literacy which is something that I lost. Us (prisoners) getting a bachelor's degree were predicated upon us having reached a certain level of calmness, peace, and emotional literacy in ourselves. Many of us live without the possibility of parole and have been here now for 25 to 30 years. We have under our belt a host of self-help programming that we’ve taken before getting into the bachelor's degree program. We already had a certain level of emotional security in ourselves that we typically lack from grade schools or high schools. So there is no reason we should wait until our children are in juvenile facilities or incarcerated before we give them the tools they need to be able to process their emotions and constructively deal with them. That’s what’s needed when going to school coming from a trauma-filled background.”

In 2013 Brown arrived at Folsom State Prison in Sacramento and met men who were sentenced to several life sentences with no hope ever to be released. There he founded the 10P program and began to develop what would become “The Theory of Emotional Illiteracy-Based Criminality” which posits that adverse childhood experiences combined with a lack of emotional literacy form the personal roots of criminality.

Brown: “That takes us back to Folsom State Prison in Sacramento. I was there for close to a year watching people commit suicide, watching people overdose, and watching people commit homicides. We’re talking about people who had three, four, five life sentences without the possibility of parole, hundreds of years, etc. They had no thoughts of getting out of prison or seeing the possibility of ever going home. It was all so heavy. I remember speaking to my supervisor at the time Sheila Casto, and I told her that the men ain’t got nothing to live for, nothing to give them hope and she told me, “Don't just talk about it, do something about it.” So I accepted the challenge.”

Brown drafted the proposal of what became the 10P program. “Prisoners Parole Portfolio as Positive Programming and Prior Preparation that Prevents Poor Performance.” The 10P Program equips incarcerated individuals with the theory's wisdom through circles and various program options that facilitate moving from an anti-social to a pro-social mindset.

“I began carrying this portfolio and inside of it I had all of my positive accomplishments. They were like a force field to me and the last thing I wanted to do was get into any trouble and lose them. Soon you started noticing everyone in the program holding on to these documents, didn’t want to get in trouble.”

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Samual Nathaniel Brown (bottom left) and cohorts who took part in the 10P program at California State Prison Los Angeles County, Lancaster.(Photo courtesy of Jamilia Land)

Samual’s 10P program launch was such a success that he developed another program to prepare others who were not yet ready to participate in a public discussion sharing intimate details of their life.

“Not everyone is ready to sit talking in a circle about intimate details of their life or their crimes that landed them in prison. But having an opportunity to read a book about it, something they can relate to, and get recognized for that. That is just the first step to what is called the progressive self-rehabilitation model. This is something I created long before Covid-19. Now you might see these other programs that run a curriculum similar to mine but I’ve been doing this since 2014.”

Hansen: “How optimistic are you of the program continuing after you are released?”

Brown: “I am extremely hopeful because I am not going to abandon them upon my release. Warden R.C. Johnson, community resource manager Ericka Lake, and public information officer Karla Graves have not only expressed support but demonstrated support for the 10P program by getting the means to continue running the program. With ASAP we have worked to continue the program not only in New Folsom but work with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to hopefully help as many prisoners as possible. I’m not only hopeful about it continuing, but also getting the opportunity to offer it to over one hundred thousand prisoners in the CDCR system.”

Brown co-founded, with his wife Jamilia Land, the Anti-Violence, Safety, and Accountability Project (ASAP), which aims to dismantle systemic racism and end the cycle of violence in communities. From the work of Brown and Land through ASAP came ACA 3, The California Abolition Act. ACA 3 seeks to end legalized slavery by removing involuntary servitude from California's Constitution.

Hansen: “Tell me how ACA 3 came about.”

Brown: “I am a healthcare facility maintenance worker or environmental technician and I have recorded over 1000 hours working as one. I’ve earned my journeyman's certification and I’m qualified at picking up blood spills and other infectious materials. I clean the hospitals. That means I’m a frontline worker. When Covid hit and shut down the prisons and everything on the outside,I still had to report to work every day because I’m a frontline worker. I was the first person in California to disinfect and sanitize a Covid cell. I know that because the first prisoner that tested positive for Covid-19 in CDCR was here at Lancaster. I got stuck with a hazmat suit on, it was crazy, no one knew what to expect. We just knew that death comes with it. To have to go in there and clean that was surreal. Of course, you know I couldn’t refuse and that made my wife extremely upset. It's upsetting to her because I’m asthmatic and I suffer from a collapsed lung. I'm at high risk for Covid-19 morbidity. Initially I told my supervisor ‘Hey I’m only going to come into work every other day but eventually they shut that down.’ Then I got informed of possible disciplinary measures being taken against me which is enough to stop me from being released on parole.”

Brown and his wife, Land, became focused on creating ACA 3 for several reasons. He could not refuse without receiving a rules violation report which would have ruined his chances of making parole. They also thought the work conditions he was being subjected to amid a pandemic that very little was known about at the time was inhumane and immoral. Brown eventually contracted Covid-19 and fortunately survived.

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Brown’s wife, Jamilia Land (front), Senator Sydney Kamlager (middle) and April Grayson of Young Women’s Freedom Center (back).(Photo courtesy of Jamilia Land)

Hansen: “Is that when you wrote the proposal?”

Brown: “Mass incarceration is a playground for a pandemic. We breathe recycled air, there’s no way to social distance so it’s just something tragic waiting to occur. My wife told me about the Abolish Slavery National Network (ASNN) and what was taking place in certain states like Colorado and she encouraged me to write a bill to amend the Constitution of California. Through her encouragement I sat down and wrote it. She did all the leg work, taking it to the Capitol, speaking to the lawmakers and building the coalition. Senator Sydney Kamlager agreed to author it and hence ACA 3 was born.

It was very inspirational both for myself and everyone I’m surrounded by here in prison. The ultimate goal isn’t about increasing wages but exposing this as a moral issue and ending involuntary servitude. There’s no reason we should still have legalized slavery via mass incarceration in 2021.”

Hansen: “What political challenges does ACA 3 face?”

Brown: “You have these organizations, a right-wing conservative lobbyist group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and they are a host of corporations that have all banned together to help craft legislation that in essence, destroys communities, exploits forced labor, and fills their pockets. Everyone from Walmart, LensCrafters, State Farm, companies that we see on TV all day every day are benefiting from everyone responsible for mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex. ACA 3 will only begin to unravel this slowly, it can’t do it alone. But it’s the first step.”

Samual and Jamilia are also members of Abolish Slavery National Network (ASNN) a national coalition fighting to abolish constitutional slavery and involuntary servitude in all forms, for all people. It is composed of over 30 states, all seeking to remove this language from respective state constitutions and amend the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Hansen: “Besides seeing your family, what's the first thing you want to do?”

Brown: “This may sound strange but I want to jump on a trampoline. I want to be free, I want to fly. I’ve been held down so long I just want to jump up and down and live a little bit. Aside from that, I want to continue the work that I’m doing. I need to demonstrate that I am not just doing this because I’m incarcerated, this is who I am.”

Samual Brown is expected to be released later this year.

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Robert J Hansen is an investigative journalist and economist. Focused on holding elected officials, police and the courts accountable to the people throughout the greater Sacramento area.

Sacramento, CA
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