LOS ANGELES — The prison population in California is currently estimated to be 241,000 and continues to expand.
One person who helps inmates cope behind the prison walls is Euvonka Farabee, a chaplain whose nonprofit Beyond the Shackles ministry features a prison re-entry program that imparts life skills and brings hope to those currently serving time in federal and state prisons.
Farabee has been working with both men and women populations in California prisons for eight years.
“My mission is to impart hope and to restore dignity and healing to the prisoners, many of whom have experienced great trauma in their lives,” said Farabee, a transplanted Chicagoan who moved to California as a teen.
“My organization helps inmates to discover options for healing and acquire new tools and skill sets so that they can help to change their lives,” said the chaplain, who has worked at Lancaster State Prison, Victorville Federal Prison, Firecamp in Malibu, Terminal Island Federal Prison in San Pedro and the Metropolitan Detention Center in downtown Los Angeles.
Farabee also features men and women working inside and outside of prison walls on her Beyond the Shackles weekly television program, which airs online on the Holy Spirit Broadcasting network. The program airs in Canada, Africa, the Philippines, the United States and Ireland.
“We recognized the importance of partnering with those committed to restorative justice efforts that heal people and communities as we work to reduce recidivism rates,” Farabee said.
Inside the prisons, Farabee teaches life skills classes such as How to Set Healthy Boundaries.
“Many inmates are behind bars because they chose to practice poor boundaries in their lives,” she said. “Some people make bad decisions because they are trying to gain acceptance from others, particularly if they are in a gang. But if certain situations are imposed on them, they must learn to say ‘no.’”
Farabee gave a recent example of an inmate who made poor decisions when he came to class and quickly signed in his friends on the attendance sheet even though they were in their cells watching a football game.
“He put himself in jeopardy because he could have been kicked out of the class,” she said. “I gave him a second chance because he was a good student who took the class very seriously. He apologized and realized that what he did was really stupid.
“We also have an anger management class where we teach inmates how to control their tempers,” Farabee said. “We let them know that anger is not bad — it is how they personally respond when they experience that anger.
“There are risks if prisoners are not ‘handling’ their business in prison,” Farabee said. “Prisons are very highly charged environments and everybody is under a lot of stress. If the inmate feels the urge to go upside somebody’s head, they should diffuse the situation by immediately walking away from that person.
“If there are other inmates standing around watching, there is an expectation that the violated inmate will handle that situation immediately because if they don’t they will appear weak and then they will become a victim in prison.
“We also teach a marriage and relationships class where we help to prepare inmates for when they are released and return to their families,” Farabee said. “A recently released inmate might return home and find that there is friction in the household because the wife has been taking care of the home and the kids alone. When the inmate returns home after being away for a number of years, the dynamics of the household change because he is attempting to regain his position as the head of the household.”
Farabee said that many released inmates discover that being integrated back into the household can be more difficult than they thought.
“The newly released inmate might find that the kids and the wife push back at his authority because they have to re-adjust to the new household dynamic. The children might say, ‘I’m not taking orders from you.’ So we have discussions in class about how to approach and interact with the children as well as how to handle marriage situations after the inmate returns home.”
Farabee’s Beyond the Shackles also provides mentors for inmates when they are released.
“We connect them with people that will help them with job placement and job preparedness when they come home,” Farabee said.
She regularly invites speakers to talk to the prisoners such as Chef Jeff Henderson, the celebrated chef who served nearly 10 years behind bars for selling cocaine but was hired as the first African-American chef to work at the esteemed Cafe Bellagio at the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas.
Farabee also stages plays in the prisons such as “Pill Hill” and “Shaking the Mess Outta Misery” that encourage discussions among incarcerated populations.
“If the inmate needs spiritual counseling and prayer, I bring in the worship and testimony service that includes inspirational singers such as award-winning singer-songwriter Tony Wilkins and Myricle Holloway, who was a contestant on “The Voice” television show,” she said.
Farabee said she was stunned when she heard the story of one of her former students who was recently released from state prison after serving 16 years for a murder he did not commit. DNA evidence proved his innocence.
Farabee, who has been a staunch advocate for prison reform for years, immediately drafted an initiative that she sent to the office of Assemblyman Mike Gipson, D-Gardena. The initiative would make it illegal for prosecutors and judges to pressure a person to take a guilty plea where factual innocence proved that the prisoner is innocent.
“His case never made it to the judge because the prosecution pressured him to plead guilty to a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter, which carried two strikes. They said they would let him out of prison immediately with no parole.
“If he did not accept this guilty plea, the prosecution vowed to fight the case which could delay his release by a minimum of six years and he could lose his opportunity for freedom altogether,” said Farabee, who said the former student was only 17 when he accepted the plea.
“He just wanted his life back, so he took the guilty plea which made him ineligible to receive the $2,000 he had earned after working 16 years in prison. When an inmate pleads guilty, they also negotiate that they cannot appeal the case so they lose their appellate rights.”
Farabee said that unfair pleas like that happen to prisoners all over the country. She plans to move forward to advance the initiative starting in April.
Asked why she named her non-profit Beyond the Shackles, Farabee siad, ‘It’s a mindset. How do people get beyond the shackles? You don’t have to spend a day behind bars to be in shackles in your heart and mind.”
She said she is gratified to have started Beyond the Shackles, which she estimates has touched the lives of hundreds of prisoners. “The prisoners have done more for me than I can ever do for them,” she admitted. “They are very grateful when you spend your time with them because they know that you don’t have to. “When you are consistent with them, they show their appreciation by fully committing to the classes and the process of restoration.”
She said that many freed inmates start their own ministries, nonprofits or their own businesses.
“When God frees you from prison, he frees you so that you can free other people from prison,” Farabee said.