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The mentor

Scales met David Muhammad four years ago, when he participated in the African American Males Transition program in another Stockton youth prison, O.H. Close. Since then, Muhammad and other mentors from the center have played a stable role in his life.

Muhammad sees working with young, African American men who have been caught up in the system as an opportunity to transform young lives. Many youth, like Scales, were formerly foster children. Even for those who have family support, being in prison can cause a severing of relationships and mentors become that family support, says Muhammad.

"Ultimately, one of the greatest needs of the system is to understand the young people in the system," says Muhammad, 32, executive director of the Mentoring Center and a Muslim minister in Richmond.

While this sounds simple, the state has had a tough time figuring out how to understand and motivate young people behind bars, and, over the years, has almost completely given up the mission of rehabilitating youth. Part of the problem is not enough adult staff who are trained in counseling and educating young people who have been in trouble.

The recidivism rate of youth fully participating in their programs is 15 percent, according to Muhammad, compared to the overall recidivism rate of 75 percent in the entire system.

Currently, only one in three in the state's youth prison system even participate in rehabilitation programs while behind bars, according to Bernie Warner, who heads the state's Division of Juvenile Justice, formerly the CYA. That means the majority of youth sit in jail cells and wait for parole or release.

"We have to ask, from day one, how are we going to get them home?" asks Krisberg. "Are they coming home a productive, young member of our society? Or someone coming home angry, hostile, and likely to commit more crimes?"

Muhammad and other mentors in the program work with youth while they are locked up, and try to follow them once they leave.

Scales explains what worked for him in the transitions program: he got to read books he wanted to read, like "How to Love a Black Woman," "Spirit of a Man," and "Daily Motivations for African American Success," titles that he rattles off the top of his head as if he'd just read them a few weeks ago -- though it's been two years since he's been in the program.

Each time, a mentor would bring in one book. Youth in the program would read the book and write a report about what they'd learned. Once completed, they could get a new title of their choice, based on a list from Marcus Books, an African American bookstore in Oakland and San Francisco.

Scales says this worked as a motivating factor for him to finish reading the texts and write the reports, because he was always eager to receive a new book.

'Who they are'

The Mentoring Center's adults seem to have figured out what many have not, which is how to reach youth, at least the African American male population. African Americans makes up 35 percent of the youth prison population -- compared to about 7 percent of the state's population of African Americans.

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