After years of hard work, a committee in Northern California starts a successful prison sponsorship program
Since 1987, one of the defining characteristics of my sobriety has been my participation in the NorCal (Northern California) Hospitals & Institutions (H&I) Committee. While I’ve loved all my service work, carrying the message of AA to the alcoholic who is confined has been the service commitment that matched perfectly with my particular mix of assets and defects, truly allowing me to be usefully whole in spite of myself.
Doing H&I service has taught me so many invaluable lessons—how to maintain singleness of purpose, how to be dependable (unlike on the outside, if I don’t make it to an H&I meeting, there may not be a meeting), how to put the common welfare ahead of my own and how to express myself without dropping the f-bomb all over the room. It’s also allowed me to use my God-given assets to serve others. From my beginnings as a foot-soldier volunteer at a local hospital to the honor of serving as the chair of the NorCal committee, carrying the message to the alcoholic who’s confined has been one of the great blessings of my sobriety.
For many years, our committee has been challenged by our inability to provide sponsorship—that all-important element of recovery—to alcoholics confined in our many state prisons. Whenever I talk to a newcomer at an AA meeting I suggest, as was suggested to me: 1) get a Big Book; 2) go to meetings; and 3) get a sponsor to work the Steps.
For decades since 1942, H&I committees have been successfully providing the first two elements—bringing in AA meetings and providing ample supplies of literature to members confined in state prisons. But due to conflicts with the Department of Corrections’ regulations on program volunteers, we’ve been unable to crack that third vital element of sponsorship. Simply put, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) classifies AA volunteers as unpaid or free staff who, as such, need to comply with all rules and regulations of regular staff. One of the predominant (and logical) rules is that staff aren’t allowed to engage in “overfamiliarity” with prisoners.
Well, overfamiliarity is practically the definition of sponsorship. So how we can provide that without breaking the rules of the prison, and thus endangering our entire efforts, has been our ongoing and perplexing dilemma.
One evening, I came home from a meeting where I’d given a newcomer my usual spiel about the three things she could do to help ensure her sobriety, and I began surfing the CDCR website “looking for loopholes” in their regulations. Annoyingly, a link for how to visit prisoners kept coming up, and I kept dismissing it (much like 33 years ago, I had dismissed so many other of God’s attempts to help me). Yet inadvertently, I ended up clicking on the link.
After softly hurling a few profanities at my computer, I actually looked at the page, which read:
“VISITING A FRIEND OR LOVED ONE IN PRISON—Visits from family and friends keep inmates socially connected, which helps in their rehabilitation.”
Uh-huh. Wait a minute…isn’t that what we’re trying to be—AA friends? Suddenly, a lightbulb went on and I realized we’d been coming at this from entirely the wrong direction.
So the committee tried a new approach: If we enter the prison through the “visiting” department simply as “friends” rather than entering the prison through the Adult Services Program as “program volunteers,” it might eliminate the obstacles. No more need for certain compliances and 26-page clearance forms. Eureka! For us to do this we needed an entirely separate roster of volunteers, one in which sponsorship experience rather than specific H&I experience was the main criteria.
I immediately called a few committee members just to make sure this wasn’t a case of early onset dementia. Sometimes simple solutions are frightening in their blatant obviousness. But after examining the idea from all angles, we decided it might be worth pursuing.
In 2018, we began developing a pilot program. We defined the program, wrote position descriptions, and decided that San Quentin would be the best place to test our new endeavor. We began meeting with the prison administration and presented our idea, showing the many potential benefits to both the prisoners and to the prison.
We got the administration’s wholehearted support, but our biggest logistical challenge was anonymity. We had to draw a line in the sand on that, because we had to protect our volunteers’ anonymity. And because we’d done the solid footwork, the warden was so convinced of our potential that he allowed us to customize the simple one-page visitor clearance form so that it red-flags our visitor applications and the last names of our visitors are never shared with prisoners.
Our committee held meetings, conducted thorough orientations and fielded questions. We also got a dedicated post office box. We designed a flyer/application to inform the prisoners of the opportunity for outside sponsorship.
Every morning, I asked God to give me inspiration, an intuitive thought or decision, to give me a clue that this was God’s will, not mine. All I can say is that although there have definitely been bumps in the road, with every new development we seemed to move forward. In late March of 2019, we paired our first volunteer with a sponsee and have been operational ever since. Now, many months later, we have over 60 AA members confined in San Quentin who have or are in the process of getting outside sponsorship. Imagine the potential over time at prisons across the country.
Yes, it’s taken a lot of time and energy, but whenever I feel like slacking, I have to ask myself…Would I be sober today without sponsorship? What if all I’d been able to do in AA was go to meetings and read the literature? To those volunteers who have been willing to participate in our groundbreaking effort of a pilot program, who have participated in the “flying blind” stages of this solution, I cannot sufficiently express my enormous gratitude. So perhaps the best way to end is to share some of their experience, strength and hope.
One volunteer, with 34 years of sobriety, told us, “It’s one of the best Twelfth Step experiences of my sobriety.” Another said, “The internal network of San Quentin sponsees is getting stronger and stronger. We’re witnessing the Fellowship grow and grow. I’m so blessed to serve and sponsor in this program.” And another said, “When my inside sponsee shared his list of fears with me, I was humbled in a way that I never have been before while hearing a Fifth Step. His fears made every other list of fears I’ve heard—my own included—seem completely ridiculous.”
One of the prisoners in the sponsorship program said, “I and others feel that we can finally be honest and share all parts of our lives during a Fourth Step. Having to hold back information from inmate sponsors has affected us. I now feel that I will be able to trust someone.” Another inmate said, “I’m looking forward to my first visit in 30 years, but mostly I’m looking forward to working all the Steps.” And finally, one prisoner wrote the committee to say, “I’m writing to let you know you’ve been approved to visit me. I haven’t had a visitor in 10 years. I can’t wait to meet you. I need a lot of help.”