College students help lead San Bernardino County inmates toward rehabilitation

610 200 Nadine Ono

(Image from San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department video)

When Kali Stephens started her internship with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, she soon realized she was in a familiar place.

“Once I stepped foot in Glen Helen (Rehabilitation Center), it was like a rush of everything. I was like, “Oh man, this is the program that I was in with my mom as a kid,’” recalled Stephens, a first-year graduate student in the social work master's degree program at Riverside’s California Baptist University.  

Her mother was incarcerated on drug offenses and Stephens visited her through the jail’s TALK program. “At that moment I knew I was there for a specific purpose,” said Stephens. “Just as the teachers who taught my mom the parenting classes and changed my mom’s and my relationship, I was there to hopefully implement the classes and teach the inmates who are in the class the proper skills and techniques in order to build a better relationship with their kids.”

Stephens is among the first group of CBU interns assigned to teach parenting and trauma classes to incarcerated parents and monitor TALK program parent-child visits. The new partnership between CBU and San Bernardino County began this school year. The intern program was created by the California State University San Bernardino’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

The partnership came about through a personal experience from CBU Assistant Professor Rev. Dr. Charles Lee-Johnson, who heads the department’s intern program. He had a family member who had cycled in and out of Glen Helen and eventually entered an in-custody program and hasn’t been incarcerated since.

“One of the things I said when I got into this position is that if there was any way I can create a relationship between CBU and Glen Helen to link in to those programs and strengthen them, this seems to be effective in preventing young men from recidivism,” said Lee-Johnson.

He contacted the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department and met Chris Martin who directs the department’s Inmate Services Unit. Martin said, “It’s a great idea to bring these new social workers in and give them a broad range of knowledge on this topic because everybody’s so compartmentalized, that if we can broaden everybody’s view, hopefully we can work together better to serve these individuals.”

This school year, CBU’s social work graduate program placed 66 interns throughout the region with four assigned to San Bernardino County inmate facilities. Next school year, CBU will increase the number of interns and expand to other county agencies.

“The quality of the interns that we’ve gotten from CBU has just been phenomenal,” said Christopher Vallejo, who heads the intern program and teaches at CBU and California State University San Bernardino. “The transition that we’ve seen them go through, from day one — coming in timid, a couple of them not really wanting to be part of this — to where they are now and how capable they are, how well they have been able master the material, the way they’ve been able to earn the rapport and credibility with the inmates to where they are engaged, it’s been amazing.”

Lee-Johnson agrees the partnership is a success and he is looking to the future. “My dream is to have interns, whether they be from CBU or any other social work school, paired with every penal institution throughout the state of California.” He added that social work “has a unique position to severely cut our prison population and lead people toward true rehabilitation.”

Stephens credits the jail’s programs for her mother’s successful reentry of more than two decades.

“Since this internship started, there has been a lot of conversation between my mom and me,” said Stephens.

She also has a window into what her students are experiencing and can offer personal insight. “It really just came full circle. I was there as a kid and now I’m there as an adult teaching classes. A lot of the things they are feeling – the remorse and the regret and everything on that topic – my mom also feels about me. So I’m able to speak on that and I’m also able to influence them to take their kids into the TALK program because for them it’s oftentimes a scary or not-talked about thing or they hide the fact that they’re incarcerated from their kids.”

“We need more social workers like her who have passion, who have charisma, who have real experience, who have empathy and see the dignity and worth of those who they’re working with,” said Lee-Johnson. “Like she said, ‘This is my mom, this is my family.’ And if she can treat someone with that kind of respect, it yields incredible results and so it’s been a blessing to do on this journey to watch her shine.”

Stephens agrees and may have found her career, “I’ve fallen in love with the internship and working in the prison system and teaching classes and really able to see the change from when they first come into the classroom to four weeks later and how they’re able to use the verbiage and understand what a proper attachment looks like.”

That’s good news to Martin: “I’m hoping that some of these phenomenal individuals will get hooked while they’re doing their internship and want to come work for us as full time regular social workers.”


Nadine Ono

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