Prisoners wrap presents for kids

Fairfield Daily Republic ©

VACAVILLE - For Ed Bowen, working with the community is a link to the world.

Bowen is a prisoner at California State Prison, Solano. He has been there for 21 years, serving a 20 year-to-life sentence for killing the man who raped his wife.

On Tuesday, Bowen and 15 other inmates from Level III (higher risk), most of whom are "lifers," filled the Education Department at the Vacaville prison with gifts, wrapping paper and Christmas spirit.

Their goal is to wrap hundreds of presents for children of the inmates, to be handed out to during their Christmas Day visit.

And this, Bowen said, displaces the feeling of being a tax burden to society.

"If I can help a child in the community, then I'm worth my keep," he said.

Bowen and the other men in the room invest about 40 hours a month in the Prison Outreach Program, a youth diversion program that brings in adolescents from different agencies and teaches them what it's like to be in prison.

But they do more than speak with troubled youth or deter them from making wrong choices. The program, which consists of 17 inmates from Level III and 28 from Level II, conducts three fundraisers a year to raise money for the community.

For 2006, they raised $19,000, most of which was allotted to nonprofits and four scholarships to the graduating class of 2007. The remaining balance, $4,000, was voted by the inmates to buy gifts for the children who visit their father, grandfather or uncle on Christmas day.
"It's very important for the inmates because they're giving back to the community," said Susan Espinoza, a self-help sponsor who also works in personnel. "It shows they care and they feel good about it. If they can get to one child, then they've done their job."

The holidays are one of the worst times for inmates, Espinoza added, and something like this builds morale.

"To show their kids that they have a gift for them makes them feel special and it puts a smile on a child's face," she said. Espinoza and Janae Blackwell, also a self-help sponsor, purchased and organized the gifts, making the event possible.

Gary Williams, who co-founded the program seven years ago and is ashamed of the crimes he committed, participates in POP as a way of "making up."

And for Dave Thorne, who killed three people while under the influence of alcohol, the Prison Outreach Program and the gifts are his way of feeling he can do something of value.

"It's a way to seem like I matter," he said.