Bianka Mariles finished wiping down the last yoga mat as women began filing into the room for Friday’s yoga class. Cynthia McCabe, who instructs the class weekly, stood at the top of her mat and greeted the room full of women dressed in orange jumpsuits.
For the next hour, the women moved from one pose to another, ending the class in meditation. Mariles sat silently among them, leading meditation until it was time for the mats to be returned to cupboards and the women to return to their dormitories in San Luis Obispo County Jail.
These women may be inmates, but to Mariles, they are just “people in custody,” and each one of these women is just like her.
While many people will never set foot in a jail during their lifetime, Mariles voluntarily does so on a weekly basis for her internship with Restorative Partners.
Restorative Partners is a non-profit organization aiming to “heal all those impacted by crime” by offering programs that focus on body, mind and spiritual transformation. Their goals include addressing responsibility and accountability, reducing violence and lowering the recidivism rate — the pattern of convicted criminals released from jail then committing further crimes and being reincarcerated — within San Luis Obispo County.
Sociology senior Mariles got involved with Restorative Partners through the sociology course Incarceration and Society: Perspectives on the Criminal Justice System (SOC 444/HON 270).
The course was created two years ago by Cal Poly sociology professor Ryan Alaniz, who chose 12 Cal Poly students to join 12 inmates for class at the San Luis Obispo County Jail. Students meet for class 90 minutes per week and fulfill 12 hours of service learning through Restorative Partners at the county jail.
Alaniz developed the course when he noticed that sociology students concentrating in criminal justice were graduating without ever meeting an inmate or visiting a jail, he said.
Now, the course provides students with firsthand experience essential for careers in criminal and restorative justice.
“By bringing them to the jail, shaking hands with inmates and having dialogue about life, that’s about as Learn by Doing as you can get,” Alaniz said.
The class strives to break down any barriers or stereotypes between students and inmates.
“There’s no longer this huge divide between Cal Poly students and inmates,” Alaniz said. “They have a much more empathetic and broader understanding of the folks on the other side of the bars.”
As a way to assimilate all 24 of his students, Alaniz refers to Cal Poly students as “outside students” and county jail inmate students as “inside students.”
“It’s been really a powerful class, both for the inside and the outside students,” Alaniz said. “Any opportunity where we can create connection between people of all different backgrounds, the better our students will be.”
Mariles was one of 12 students Alaniz chose for the first quarter the class was offered. Mariles’ in-class experiences and service led her to apply for an internship with Restorative Partners during her senior year.
Now, as an intern for Restorative Partners, Mariles helps facilitate yoga and meditation classes for women in custody at the county jail as well as a guitar and percussion therapy class for men in custody at the men’s Honor Farm.
While she might have been uncomfortable her first few weeks, Mariles admits it’s just part of the job.
“A lot of it is making myself vulnerable and getting outside of my comfort zone,” Mariles said. “It might sound like a scary job, but the incarcerated population is just like us. They just made some mistakes.”
It takes a certain person
Mariles went in her first time with some stereotypes about what inmates would be like. However, as soon as she spoke with the people in custody around her, she realized they were far more similar than she anticipated.
“Just hearing their frustrations was eye-opening,” Mariles said. “They’ll talk about who they miss, their dogs, or what they like to do during the day. We just talk more about family life in a sense.”
Mariles warns that interning with Restorative Partners is not for people who are shy or are easily intimidated.
“You can’t be the person who hates speaking in front of the class,” Mariles said. “You have to be pretty extroverted and willing to put yourself out there.”
Likewise, future interns must come in with an open mind and be willing to push themselves personally.
“Life only begins where your comfort zone ends,” Mariles said. “You have to take a new perspective and see things in a different way that you’re not maybe used to seeing them.”
That mentality is exactly what fuels Mariles’ plans for the future. She plans on pursuing a career in restorative justice where she will continue working with the incarcerated population, she said.
Psychology senior Brittany Abel has interned with Restorative Partners for about a year, working in the San Luis Obispo County Juvenile Hall.
“During my time at Cal Poly, I have learned so much about the effects of child abuse and neglect on emotional, cognitive and behavioral development,” Abel said. “I’ve understood the effects of drug addiction and witnessed the consequences of unstable family environments. All of these issues seem to be heavily concentrated among inmate populations.”
For Abel, working face-to-face with the juvenile hall youth not only benefits them, but it helps her learn, as well.
“Working directly with the kids is a real way to understand the greater holistic issue of criminal behavior development,” Abel said. “This internship has prepared me to enter the workforce with both an academic and personal understanding of criminal behavior and the criminal justice system.”
Abel leads both a Bible study and guitar program for the juvenile hall youth and says it is the most rewarding part of her internship.
“I have been able to develop friendships with the kids inside, listen to their unique stories and be a source of encouragement to them,” Abel said. “For many, programs like guitar lessons have been a healthy outlet for all the thoughts and emotions they accumulate in juvenile hall.”
Sociology senior Jenny Jang worked with Abel in the juvenile hall for eight months as an intern program coordinator. Jang oversaw a library program and a sports program and also helped other interns with their programs, which included tutoring, art and book club.
Despite her experience in sociology, Jang was still nervous when she started working with Restorative Partners.
“I honestly was intimidated at first, but inmates and juvenile youths are not any different from non-incarcerated people,” Jang said. “People should really give working with inmates or juvenile youths a chance because they have changed my life for the better. They have inspired me and really taught me that people are not what they seem.”
Jang has one distinct memory from working with juvenile hall youths that sticks with her to this day.
One day while Jang was working in a tutoring program with juvenile hall youths, there was a shy girl who kept asking Jang what time it was. Jang thought this was odd since the girl never usually spoke up during programs, but especially because there was a round analog clock on the wall in front of her. A digital clock usually found in the room was gone for repairs that week, so Jang continued to tell the girl what time it was every time she asked. At one point, Jang finally asked the girl why she kept asking for the time.
The girl, who was around 15 years old at the time, quietly admitted to Jang that she didn’t know how to read an analog clock. Hiding her shock, Jang asked the girl if she wanted to learn. She agreed and for the next hour, Jang sat with her and taught her to tell time.
“By the time the program was done, she knew how to read a clock and looked so proud of herself,” Jang said. “She was still pretty shy, so as I was leaving the programming room, she whispered to me, ‘Thank you,’ and that just made me really happy.”