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Inmates graduate from program

MERIT is designed to help the men take responsibility for their own actions

Posted: April 26, 2009 10:19 p.m.
Updated: April 27, 2009 4:55 a.m.

MERIT Program instructor James Beard, right, introduces graduate Ruben Flores to the microphone at graduation ceremonies for the MERIT Program at Pitches Detention Center on Thursday. More than 75 inmates received certificates for participating in the program.

More than 75 inmates at a Castaic jail got something they may not have expected when they were incarcerated. They got a graduation ceremony.

The MERIT program, from which the men were graduated Thursday, does more than help convicted domestic abuse and drug offenders, according to one of the program's teachers. It turns boys into men, he said.

The Maximizing Education Reaching Individual Transformation Program graduation took place at Pitchess Detention Center. The men received certificates - nearly half for finishing the first six-week phase of the program, the rest for completing all 12 weeks.

The MERIT program, which works in coordination with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department inside county jails, focuses on substance-abuse prevention and stopping domestic violence. The program also teaches parenting and relationship skills, said Johnny Duran, a program instructor.

James Beard teaches at the MERIT program. He opens the 12-week teaching session that focuses on rehabilitation and life skills. Beard spends the next 12 weeks transforming what he calls boys with drug and abuse problems into men who take full responsibility for their lives.

Beard arrived at the program after a 22-year battle with substance abuse and a series of domestic violence incidents. "They can't lie to me, because I've been there," he said.

Michael Williams, 56, has been in and out of jail for 35 years. His pending release later this year marks the first time he is more focused on staying out instead of worried about how quickly he'll return.

"I spent two years in a state program and only stayed out 49 days," he said.

Williams credits the MERIT program and maturity.

"I hit rock bottom and wanted to get help," he said. "Until you hit rock bottom, you're going to keep looking for shortcuts."

Saul Bramasco, 33, started looking for shortcuts when he arrived home from the Army. "I didn't have a job and started drinking," he said.

"I blamed the Army, people around me and society for my problems."

A mix of drinking and unemployment led to a brush with the law that sent Bramasco to jail. The MERIT program may be the thing that keeps him from coming back, Bramasco said.

"(The teachers) are the role models that I didn't have as a kid," he said. "This is my first trip to jail and because of them, it's my last," he said.

Official from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, which runs the county jails, gave the graduates encouraging words during the ceremony.

Jail Chaplain Joe Feinstein applauded the men for using the time in jail wisely. "Men can do something with time in jail instead of just doing time," he said.

Beard gets emotional when he talks about the progress made by the inmates during the program.

"I see guys coming in that don't take responsibility for anything," he said. "I see them leave taking full responsibility for their lives."


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