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A new beginning: MERIT

Pitchess inmates graduate from educational program, get scholarships

Posted: September 10, 2009 10:32 p.m.
Updated: September 11, 2009 4:55 a.m.

An inmate looks at the MERIT graduation program at Pitchess Detention Center on Thursday. Seventy-seven men graduated from the MERIT program, which stands for "Maximizing Education, Reaching Individual Transformation."

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The graduates wore blue, sitting in rows under an azure sky dotted by clouds.

Exhortations were offered, diplomas passed out and even some tears shed. And beyond a chain-link fence topped with razor wire, the free world waited.

On Thursday morning 77 men graduated from the MERIT program at Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic.

Standing for Maximizing Education, Reaching Individual Transformation, the program focuses on domestic violence issues, substance abuse avoidance and includes a separate class for military veterans.

"I consider myself lucky and very blessed to be a part of the MERIT program," Jorge Aguilar told his fellow inmates. "Thanks to this program, I'm a better person now."

Thursday's was the 10th graduating class for the program. In between speeches from instructors and graduates, the all-inmate Contra Band put their touch on three gospel songs.

"Each graduation is more powerful than the one before, because the lives of men are touched," instructor Elizabeth Curtis said.

"They can have a new beginning."

The three core classes of the Bridges to Recovery program, she explained, focus on personal relationships, parenting and substance-abuse avoidance.

When graduate Richard Herbaugh arrived at Pitchess last March, he said he entered his first period of sobriety since 2001.

A meat cutter by trade, 41-year-old Herbaugh said he was "a functioning alcoholic" who drank a fifth of vodka every day.

One night, in the fog of an alcohol blackout, he said he woke up to find himself choking his wife of 22 years.

"The next thing I knew, I was in a holding cell," he said. "In one night I had no job, no family - nothing.

"I would give anything to get it all back."

He said going through the MERIT program has given him the drive to "get right with God first."

In the midst of serving a roughly yearlong sentence for a burglary charge, Jesse Floyd said the MERIT program has made him a wiser man.

"(This) was all for a reason," the 21-year-old Sacramento native said. "I feel powerful. I'm a true child of God."

A singer and hip-hop artist, Floyd said his sights are set on starting his own record label when he's released.

He will be getting a helping hand in that area.

On Thursday, he was one of several graduates to receive a scholarship stemming from his involvement in a 12-week program headed up by Hollywood Impact Studios, which gave inmates hands-on training in the production process.

Floyd received a scholarship for vocal lessons.

Another element of the MERIT program is reinforcing relationships between men and women.

James Beard is the lead instructor for MERIT's domestic violence program, having been involved since 1998.

"I was an extreme batterer, alcoholic and drug addict," he said. "By the grace of God I was able to get my life back together. I committed my life to helping other men not batter."

Key to sustaining the work of the program, he said, is an alumni class that brings together former inmates and the women in their lives, to discuss the differences between men and women.

Beard's background, he said, gives him unique insight into working alongside inmates.

He said the biggest challenge to the MERIT program is himself.

"Inmates smell fear and a lack of integrity," he said. "You have to be authentic."

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