By Susan Utell
Writer, film editor
“I love going to jail”, jokes nonprofit founder Carolyn Kellams. “The guys are so appreciative.”
You can’t help but be in awe of this petite 60ish brunette with a pixie twinkle in her eyes. Widowed at 30 and a cancer survivor, Carolyn heads to the Oakland Glenndyer Detention Center in California five days a week to teach life skills to inmates waiting to be sentenced.
Keep Your Freedom, Keep Your Dreams
Several decades ago, Carolyn started a nonprofit around her passion for change. Her first program was called “Keep Your Freedom, Keep Your Dreams,” through which she has trained more than 400 teen parents as speakers to share their stories with over 500,000 middle and high school students on how to prevent teen pregnancy, find self-esteem and learn better communication skills in eight California counties.
Its success inspired Carolyn to take the same set of life skills to jail where she could help prisoners in a similar way. It’s not easy, she admits. The inmates that Carolyn works with are sophisticated drug dealers and convicted murderers who range in age from 18 to 24. Many are not first time offenders and they have learned that there is more money in dealing drugs than taking the straight and narrow path.
“They think the payoff makes it a risk worth taking, knowing full well they could land back in prison,” she explains.
Carolyn’s mission is to change that.
“I teach them to think outside the box,” she says. “Most of the guys have no skills other than dealing drugs or stealing, so I talk to them about how to translate what they do know into more positive life skills.”
One example of a transferable life skill would ironically be a salesman, a skill easily learned on the street. Or, like many men who are looking to ease their boredom by weight lifting while in prison, they can work as movers for a moving company or as
personal trainers. She wants these young men to see that there are opportunities for work, even when they have made poor choices by becoming gangbangers and ending up in jail.
Carolyn takes a stoic stance when confronted with the everyday dangers that she faces. After all, she is locked alone in a classroom with street savvy young men more than half her age and twice her size. “There is no guard there to protect me – but I do have a key,” she grins.
“One question people ask me all the time is – are you afraid? I tell them no, because I have been told over and over by the inmates that this is their favorite part of the day. They look forward to coming to school.” Carolyn finds that these men want to learn. “When you are locked in a cell all day, you become a great reader.”
Making changes, one man at a time.
Charles is one of the older men that Carolyn works with each week. He has been incarcerated multiple times in some of the toughest facilities in the country — San Quentin and Folsom. A former heroin user and drug dealer who was convicted of armed robbery, Charles has learned enough communication skills from his classes with Carolyn to mentor young men on the dangers of returning to what is referred to as “the life.”
“He believes that experience gives him the credibility to offer advice gleaned from his turbulent life’s lessons,” Carolyn shares.
That formula is what Carolyn established decades ago when she was working with teen mothers. The young moms would offer high school girls the chance to peek into the world of a single teenage mother: a world of no work, no social life, a small infant and not necessarily a father to support her and her baby. “It is kinda like prison.”
Life skills for inmates
Carolyn’s approach to prisoners is unique. “Dreams die when you loose your freedom to make choices and set goals,” she shares. “I thought it was important work and I still do.”
“Everyday we talk about our attitudes in life,” Carolyn says with a smile. “I learn from them, as much as they learn from me. I think about what one of the guys said to me — don’t just pray to God when it is raining, pray to God when the sun is shining, too.”
It is that kind of aspirational thinking and a thirst for knowledge that these inmates offer each other and which keeps Carolyn going back to jail.
For more information visit Carolyn’s website: carolynkellams.com.
About Susan Utell
Susan Utell has worked in all aspects of the broadcast industry — including editorial experience cutting news and programming for San Francisco network affiliates KPIX, KQED and KGO.
Her advertising agency editorial experience began with a four-year employment at the Bay Area’s first full-fledged post-production facility, One Pass Film & Video. There, Susan worked with advertising agencies; JWTNYC/Chicago; McCann-Erickson; Foot, Cone & Belding; Riney & Associates; Y & R; Goodby, Silverstein and Partners; and Goldberg, Moser, O’Neill.
During her decades long freelance career, Susan has worked on documentaries for the History Channel, National Geographic, Discovery Channel, Travel Channel, and PBS. She has an offline editing suite and painting studio in Sausalito, California.
For more information, visit www.susanutell.com