Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center
ELK GROVE, CA - There has been a spike in gang-related shootings in Sacramento County, according to law enforcement.
This past weekend, 19-year-old Alvin Valentine was shot and killed during a house party. Three others were injured in the shooting in south Sacramento and police believe it was gang related.
In the past several months, 10-year-old Elvira Campos was killed when gunshots were fired into her home. Ten-year-old Eric Raya is still recovering after being shot five times. Both of those shootings are also believed to be gang-related.
The Sacramento County Sheriff's Department is trying something new to stem the violence: it's putting rival gang members together at the Rio Consumnes Correctional Center (RCCC).
"They live together, eat together, they program together, they go through classes together," said Sheriff Scott Jones.
When asked if it was dangerous, Jones said, "Well, you would think so, but it has not been. We have not any fights. We have not had any problems."
The program, called the Gang Diversion Unit, houses nearly 50 rival gang members in one pod inside RCCC.
Daniel McBride and Andrew Tambert are two of the inmates. McBride has been incarcerated a total of seven years of his life. Tambert has been arrested 19 times, with 47 different charges on his record.
"I can witness different gangs actually be in the same room, finding a way to mutually cohabitate," said Tambert.
He said there's always tension, but they have to find a way to "de-program" themselves.
"It's kind of a like a conditional response," he said. "If somebody threatens you in a certain way, your response is to react in violence. That's what we've been taught on the streets. So in here we have an opportunity to respond with our minds."
The Gang Diversion Unit does more than just force rival gang members to live together: they also learn together.
Counselors teach fundamental behavior skills such as taking responsibility for one's actions, accepting consequences, channeling anger, and more.
"We're actually trying to teach them a different mindset," said Henry Effron, a counselor, pastor and former gang member.
He believes gang members will learn from and listen to somebody who has been in their shoes.
"I was messed up on drugs for a lot of years of my life," Effron said. "When you're in a gang, you have a relationship. And in that relationship you have love, you have loyalty. And that will keep you locked up in a system that you don't want to be in, but you don't know a way out."
Sheriff's Capt. Milo Fitch, RCCC's division commander, said the sheriff's department hasn't found another program like their Gang Diversion Unit in the nation.
"Most people don't want to live that life," Fitch said. "Most people reach a certain age when they realize they've made bad choices. So we need to have some type of intervention."
Fitch said the biggest challenge so far is convincing gang members to join.
"They're looked upon by all the other gang members that are in custody as possibly dropping out," he said. "That's maybe detrimental to their own health and so they don't want to be viewed as a drop-out."
If they do commit another crime, the punishment can be worse.
"The penal code allows for an enhancement. So they can get additional time in prison if it's committed on behalf of a gang," Fitch said.
The program appears to be working, even though it's too new to track statistics.
But in the five months of the unit, inmates said they see a difference.
"I've seen a lot of change in a lot of these guys," said McBride. "Some guys I've even been to prison with that I'm in this pod with -- we were whole different people four or five years ago."
Still, what the men do once they're out will tell the real story.
"I've lost a lot coming in and out of these places," said Tambert. "I'm at a point in my life where I realize this is embarrassing."
Funding for the Gang Diversion Unit comes from California's prison realignment program.
By Nick Monacelli, firstname.lastname@example.org