SAN DIEGO (KGTV) -- Inside Richard J. Donovan State Prison's 30-foot concrete walls, metal doors, and electrified fence is the Echo Yard. It's drawn attention as one of the state's most innovative programs for bringing together inmates of different security levels on the premise that they will coexist peacefully in exchange for some freedoms.
The Echo Yard, the state's first non-designated yard, also aims to keep released inmates out of prison.
Around 50 percent of people convicted of a crime in California are sent back to prison within three years, according to a 2019 state auditor report.
Members of Echo Yard get greater access to self-help, educational, vocational, and rehabilitative programs through courses like anger management, victim awareness, job hunting, and money management.
Early recruitment efforts were sluggish when the program was introduced a few years ago.
While the prospect of better resources and a possible early release sounds promising, inmates had difficulty embracing the concept of sharing spaces with a potential rival.
"When we first interviewed maybe about 900 guys, we probably got about 30 of them that said, 'yeah, I'll give it a try' ... because they know prison politics are alive and well," said Daniel Paramo, a former warden at RJD.
The rules in the Echo Yard are far removed from the prison politics and policies made up by inmates designed to help keep the peace. Instead, the Echo Yard emphasizes inclusion. There is a ban on gang affiliation and racial segregation. It also welcomes transgender inmates and those convicted of sex crimes.
Inmates of various backgrounds are housed together regardless of their designation (Sensitive Needs Yard or General Population).
One of the men that entered into the experimental program said the environment is a culture shock.
"There’s so much diversity here; it’s a shock to the system…I am adjusting, but it’s rough," inmate Mike Briggs told the California Innocence Project blog.
In 2018, the California Innocence Project said 780 men transitioned into the program, which is made available to those that demonstrate good behavior or show a commitment to Donovan's prison jobs.
"By focusing on the humanity of its inhabitants, Echo Yard contributes to breaking the mentality of what prison has to look like, and instead proposes a “new normal” designed to prepare the people who are incarcerated for what lies ahead." - californiainnocenceproject.org
In addition to education and vocational training, members can pursue other endeavors such as performing in a band or training canines to service military veterans and children with disabilities. Many of those programs are run with the assistance of outside entities.
The Arts in Corrections program has become one of the most activated groups at Echo Yard.
Members of the art program are undertaking an ambitious project that will see a 1,000-foot long mural scaling the concrete walls of the Echo Yard. It’s being spearheaded by inmates Erik and Lyle Menendez.
“I do it for therapy, it keeps me grounded,” said inmate David Armstrong about the mural project.
One of the facilitators of the art program said in a 2018 interview that in addition to providing artistic expression, the classes are critical in teaching inmates self-help, rehabilitation, and mental health.
"By and large, the majority of inmates are going to be our neighbors outside...they're going to be the guy you run into in the supermarket," said Jonathan Marvin, a facilitator of the art program.
Marvin notes that Echo Yard challenges the stigma that comes with being incarcerated. Where General Population's hostile and violent environment fosters "all the bad attitudes prison is known for," Echo Yard members are focused on inclusion and community.
"Coming into prison we've been identified with some typically the worst things that could've possibly happened in our lives. Here at this yard, we're saying we don't want to be identified with that, we actually want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem," said Marvin.
Guards continue to patrol Echo Yard, but the energy and engagement inside the facility resemble a diverse neighborhood outside of prison striving for progress.
"To have as much normalcy in prison that reflects the outside community, I think is really a good thing," said Marvin.