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SOAP STAR HEADS PRISON WORKSHOP : PROGRAM FOR CHINO INMATES PAYS OFF

Behind the barbed-wire-topped wall--securely beyond the metal detector, two electrically operated doors and another building--about 50 prisoners had assembled in a small chapel looking out on the virtually deserted yard.

Mostly hardened men with unsmiling faces, they had not come to pray.

They sat silently--Caucasians, Latinos, blacks and Orientals, their garish bandannas and color-splashed tattoos providing a kaleidoscopic contrast to the depressing grayness of prison life.

On stage--that is, the carpeted altar--actor Jerry Douglas, star of the TV daytime series, “Young and the Restless,” was delivering heavy messages, occasionally laced with the vernacular of the street.

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“Don’t blame it on racism; don’t blame it on drugism,” he was telling the inmates at this East Facility of the California Institution for Men. “Stop this ---- with blaming. Don’t blame anybody. . . .

“Self-esteem is the game. I had the same choices; I had the same temptations (as you).

“Work on yourself. That’s all you can do, one moment at a time. Self-esteem--you’ve got to work on it every day. And anger--that’s what you have to fight every day.”

“The reality,” a skeptical voice retorted, “is that if all the people get released tomorrow, the majority are going to be back.”

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And so it went--predictable bitterness, a dialogue of hope.

Douglas--accompanied by his wife Kymberly (a free-lance reporter and writer working at KABC-TV), three young actors and a few others--had come for another emotionally draining three-hour session.

About once every three weeks for the last two years, Douglas has been conducting a class at the prison--an unusual if not unique program that stresses more than make believe on a makeshift stage.

A five-year veteran of the popular CBS series (he plays John Abbott, a family patriarch), the 48-year-old actor was inspired to give the program a try as the result of a disturbing experience he had a couple of years ago in his work.

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“I was upset, depressed,” he recalled. “I couldn’t do the show. I was digging within myself, trying to pull these answers out, trying to separate the role from real life.”

Ultimately, Douglas solved his problem, then began thinking about those emersed in even deeper depression--men behind bars, for example.

“I had never taught, and I wasn’t interested in teaching young actors,” he said, “but I thought that maybe I could help them (the inmates) reflect deeply within themselves, within the privacy of their own minds.”

Four months after contacting the State Dept. of Corrections, Douglas was given the green light to proceed on a purely voluntary basis.

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“It’s not an acting workshop per se,” he explained during the 50-mile drive from his home in Brentwood. “It’s not group therapy either.

“Acting is used as a tool to help them rehabilitate themselves or to help them help themselves. I can only open doors. I tell them, ‘You can walk this way or that way; it’s your choice.”

Although the inmates who participate take their roles seriously, Douglas doesn’t expect to uncover any extraordinary talent locked behind bars, and the convicts, themselves--those interviewed, at least--expressed no aspirations to become actors when they’re released.

Douglas: “You get high from the experience. Everybody is lifted by it. I get as much from it as I give. The motive is right.”

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“It’s an avenue for self-improvement, confidence-building,” explained John Dovey, an administrative assistant and public information officer at the institution. “Getting all the races together in one room is a big accomplishment in itself.”

Terrence Charles, 24, the workshop’s “inside coordinator,” has been involved “since Day 1.”

A former San Diego resident who has less than a year remaining on an armed robbery sentence, Charles said he has been active in many prison programs.

“Some work and some don’t,” he said. “I’m pleased to find out this one works.”

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The California Dept. of Corrections apparently agrees. Serious discussions are under way to have Douglas conduct a pilot program at the maximum security prison at Folsom.

Wilson, 30, of Los Angeles, sat alone, next to a wall, a vacant chair on the other side.

Rigidly apprehensive, he spoke guardedly, his words articulate and carefully selected.

A relative newcomer to Chino, he has been “in the system” three years, two to go. His crime: assault with a deadly weapon and burglary.

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“I came (to the workshop) out of curiosity,” Wilson reluctantly replied to a question. “My dad was in show business, but he was never very successful at it. He was an actor--theater and films. He also worked as a stunt man and extra.

“I’ve always been interested in this sort of thing, but when I get out I would like to have my own restaurant. I used to manage restaurants all over the country--Miami, New Orleans . . . “

Wilson blamed his troubles on drugs.

“You lose your perspective and lose your control,” he said. “You do things that you wouldn’t normally do.”

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An hour after being interviewed, Wilson had second thoughts and asked not to be quoted. Finally, he agreed with the provision that his last name be withheld.

Richard Ramirez, a heavily tattooed 25-year-old from San Diego, also was a first-timer at the workshop. He said he had no interest in acting, that he had come merely “to check it out.”

Within minutes, he and a friend were gone.

Douglas, meanwhile, scanning faces, inquired about a missing “actor” who had been given a “Restless” first-draft script on a previous visit.

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Normally, short scenes from past shows are acted out by two or more inmates who study parts for months--alone in their cells and together when possible.

“My partner,” a voice yelled out, “went back to County Jail.”

Obviously, there was an opening.

A recent TV documentary many of the convicts had seen--a subject that dealt with the problems of growing up with single parents in a black community--was under heated discussion.

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The topic hit home with a thunderous impact.

One black man admitted that when he was 16, he fathered a son he didn’t take care of.

Another, “Pops,” was more vocal:

“I just want to say this, boss. I was born when my mama was 14. She had eight daughters and three sons.”

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Now 62, Clarence Chance, alias Pops, has spent “some 29 years” behind bars and currently is on the downhill side of a four-year-plus sentence for voluntary manslaughter.

“I was stabbed,” he said matter-of-factly, “and I shot the man seven times.”

Then he smiled.

“July 14th of this year I’ll be going home.”

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Tall and slender, his hair graying at the sides, Pops, from Los Angeles, spoke highly of the workshop.

“It’s just fine,” he said. “It’s a beautiful thing. It will bring out a lot of potential in each of us. It’s somewhere we can come as prisoners and express ourselves.”

Labeling himself a “songwriter, short stories, too,” Pops has been seeking “a break” for a good portion of his life. He would like to think programs such as Douglas’ might provide one.

“This program here,” he said, “is something that should happen to all the institutions. We can hardly wait for Mr. Douglas to come. We’ve been sitting on pins and needles, and not just to see the pretty women from ‘Young and Restless.’ ”

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No doubt, though, some, indeed, had been attracted by the “pretty women"--actresses Stephanie Williams and Eileen Davidson.

Later, Williams passed out about 40 studio photos of herself to men who had requested them on her previous visit.

Now, there would be another list for Williams to fill.

John Turner, 33, of San Diego, a Ken Norton look-alike, was paired with Tony Skannal, 29, of Pomona, in a restaurant scene that depicted anger and distrust between the two men.

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Skannal, portraying a paroled ex-convict, tells Turner, playing a police commander:

“I’m a different dude than what you’ve got in those files downtown. I’ve changed.”

The cop: “For the last time--stay away from Amy!”

A bit “soapy?”

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Of course, but no one laughed. Not here.

Instead, the scene triggered a burst of applause, prompting Turner and Skannal to crack thin smiles, their pride difficult to conceal.

“We feel the warmth of togetherness of the workshop,” Turner said later. “When we leave here (the workshop), we have to deal with the same thing (racial clicks). It’s up to the individual. The first thing is the fear of what your buddies might say. It’s that racial trip.”

Skannal, an artist who has been drawing since he was a child and is said to have exceptional talent, had been involved with the acting group for six months. Having served his time for robbery, he was recently released.

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At least three others in the program have been free for a year and two more for six months. All have remained in contact with Douglas.

“It builds self-esteem,” Skannal said of the program just before his release. “It builds a whole different foundation than what I’ve been accustomed to. It gives you a reason to be.

“At first, there’s a lot of apprehension, mostly negative thoughts. You think it’s a plot. But this is a program most people in jail never think of coming into contact with.”

As for Jerry Douglas?

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“He’s been accepted,” Skannal replied. “He’s like--excuse the expression--one of the people.”


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