Jay Saber, cofounder of the Freedom Within Prison Project, says that whether we realize it or not, each day is filled with constant decision-making—a 2007 Cornell University study found the average person makes 227 decisions a day about food alone—but it’s the bad choices that can change everything, Saber says.
He and Jim Urgo created the Freedom Within Prison Project nearly 10 years ago to spark personal growth for incarcerated men through trainings and workshops. “There are a lot of boys walking around in men’s bodies, they never got a rite of passage. They don’t know how to be a man, they are boys and they are 50,” says Saber, who leads prisoners through what he calls “rites of passage retreats.”
To be clear, these “boys walking around in men’s bodies” may not fit what the average person thinks of when they picture somebody who’s young at heart. Many of them have been convicted of violent crimes and are serving lifelong sentences.
“We developed a curriculum that starts with communication skills, emotional literacy, meditations, a lot of edgy experiential processes,” Saber says. “That work has been profound, especially for men that are in for life without parole.”
Saber leads the program with four other men, focusing on restorative justice and accountability for those faced with gang violence and oppression, and he says it’s changed the lives of many incarcerated men, improving communication skills, self-awareness and forgiveness.
The Freedom Within Prison Project, which is hosting a fundraiser at the Museum of Art and History (MAH) on Saturday, Oct. 7, began in Folsom State Prison and branched out to Soledad Correctional Facility and San Quentin Prison. In 2013, the project came to Santa Cruz Main Jail, where it began holding weekly workshops for both men and women. The nonprofit currently focuses on the level-four maximum security sector of Salinas Valley Prison, holding a year-long curriculum of two groups of 30 men, while also hosting programs in both the county jail and Rountree Medium Facility in Watsonville.
Leveraging its Oct. 7 event at the MAH, the Freedom Within Prison Project hopes to keep expanding its initiatives, an effort that includes Saber’s goal of bringing on women to work in women’s prisons. Ex-inmates who have gotten out and taken part in the project will speak, as will Mayor Cynthia Chase, who’s also the inmate programs manager for the county sheriff’s office.
Saber and the volunteers strongly believe that everyone deserves a chance at redemption and freedom from violence and oppression, even those who murder and rape. But because of the project’s small size and delicate subject matter, it doesn’t have much funding to operate with, he says, adding that he spent thousands of his own dollars on the organization last year. “We don’t have a grant writer or anything,” he says.
The Freedom Within Prison Project, Saber says, is always looking for new members who want to learn how to work with the incarcerated. “Just like people work with the elderly, the handicapped or the homeless,” he says, “we work with the faction of society that is oppressed and shut off from everything.”
The Freedom Within Project Fundraiser is at the MAH on Oct. 7 at 5 p.m. For more information visit freedomwithinproject.org.