At first, Chris Culcasi viewed the three months he’d have to spend in a transition program after his release from jail as little but a delay before he could enter horseshoeing school.
He was eager to go to farrier school after Sacramento Bee readers donated his tuition, but he couldn’t start until March 20. In the meantime, he entered the Sacramento Re-entry Program, which helps inmates return to society.
Near the end of his time there, he had realized the skills he learned will be vital to his success down the road.
“For me, it’s been another life-changer,” said Culcasi, who is 40. ‘It’s probably the second best decision I’ve made in 20 years, maybe life.”
The first was entering the Wild Horse Training Program at Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center, where Culcasi earned the top training certificate and ongoing support from ranch staff. His eight weeks in farrier school will be paid for by former FBI agent George Vinson, who learned about Culcasi through a December article in The Bee. Culcasi left the jail on Dec. 30.
Funded by the state through its 2011 shift of prisoners to counties, the re-entry program run by the Volunteers of America focuses on preparing inmates for life after incarceration. Living dormitory-style for 90 days, 25 men take classes focused on the underlying issues that make it difficult for them to re-enter regular society, such as addiction, mental health problems and even bullying behavior.
“You know, we go from being incarcerated and living that lifestyle,” Culcasi said. “You can’t just get out here and function in society like a convict. It doesn’t work. Nobody wants to be around you, nobody wants to trust you. So (some of the classes teach) us how to get out here and mainstream, how to blend in.”
Inmates are referred by the Sacramento County Probation Department and interviewed by VOA staff for a place in the program. It’s essential that they are motivated to succeed, said case manager Steve Orwig.
“The willingness to change I think is the key,” he said. “You have to be willing to accept a change … accept new information coming in to you.”
Culcasi was a serial car thief and methamphetamine addict. In the past seven years, he hasn’t spent more than six months at a time outside of jail. He’d get out, get high and steal cars until he was caught and sent back.
In the re-entry program, he had to complete all the classes, written assignments and 47 hours of community service. Orwig said the service hours get the guys used to working again. They learn to follow a schedule and to behave appropriately around a boss and co-workers.
“For me, I always try to wrap everything around future employment,” Orwig said. “Ultimately that’s what it’s about. … Eventually you’re going to have to go by (a boss’s) structure.”
On a recent Wednesday, Orwig led a class of 11 men in a frank discussion of their anger and stress, dispensing advice on boss-employee relationships and reminding participants that they need to stay focused on their recovery before they can be effective husbands and fathers.
The class opened with each man giving his stress and anger levels on a scale of 1 to 10 – 1 being about to punch someone in the face and 10 being totally calm. Culcasi said his anger was a 9 and his stress was 6 or 7 as he grew close to starting farrier school.
Getting a group of men who have cycled in and out of prison to talk about their feelings in a group setting is no small feat. Orwig said there are always guys who test the boundaries, showing up late for class or talking back. He imposes consequences for infractions and is always honest with them.
“I let them know that ‘I’m here to help guide you through the program, but I’m not here to do the work for you,’ ” he said.
Addiction is not a requirement for acceptance into the program, but most of the participants are in recovery, said Deanna Rutkowski, who designed and ran the program for the VOA for nearly four years. Using drugs outside the building is definitely frowned upon, Rutkowski said, but not grounds for removal.
Participants are removed only in an “extreme circumstance” – committing violence or bringing drugs into the facility are the two major offenses.
“We try and meet the client where we need to meet them because we understand that relapse can be a part of the addiction cycle,” Rutkowski said. “Bringing drugs or alcohol into the facility … then you’re putting everybody else in the community at risk.”
Orwig said most of the people who don’t make it through the program are pulled off track by outside distractions. It could be a girlfriend, a wife, children or the mother of children – those connections can cause the men to lose focus.
On that level, Culcasi excels. A few weeks into the program, he threw out his cellphones with his old contacts and set up new email and social media accounts.
“He came into the program dialed in on a mission of what he wanted to do,” Orwig said. “He wasn’t going to let anything get in the way.”
Despite being allowed to leave the facility, Culcasi spent his evenings and weekends preparing for farrier school. He used a flash card website to quiz himself on equine anatomy, tools and forging horseshoes and watched videos of horse training. He went shopping a few times with his sister and had dinner with his sister’s family. He sounded a little amazed as he talked about seeing his brother-in-law, whom he hadn’t spoken to in 10 years.
Between the support and his goals, he said he hasn’t considered relapsing.
“I’m so passionate about the horses right now and what I’m doing that I just know it’s not an option,” Culcasi said. That’s not to say that he doesn’t have moments of doubt, but he’s learned how to spot the red flags in his thinking that lead to using.
“The minute I see any signs of me back-sliding at all, I’m changing my thinking, I’m on the phone with my sponsor,” he said. “I don’t want anything to do with it.”
His tuition, including donations from a number of Bee readers who wanted to help after December’s article, is in an escrow account. Each week, the school will draw funding for the week from the account, ensuring that if Culcasi screws up, the money will be there for the next successful graduate of the Wild Horse Training Program. Already, there’s enough in the account to support another man’s tuition.
“So that’s two lives changed,” Culcasi said. “(The support) was huge. Without it, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”