Coach, center, with the Root & Rebound team (Sonja, left, Katherine, right) on a beautiful Berkeley fall day.
Last week, we had the honor and pleasure of sitting down with one of our inspirations and mentors, Alton McSween, better known in the community as “Coach.” Coach got out of prison on April 4, 2013 after California passed a reform to our draconian Three Strikes Law in November of 2012, and Coach was able to petition under this reformed law, Prop 36, for release.
Background on the Three Strikes Law
In 1994, California voters enacted the “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law. The law imposed a life sentence for almost any crime, no matter how minor, if the defendant had two prior convictions for crimes defined as serious or violent in the California Penal Code.
According to official ballot materials promoting the original Three Strikes law, the sentencing scheme was intended to “keep murderers, rapists, and child molesters behind bars, where they belong.” Instead, more than half of people sentenced under the law were serving sentences behind bars for nonviolent crimes.
In 2012, California voters overwhelmingly enacted the Three Strikes Reform Act (“Proposition 36”) to address the harshest, and unintended, consequences of the sentencing law. First, Prop. 36 eliminated life sentences for non-serious, non-violent crimes. Second, it established a procedure for prisoners sentenced to life in prison for minor third-strike crimes to petition in court for a reduced sentence. In order to win a reduced sentence, a court must find that the prisoner no longer poses an unreasonable threat to public safety.
Coach and His Journey
Coach’s first “two strikes” were residential burglaries in 1992 and his “third strike” for petty theft in 2001, a non-violent, non-serious felony. He was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison, with his earliest possible release date as April 26, 2026.
Yet Coach did not give up on improving himself or his life circumstances. From inside prison at San Quentin, Coach was a model citizen. He was a friend, advocate, and role model for many, and was he was involved in more self-improvement work than most of us are in a lifetime. Coach took advantage of all of the programs he could and was involved in a number of wonderful groups, including: Project IMPACT (Incarcerated Men Putting Away Childish Things; The Addiction Recovery Counseling (ARC) Program; The GRIP Program (Guiding Rage Into Power, a violence prevention and emotional intelligence life-skills program); and he began his training as an addiction recovery counselor through California Association of Alcoholism & Drug Abuse.
It was clear from talking to Coach that he took advantage of all of the resources available to him at San Quentin so that he could build a better future for himself and a better world for his community, both inside and out of prison. And that is exactly what he has done.
Now out of prison, Coach has continued his incredible work in the Bay Area community through his job with the California Reentry Institute, an organization that he became involved with at San Quentin. CRI staff provides its incarcerated members (about 34 men currently) at San Quentin with counseling, resources to assist them with their parole hearings, and prepares the men for release. CRI also provides many forms of reentry support to its members coming out of prison, and this is where Coach does his current work in the community. Coach is now a CRI program coordinator, a reentry mentor, and transitional housing supervisor. Coach wants to help guys coming out of prison to navigate the world, because he knows from first hand experience how scary and daunting that can be.
When the CRI men first come out, Coach picks them up at the bus or train station and is the first friendly face that many of them see. He brings the person a backpack filled with a new and clean change of clothing, toiletries, a prepaid cell phone for the month, and other essentials—a “survival kit.” Coach then accompanies the person to his housing arrangements and takes them shopping for food. Coach talked to us about the incredible moment he has with all the men he works with who get to a grocery store for the first time in years, and how excited they are to see all of the options.
In addition to his work with men reentering the community through CRI, Coach is close to completing his counseling certificates in Domestic Violence and Addiction Recovery, so that he can one day work as a counselor in these areas.
Coach also works every Saturday at Options Recovery Services’ car wash, where formerly incarcerated men have set up a small business that benefits themselves and their families. One Yelp reviewer had this to say: “The best car wash in Berkeley is in the parking lot of the Lutheran Church of the Cross by Options Recovery Services! Every Saturday, the good folks there [are] ready to wash and detail your ride. A full service car wash includes inside vacuum, mats washed, tires treated, and very friendly service. Really wonderful service! It’s only $15. But do tip generously. They are a fine group of people helping themselves and each other.”
Coach’s life passion for reentry work and helping others is clear from the moment you meet him. He is involved in so many different groups because he is hopeful that life can and will get better for the people in prison and jail and those coming out. Coach believes in creating family wherever he goes, and treats strangers and friends alike with dignity and kindness. We are unbelievably lucky to call him an inspiration and mentor. We know he will continue doing incredible things.
Coach, thank you for your wisdom and for sharing your story!
– The R&R Team