Volunteers Diana Kronstadt and Helaine Melnitzer were successfully immersed in a San Quentin rehabilitation program when COVID-19 blocked them from entering the prison.

They didn’t let the pandemic stop them, though.

Now they and three other women from Marin County meet weekly via Zoom, in Kronstadt’s backyard or on Melnitzer’s deck to calculate how to help convicted felons — mostly lifers working toward parole — in a Teaching Responsibility Utilizing Sociological Training (TRUST) program.

Although inmates can’t currently participate in TRUST’s once-a-week workshops, anger-management course or emotional-health and wellness program, they can take part in the women’s new initiatives: A “reflections” project where convicts hand write letters describing their lives, hopes and fears; a meditation-like practice “aimed at finding calm … to navigate these difficult times,” Kronstadt explained; and a pilot series where short videos morphed into an inspirational DVD shown on closed-circuit prison TV.

“When COVID-19 happened, it was totally devastating” to the volunteers, the retired psychologist said. “We couldn’t find out what was going on in the prison.”

Because contact with prisoners has been renewed, albeit from afar, she’s reinspired by their “resilient human spirit.”

So is Melnitzer, a businesswoman who spearheaded a culinary program, Quentin Cooks, and advises Project L.A., geared for inmates who’ll parole to the Los Angeles area where many were gang members. 

Regarding TRUST’s assessment, Melnitzer says, “When a man looks you in the eye, crying, and says, ‘You women have validated me, have seen me. Thank you,’ it’s real and like you’ve never heard that phrase before.”

Helaine Melnitzer coordinates a video program for San Quentin inmates from her computer at home. (Photo courtesy of Helaine Melnitzer)

All five — co-executive advisers Kronstadt and Melnitzer; Fran Engstrom, Quilley Powers and Susanne Siciliano — believe the men “want to and can change. They want to be accountable for their terrible crimes and to overcome the effects of damaging childhoods,” noted Kronstadt.

The women often refer to themselves by a light-hearted phrase coined by one of their charges, “the real housewives of San Quentin,” but the goal of TRUST is serious and unchanged: to encourage prisoners to work hard against the odds and to become productive, law-abiding, self-aware individuals.

Though the program uses no religious doctrine, said Kronstadt, who joined nine years prior, “for many, their belief in God and their practice of Christianity is huge, a real anchor for them. Many found their faith in prison.”

Although she sees the promise in TRUST’s “fellows,” she endorses vigilance: “We know there are con men in San Quentin, and some are really bad guys.”

But Melnitzer emphasizes that the program provides special, humanized moments. 

“‘Lainey, I’m free, I’m free’ is always the first thing they say when released,” she said. “One woman I told about the program suggested it was like a get-out-of-jail-free card; it’s not, of course, but it is like a stay-out-of-jail card.”   

More than 2,200 inmates, and 270 staffers, have contracted COVID-19. Twenty-six prisoners have died from the disease, as has one correctional sergeant. 

Kronstadt and Melnitzer look forward to the lockdown’s end so they can renew their multiple weekly visits, an annual health fair and a TRUST graduation ceremony.

When COVID-19 cloistered San Quentin, the program had 14 participants, between the ages of 38 and 61, who’d collectively served 383 years in prison. They remain with the program, though now from a distance.

The volunteers, who’re on a mutual first-name basis with the convicts, proudly point out that 50 former fellows who’ve been released are leading productive lives. 

“To our knowledge,” Kronstadt reported, “none have returned to prison.”