Mark Ashford has been in and out of the criminal justice system for 26 years, never staying out for more than five months at a time. A few years ago, everything changed with the help of a support program and reentry services.

“It is possible for people to change,” Ashford, 46, told San José Spotlight. “You have to have the resources.”

Buoyed by the life skills and healing classes offered by nonprofit Carry the Vision at Elmwood Correctional Facility in Milpitas, Ashford denounced the prison gang he was part of and dove into coursework.

Through Carry the Vision’s Living on Purpose Program, men learn life skills, leadership development, meditation and art, which led to a mural displayed at the Gilroy Center for the Arts. Carry the Vision contracts with the Santa Clara County Office of Diversion and Reentry Services, which operates the Reentry Resource Center.

The program and reentry services helped Ashford stay out of jail and reconnect with family. Today, he is a healing circle facilitator for Carry the Vision, inspiring others through peer mentorship. The nonprofit believes individual healing is integral to social transformation.

“I wish I’d done this a million years ago,” he said. “This program has helped me tremendously change my life and transform into the better man I am today.”

Diversion and Reentry Services Director Javier Aguirre said the mural is one way for the artists to share their feelings and struggles. The county allocated $15,000 through the California Public Safety Realignment Act for Carry the Vision to create this mural, he said.

“We always encourage individuals, the moment they leave jail, to come visit us at the reentry centers,” he said. “But sometimes they need to be in a group with individuals who have gone through that journey. This is one contribution they can give the community, this piece of art.”

Ashford credits Santa Clara County’s reentry resource centers with helping him get a license and find employment through a construction union.

“There is hope out there,” Ashford said, “and everybody deserves a chance at life.”

Ashford participated in the mural project, “Rising,” which gives voice to the experiences of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated Elmwood men living in South County. Artist Rolando Barron, who has also created pieces for the Nevada desert festival Burning Man, painted the mural about fatherhood and connection, based on the men’s input. There are also smaller art pieces by the men.

As part of the Gilroy Center for the Arts mural presentation, a panel composed of  law enforcement, former incarcerated people, councilmembers and representatives from the county diversion and reentry services department discussed compassion and reentry programs.  

Santa Clara County Sheriff Bob Jonsen said for healing to happen, people have to view each other as equals and create a culture of compassion coupled with action.

“We need to go beyond a programs unit and rehabilitation division, and that’s going to take work and funding and resources,” he said. “But if we have the will, we can make it happen.” 

Rather than people being released from jail, Jonsen wants them graduating out of incarceration. Patrick Marshall, a county inmate rehabilitation officer, said education is key. He said inmates have access to community college classes to help them earn an associate degree. Marshall said former inmates need the community to embrace them and build them up so they can reinvent themselves.

Mark Segovia, a diversion program coordinator with Carry the Vision, participated in the mural project. He served time at Elmwood when he was 18 for possession of mescaline. After his release, he went to Texas where he studied to become a chef at the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts and started a catering business.

“I was into gangs and drugs and craziness,” he told San José Spotlight. “I was at the crossroads in my life on the streets. I made that decision, and it changed my whole life.”

Segovia, 47, returned to South County about 10 years ago. He joined Carry the Vision, taking self-care classes and teaching them at Elmwood and in the community. His family sees him differently now. His turnaround has even motivated his mother and sister to return to school.

“All we knew was anger and destruction, the drug scene, gangs and prison,” he said. “(This program is) something different and I’m proof. This is support (that) I’ve never felt in my life to keep me and my family going and growing.”

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