Sex education for incarcerated men in California | The Optimist Daily
Today’s Solutions: July 19, 2024

Cristobal De La Cruz enters a classroom at the Orange County Juvenile Hall in Southern California, carrying a condom in his back pocket. A group of young guys, ranging in age from 12 to 18, are waiting. De La Cruz, who is only 28, is young enough to connect with the youth over video games and Spanish slang, yet is mature enough to lead an important session on sexual health and consent.

De La Cruz, a health educator with Planned Parenthood of Orange and San Bernardino Counties, has a goal: to teach these young men about anatomy, pregnancy, birth control, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and the value of healthy relationships. He also addresses toxic masculinity, attempting to dispel damaging gender stereotypes.

The condom demonstration is the highlight of his workshop. ‘Wow, are you going to open it?’ the boys ask De la Cruz. Ultimately, that is the plan, but only after some critical groundwork is laid.

The fundamentals: consent and communication

De La Cruz begins by asking, “What is the first step in using a condom?” The boys usually cry out answers like “get the girl” or “buy the condom”, yet these are not what De Le Cruz is looking for. “The first step,” he says, “is consent. Consent is ongoing. If at any point a person doesn’t want to have sex, consent is not given and they will stop. That’s step number one.”

He also tackles common misunderstandings head-on. If a young participant claims he is too well-endowed for a condom, which apparently happens quite often during these sessions, De La Cruz demonstrates its flexibility by stretching it a couple of feet lengthwise or inserting his hand up to his wrist. “This isn’t just an old man trying to teach me about math or life choices and how to be responsible,” he says. “But I am teaching them about life and how to be responsible—in their sexual and reproductive health—and in a fun way.”

Comprehensive education

Beginning in 2013, Planned Parenthood has held seminars at both Juvenile Hall and the Theo Lacey Facility, a neighboring maximum-security correctional complex. These sessions address a variety of issues, including healthy relationships, gender and sexuality, and sex trafficking. One session, the Male Involvement Program, delves into “the man box,” a notion that addresses the constraints imposed on men’s behaviors by traditional masculinity.

The curriculum is consistent with the sex education curricula offered in California’s middle and high schools. Many detained young males miss these lessons due to truancy or early incarceration, putting them at a lifelong disadvantage in sexual health knowledge, which contributes to the poorer health outcomes observed in disadvantaged communities.

The Orange and San Bernardino chapters hope to reach approximately 300 jailed male youths and young men by the end of June, with plans to extend to institutions in San Bernardino County. 

Bridging the gap

Planned Parenthood is frequently associated with women’s health, so how did the organization come to serve incarcerated young men? Faviola Mercado, community education manager at Planned Parenthood’s Orange and San Bernardino chapters, explains that improving young men’s sexual and reproductive health benefits their female partners as well. “We’re increasing the likelihood of men being more open to seeking resources and testing for STIs,” she claims. “It helps their own sexual reproductive health, and we also know that toxic masculinity traits can be harmful to themselves and to women and children.”

Changing perceptions

The workshops have shown encouraging indicators that mindsets are shifting. Participants are now reconsidering traditionally feminine tasks, such as cooking, as acceptable for guys to do. This transition is promoted by interactive workshops that promote open communication and mutual respect.

“Our presentation is less of a teacher telling students what to do and more of a conversation, with respect between each other,” explains health educator Neil Reyes. “We’re breaking down ideas of masculinity, learning about reproductive health, and helping partners.”

Overcoming challenges

However, developing emotional expression and empathy in a correctional atmosphere, where traditional ideals of masculine power predominate, is difficult. “The participants are not in a place where empathy is rewarded,” Reyes says. “So it’s not clear how much the message of men being OK to cry or to show emotions is being put to use where they are.”

Less restricted notions of gender and sexuality also spark resistance. De La Cruz and Reyes address this by providing explanations, listening to opposing opinions, and encouraging respect for all individuals. “I say, at the end of the day, ‘I’m not trying to say what is right or wrong,'” adds De La Cruz. “But let’s talk about it. Let’s be respectful and have this conversation.”

Assessing success

Evaluating the long-term success of prison programs can be difficult, as it frequently relies on the basic indicator of recidivism rates. Lois Davis, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation who specializes in penitentiary education, emphasizes the difficulties. However, the Planned Parenthood programs at the Theo Lacey Facility are part of a larger project known as the Transitional-Age Youth (TAY) sector, which accommodates males aged 18 to 25 and offers extensive classes in employment, addiction, mental health, and re-entry preparedness.

TAY administrators will conduct interviews with participants up to three years after their release to measure their adherence to sexual health practices, with results compared to a control group. Although the findings are still pending, Marie Gillespie, the program’s co-developer and clinical director, is encouraged by the rapport instructors such as De La Cruz and Reyes have built with the young men. “They’re incredibly approachable,” she says. “They’re able to connect with these young men perhaps at a level other people haven’t attempted to connect with them on. It’s not a peer relation but someone you can see in your shoes saying, ‘These are essential skills.’ That’s going to resonate more with young adult populations.”

A healthier future

De La Cruz and Reyes are currently refining their programs based on participant input. One noteworthy event for Reyes was when a participant, who had been taught to hide his feelings, showed support for his future son’s emotional expression. “I absolutely remember that moment and thought it was pretty cool,” Reyes says. “Now I know that this person got something from the workshops that he could show the next generation if he has his own son.”

Planned Parenthood’s groundbreaking sex education program for jailed young men in Southern California fills knowledge gaps and promotes healthier, more responsible behaviors. These programs attempt to make a long-term beneficial difference in the lives of these young men and their communities by emphasizing consent, dissolving toxic masculinity, and fostering open discourse.

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