Photograph by Matthew Suárez
Mrs. Parker: “Etiquette is all about treating each other with humanity and civility — kindness, compassion, and caring. Why are we not offering these skills in the course of regular education?”
480 Alta Road, San Diego
Coming from Mission Hills, it’s a 25-mile drive south and then east on Highway 905 out to Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa. After the highway ends, it’s still several miles along dusty, lonely roads — past tire recyclers, auto storage lots, and grassland.
Illustration by Quyen Dinh, etsy.com/shop/ParlorTattooPrints
Kymberli Parker, proprietor of Mrs. Parker’s Charm School, was headed there for a special occasion. “When you get there, it’s a concrete jungle.” A jungle made more oppressive by the fact that she was there on one of those days in summer 2018 when the temperature in parts of San Diego County got over 100 degrees. Sitting atop a mesa about 1.5 miles from the border, Donovan is part of a 780-acre facility shared with several other law enforcement operations.
The prison opened in 1987 and has housed such notable inmates as the Menendez brothers, Sirhan Sirhan, and Suge Knight. Prison population at the facility as of March 2018 was 3,885 in a facility designed to accommodate 2992. Inmates work at the in-house bakery or shoe factory, both of which supply Donovan and other area prisons. Local police and the FBI share a firearms training ground on the property; it’s also the site of Otay Mesa Juvenile Detention Center. The usual concertina wire and guard towers surround the perimeter.
Crafting a plan for successful release: a ceremony for graduates of Defy Ventures’ “CEO of Your New Life” program at Richard J. Donovan state prison in Otay Mesa.
Photography by Candace Wakefield, Defy Venutres
Despite the surroundings, after Mrs. Parker got out of her car and passed through the gates, she felt welcome. A group of inmates was expecting her for dinner.
“I’m popular in prison,” Mrs. Parker said without irony as she climbed out of her car.
The inmates had gotten to know her quite well, but they hadn’t met her in person. Her visit was a treat for those participating in a program called “CEO of Your New Life” run by Defy Ventures. The non-profit teaches skills and savvy to “Entrepreneurs in Training,” who are interested in “transforming their hustle”— pursuing entrepreneurial ideas or careers in business upon release.
“We take the skills people might have from running an illegal business and teach them how to put that energy into a legal business,” said Defy Ventures chief executive Andrew Glazier. “It’s a holistic personal transformation program. Entrepreneurship is the tool.”
“I’m popular in prison,” Mrs. Parker said without irony as she climbed out of her car.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
The six- to eight-month program requires 10 –15 hours of work each week. It utilizes a combination of videos, classroom work, take home assignments, and in-person coaching. The curriculum includes topics ranging from self-limiting beliefs to resume writing to entrepreneurship 101. Trainees consider the legacy they want to leave with a “Write Your Own Obituary” component. The program culminates in a Shark Tank-style competition in which trainees pitch their business ideas to a panel of volunteer judges.
“Nearly 50 percent of people in California who are released after serving time in prison will be re-convicted of a felony,” Glazier explained. So inmates need to prepare for the outside world by having a plan that includes strategies for overcoming the crushing self-doubt that can lead to recidivism — “self-limiting beliefs,” as Glazier put it. “Re-entry begins when incarcerated. If you spend no time facing your past and preparing for the future, you end up angry and without a plan.”
Fine dining at California Institution for Women.
That’s where Mrs. Parker and other Defy Ventures volunteers come in. Their hope is to help trainees craft a plan and lay the foundation for a successful release. Her particular contribution? Knowing how to operate in formal social environments — etiquette — can be intimidating for someone who has been living in prison society. “It’s hard to get anything done when you feel subhuman and worthless,” Glazier said.
Mrs. Parker put it this way: “Etiquette is all about treating each other with humanity and civility — kindness, compassion, and caring. Why are we not offering these skills in the course of regular education?” She hopes her next move will be to bring her program to the juvenile justice system.
A few years ago, Defy Ventures invited Mrs. Parker to New York to shoot a series of etiquette videos, joining the ranks of on-camera instructors such as former New York Stock Exchange chief executive Duncan Niederauer and fashion mogul Steve Madden. She demonstrated dining skills, looked at the camera to illustrate the importance of eye contact during a handshake, and talked about how impeccable manners can set you apart from your competitors in the business world.
At Donovan, and also at California Institution for Women in Chino, Mrs. Parker’s videos play regularly on the televisions. “The staff said it’s the only time people are quiet,” Mrs. Parker said, smiling. “Usually it’s noisy with banter and activity, even when the TV is on. But apparently, they pay attention when my videos are on. They said it goes dead silent.”
Donovan Correctional Facility is considered progressive among prisons. It’s the site of Echo Yard, a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation experiment in “non-designated programming.” That means prisoners of all races are housed together, and General Population and Sensitive Needs inmates mix. It’s contrary to the regular practice of segregation by race that began in the 1990s as a response to escalating violence. Since that time, California’s protective-custody population has grown to 129,000, the largest in the nation.
“This well-intended policy simply has not worked,” admitted the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in a memo posted online in May 2018 answering frequently asked questions on the new policy. San Quentin has already implemented non-designated programming; all California level one and level two facilities — minimum and medium security — are supposed to be “slowly transitioned.”
At Donovan, inmates earn their way to Echo Yard. They enroll in courses such anger management or Alcoholics Anonymous, and take yoga, art classes, or music. But Defy Ventures doesn’t operate on Echo Yard. The non-profit began operating at Donovan before the transition to non-designated programming. C Yard, a Sensitive Needs section of the prison, is currently Entrepreneurs in Training territory. Any inmate on C Yard is welcome, contingent on completion of a 12-page application and supervisor approval. Glazier said fewer than five percent of inmates who complete the program go back to prison. Fifty-seven classes in 22 prisons across six states nationwide produced 1429 graduates in 2017-2018.
Mrs. Parker’s visit to Donovan was the first-ever in-person training by one of Defy’s video coaches. Prison administration and staff were “very supportive,” said Glazier, after seeing results with prior classes.
“[The trainees] seemed really well-prepared for re-entry into society and were very enthusiastic,” said a California Department of Corrections counselor. “It was the first time I encountered inmates who offered me a resume of all their in-custody accomplishments and signed letters of recommendation from in-custody supervisors and program coordinators.”
Mrs. Parker brought her “Dining Experience” — her most popular class on the outside — to a select group of inmates from C Yard.
“It gave them a taste of hope,” Glazier said. Participants were treated to a donated three-course catered meal “not made in the prison,” with soda to “make it festive.” During the meal, Mrs. Parker held court with the diners. Their eyes followed her every move as she demonstrated how to spoon soup — front to back, mind you — and deploy the napkin. Volunteers from Defy set the table and served the food, like wait staff.
“I was nervous as hell until I met them,” Mrs. Parker shared. “But after it was over, I floated away. The whole drive home and the rest of the evening I was on clouds. They all knew the proper way to shake hands.”
They charmed her for sure. Especially Mariah, who had “Good” tattooed on the right eyebrow and “Vibes” on the left. To Mariah, Mrs. Parker’s presence both on screen and in person meant a lot.
“Because of you, I know everything about how to be a lady,” she said upon meeting Mrs. Parker. And, Mrs. Parker noted, Mariah shook her hand and looked her in the eye. The young inmate had memorized and taken to heart each little detail in the videos. “Thank you for teaching me how to speak and behave gracefully.”
Next stop for Mrs. Parker’s Dining Experience was the California Institution for Women, 138 miles north of Donovan in the town of Chino. On a bright September day, Mrs. Parker took a trip up Interstate 15 to meet her fans there. In a relatively undeveloped pocket of San Bernardino County, next to fields and near a pretty little lake, the prison houses Level I-III female prisoners. That means housing ranges from low security dormitories to cells with armed coverage on the perimeter. Population fluctuates, but as of March 2018, it was 1819 — 130 percent occupied.
When she approached, Mrs. Parker saw groups of women chatting in an outdoor area. She wondered who the women in blue shirts were — and where were the inmates?
“Who are the ladies in blue shirts?” she asked when staff greeted her. Turns out that’s what some of the inmates wear at the institution: chambray tops with matching pants — Rosie the Riveter style. The women seemed so calm, so well-adjusted, so regular. It didn’t occur to her that they were the prisoners she was about to meet.
“There she is!” As Mrs. Parker proceeded through the yard with her escort, the women started to notice who was in their midst. They had seen her on the television screen scores of times.
“It’s the lady from the videos!” The lady indeed. Typically, Mrs. Parker carries a place setting of her own Tiffany china to use for demonstrations at dining gigs, but she had to leave that at home. The dinner guests were happy to supply her with plastic utensils — no knives — and disposable dinnerware.
Prior to dinner, the ladies put on a skit they had rehearsed for Mrs. Parker’s visit. They role-played waitress and ill-mannered customer, “slurping and burping, coughing, chewing with their mouths open — they put it all out there.”
One of the recently graduated entrepreneurs in training from a prior class returned specially to volunteer as Mrs. Parker’s helper for the evening. Like many in the class and those housed at the prison (including Manson “family” members), she had been convicted of a violent crime: first degree murder. Some trainees will be released in as soon as a few months or a few years and will soon be able to put their skills to work rebuilding their lives after prison. Others, like Mrs. Parker’s assistant, enjoy learning etiquette despite long sentences ahead of them.
“The ladies were extremely engaging,” Mrs. Parker said. But during the Q&A “they got hung up on one thing.”
“What if you see someone picking her nose…?”
“Yes, you still have to shake if that person offers you a hand.”
“So you’re telling me even if she was picking her teeth…?”
“What if you know they didn’t wash their hands after going to the bathroom?”
“Shake,” insisted Mrs. Parker. “You can wash your hands afterwards.”
“They had a hard time buying into that,” Mrs. Parker said. “But that’s the point. Always be a lady.” It gets us thinking about consideration of others in our own habits, she explains.
While chatting with the women over dinner, Mrs. Parker learned that they had recently received another visitor: Kim Kardashian toured the California Institution for Women in July 2018 after securing the release of Alice Marie Johnson from a Federal prison in Alabama.
One CIW inmate told Kymberli Parker, “You’re one of the two Kims that care.”