Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with three inmates at Kern Valley State Prison, a maximum security prison in California. Transcripts may contain a few typos—with some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it’s difficult to catch some minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: Hello, ladies and gentlemen. This is Tim Ferriss, and welcome to another episode of The Tim Ferriss Show. My job is usually to deconstruct world class performers from different industries and sectors, military, entertainment, business, and so on to tease out habits and routines from people who have made, seemingly, all of the right decisions. This episode is very different. And my hope is that it still provides learning lessons and takeaways and helps you also to develop skills like empathy. This came about because I interviewed a woman named Cat Hoke on this podcast. She is the founder of something called Defy Ventures, which uses entrepreneurship and job training to reduce recidivism among prison populations. And she creates what she would call entrepreneurs in training, EITs and, inmates, if you want to call them that, are encouraged to use this as a new label for self-identification.
And it’s been very, very successful. When I spoke to her, on this podcast, I promised that I would visit a prison with her. And that’s exactly what I ended up doing several weeks ago. I visited a maximum security prison to experience the program that she started. I struggled with trying to do this introduction several times. So, I’m just going to run with it. And it’s going to perhaps bounce around a bit. It was a very, very emotional trip. And I thought I would actually borrow form my friend, Dr. Peter Attia who also attended and recruited a number of people to go alongside him. And he sent this out to newsletter. And I’m going to abridge it just a little bit. “This week, Tim Ferriss and I recruited a few friends to visit Kern state prison, K-E-R-N, Level 4, i.e., max security prison in California.
And the background then goes into how Defy Ventures has done work inside prisons like Kern and Pelican Bay.” He goes on to say, “Cat is one of the most remarkable souls on this planet, and nothing could prepare me for what we experienced at Kern this week. Rather than try to explain in an email, I will, eventually, discuss this in depth on a podcast.” And these are Peter’s words, again. “Many of the men came up to us as we were leaving with tears in their eyes to thank us for coming and to express their gratitude for the little bit we did. What I don’t think they will understand is that they gave us infinitely more than we can give them. I cannot explain, with words, what it feels like to embrace a 32-year-old man who has been incarcerated, since he was 13, in solitary confinement for 12 of those years and admit our most shameful moments in life to each other.”
So, some of you might be listening this, back to Tim now, and wondering what the hell is Tim talking about. And I’m going to use a statistic that I’ve heard several times. Someone out there can fact check this. But I believe it’s accurate, which is roughly 70 percent of people released from maximum security prisons are back in prison within five years. And this underscores a number of weaknesses and issues with a number of societal systems that we’ve put in place. But suffice it to say, many of the people who are even convicted of murder are going to be released. They’re going to be your neighbors. And there is a choice then, rather than just brushing it aside with they should just lock them up and throw away the key, since that’s not going to be the case, for many folks, there’s a question of whether you want people to be rehabilitated or not.
Which type of neighbor, having just come out of prison, do you want to have? And there’s much more nuance to it, but that’s one helpful way to lead into it. And I began looking at programs with good results and unique approaches to helping to fundamentally change how people viewed themselves and the world. And that is part of what I try to do. And I learned so much at Kern that I wanted to dig into it with this podcast but also to share with you the footage, the audio footage that I recorded from the rare opportunity to actually sit down with three men on the inside and to talk to them about the mistakes they had made, when they turned things around, what they’ve done when they slip up, and so on. And it applies to much more than people in prison or people who have committed homicide or armed robbery. I think it applies to everybody.
So, I wanted to really paint a picture of the humanity in people who have done terrible things, no doubt about it. They have suffered the consequences per the rules that we have and the societies that we’ve built and are now attempting and changing their trajectories. And we all have these different point in life when it’s important to change direction. So, I owe a special thanks, first and foremost, to all of the staff and officers at Kern, including Chief Deputy Warren Goss who helped set up the interview, keeping in mind I couldn’t even bring in an alligator clip to hold pieces of paper together because those can be fashioned into tools for cutting through doors. I’m not making this up. So, to have the ability to walk in with cables and recorders and all of this was really, really incredible and unique.
Again, I knew I was going to struggle with this intro, but I’m never going to get it quite right. And I wanted to at least explain one exercise we did, which will come back to Peter’s words that was so incredibly powerful. Speaking to a number of volunteers like me who were there to help as mentors, listening to different pitches for new businesses, and so on that these men hope to launch, when they get out of prison to sustain them, the vast majority of volunteers I spoke with said it was one of the most emotionally powerful experiences of their entire lives. And I’m going to quote from a Fast Company piece that covered Defy and describes an exercise called step to the line, which, if you have the opportunity to experience, I highly, highly recommend it. I cannot recommend it highly enough, in fact.
So, here we go. I’m quoting from the piece. “The idea is this,” remember, exercise step to the line. “Hoke,” that’s Cat, “reads from a list of statements. And if they ring true to any of the EITs, i.e., the inmates, or volunteers, they step forward to the line.” And so, there are two lines of tape on the ground about say 18 inches apart, and they run for 20 to 30 feet, maybe more because you could have 50 to 100 EITs and a similar number of volunteers. All right, back to the piece. “She’ll eventually read several dozen of the statements, and the group that steps to the line each time is different.” All right. This piece took place or was reported at Pelican Bay. I’m going to cut some of it out. “So, she begins with statements designed to loosen folks up. I was a class clown.
People stepped forward or not. I’m madly in love. I’m madly in love with burritos, ha-ha-ha.” So, people loosen up. And this is important in any type of exercise or interview. Then, she moves on to the harder stuff. “I’ve had my heart broken.” Again, this is from a Fast Company piece. “Everyone in the room steps to the line, except one EIT. I dropped out of high school. Almost every EIT steps forward but just one of the volunteers. I’ve been in a fight to prove myself. All but three of the EITs move forward.” And then, it’s time for the really deep stuff. “I grew up in poverty. My mom or dad has been to prison. At least one of my parents abused drugs or alcohol. I was born to a teenage mother. I became a teenage parent myself.” These are all separate questions, and people stepped to the line or stepped back from the line.
And pulling back, just for a second to my experience, there are other questions that really were kind of a donkey kick to the psyche because they were considerations I had never made before, such as, and I’m paraphrasing here, but I grew up in a home with fewer than 25 books. Out of the volunteers, everyone stepped forward to the line. Of the EITs, two or three. Back to the piece. “Watching Hoke and the EITs, you begin to understand the life stories of the people in the room just by how many step to the line or how many did so again and again. My parents tucked me into bed and told me I was loved. Few of the EIT stepped forward. Violence took place in my home growing up. Violence took place against me growing up. When I was 18, I thought I wouldn’t make it to 21.” And it goes on and on. “Not forgiving others is hurting me.”
And almost everybody is going to step forward, at least during my experience, that was the case. And there are others, such as have you ever sat behind the wheel of a car while feeling the effects of alcohol. Almost everybody is going to step forward. And then, I have been convicted of driving while drunk and so on and so forth. And then, you see how circumstances, certainly free will and bad decisions, but also, circumstances have led us all to where we are. And that doesn’t absolve anybody in prison of the things that they did. But it does give you an appreciation for how things could have turned out differently had a handful of circumstances been different for even the volunteers. And I know this intro is running long. Please bear with me. So, this interview, talking with these three men, was a really profound experience for me.
And you can see the hope in these men that is created when they have an opportunity to rebuild and redefine themselves. I was very, very impressed and surprised by a lot of what I saw. Some incredible artwork and some incredibly well spoken people. And when they take ownership of their pasts and are going to be getting out of prison, the question comes back to you yet again, who do you want back in society? A rehabilitated person or not. I’m going to mention two more things, and then, we’re going to jump into the interview. If people want to go to prison and have this type of experience, Cat is still bringing people and now has five more prison trips lined up. You can email firstname.lastname@example.org, if interested.
There are also other groups doing this type of work and making an impact, like the Anti-recidivism Coalition, ARC, and you can find that at antirecidivism.org. and I wanted to just mention one more thing. And this was sent to me, which is quite difficult, though, I’m imagining, two or three different intermediaries by one of the men who I interviewed for this podcast. And it was a follow up on one of the questions that I had sent. So, this is a message from Jason who was interviewed. And this is what he sent through the proper channels to get to me. “During the interview, Tim asked us a very important question that we feel was perhaps the most important one of all. He asked how we handle setbacks or slip ups, and what we tell people who make mistakes along the way. I felt like this was something that merited at least reaching out for.
If there’s a way to include this, that would be cool. If not, I tried. It is unrealistic to think that a person could make drastic changes in their life and charter new trajectory and then, execute without failure. Two steps forward, one step back is not uncommon. To that, I’ve told others, and still say, that the key lies in not allowing ones self to become discouraged to the point of a total regression. Note the failure simply as a result that didn’t get you to your objective, and then, tweak your strategy accordingly. Try, try again. It is often states that those who are most successful in life are also really good at dealing with failure. We should use them as role models and view it as they do. It’s simply feedback that we can use to discern how our plan is working. This is easier said than done, but it’s been done many times over.
Good luck and take heart because the best is yet to come.” So, this is what Jason would say to someone who has backslid. And that could be say you’re trying to lose weight, and then, you end up eating a box of cookies. It could be that you quit smoking, and you have a few drinks, and much to your later regret and shame, you pick up a cigarette. It could be any number of things. But you’ll find a lot of shared humanity in this conversation. And there are few quick notes. The shoe is solitary confinement. We, initially, only had 20 minutes allowed for this, and then, there was a bus malfunction for another group arriving. So, I was able to stretch it out quite a bit. I also realized, after the fact, that I shouldn’t have asked about specific gang names because there can be violent consequences.
So, I bleeped out one mention of that. And with that very, very long introduction out of the way, thank you guys for the patience, please enjoy this conversation, a very rare opportunity behind the wall, in a maximum security prison to chat with three men about their life stories. All right, guys. So, we’re sitting here in the visitation center. Sitting at what looks like a I have to say a half circle table. And it’s my first time in a prison. We are in a maximum security prison. And I was hoping maybe we could start, I know time is short, just on a quick round of introductions just one at a time saying name, it could be first name, full name, and where you’re from, and how you ended up in prison.
Jason Holland: My name is Jason Holland. I’m 41 years old. When I was a teenager, I was living a reckless life, misguided youth. Or actually, I should say wayward youth because I have to take responsibility for my actions. But I was making some decisions that clearly weren’t good in my life. And, eventually, they resulted in me taking someone’s life. And at 19, I was sentenced to life without parole for felony murder. And I’ve been in prison ever since.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you.
Jason Holland: Yes, sir.
Ian Villatoro: Tim, welcome to prison.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you.
Ian Villatoro: My name is Ian Villatoro. I’m 37 years old. I’ve been incarcerated for the past 10 years. I am serving a sentence for two counts of armed robbery, firearm, deadly weapon. Unfortunately, I went through a really bad divorce in 2006. I think that was perhaps the significant event that kind of led me here. I didn’t cope well. In fact, I made all the wrong decisions. And I made some very poor choices, obviously. I gravitated back to the crowd that I used to run with, when I was much, much younger. And I’m here now. And I’m trying to make the best of who I am now, basically.
Brandon Menard: My name is Brandon. When I was 21, I was incarcerated for murder. I’m serving life without parole. When I was younger, I had some real issues, socially, reacting, interacting with people. It caused me sort of compartmentalize my life among groups of people. And it took an enormous amount of emotional energy to uphold that. And as it started to fall apart, and I became desperate to latch onto these people, it led me to make some really, really bad choices. And, as a result, I’ve been incarcerated for the last 13 years in May.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you, guys. So, the question, really, in my mind, as I’m getting educated here, it’s my first time, like I mentioned, kind of on the other side of the walls, is what were the moments or the conversations that led you guys to want to start building in a different directly? Because there are a lot of people here who don’t choose to change the path. And there was just recently some violence here, and I understand the politics and sort of gang orders and so on here can be really complex. I don’t even pretend to understand it. But like in your cases, you’ve chosen to try to build in a different direction. So, maybe we can just go – whoever wants to go first could just let me know what catalyzed that.
Jason Holland: Okay. That’s a very good question. I had been incarcerated for about 19 years. I was validated in the SHU as a –
Tim Ferriss: SHU is the –
Jason Holland: That’s the lock down unit, security housing unit. And I was validated as a prison gang associate, at that point. I was housed in a deep seg section.
Tim Ferriss: What gang were you part of?
Jason Holland: I was associated with [CENSORED]. And in prison, in this world, I had a lot of prestige. I had a lot of power. And after 19 years, I was sitting in the SHU, and I realized, even though I had this much prestige and this much power, I was living an empty life. It was meaningless.
Tim Ferriss: And that was isolation? Were you by yourself?
Jason Holland: Yes, I was by myself, at that point. And one day, a friend came to me, and he was telling me about changes that were happening in the law. And he said, “Look, if you ever want to get out of the SHU, you need to start making some decisions.” And I didn’t want to take ownership of my life, at the time. And so, I was arguing with him. I was blaming everyone else. And then, he said something that I couldn’t argue with. He said, “Look, whether you realize it or not, through your own decisions or decisions that you’ve allowed people to make for you, you’ve put yourself in a box.” And, at that point, I couldn’t argue with that. and so, I had to come to terms with that. And I had to start making some real decisions. And that was a big moment for me.
Tim Ferriss: And that was a friend on the inside here?
Jason Holland: No, that was actually a friend from the outside. And he kind of hit me with the hard truth. And then, I started realizing what do I want from my life. Or I started asking myself those strong questions, and I had to start making some strong decisions. And from there, it’s been a path of growth.
Tim Ferriss: What were some of the first or the first kind of decision that you made that was different from how you would have made decisions in the past?
Jason Holland: Well, first, I had to start taking responsibility. I had to start realizing that I was the one that was creating my circumstances. It was no one else. And then, if I wanted to change things in my life, what were the decisions I had to make. And so, the first thing I needed to do was just get away from what I had been accepting for myself, and that’s being involved with gangs and criminal activities. And so, once I disassociated and left, then, it was, from there, what do I do now. And it was just a matter of reconstructing my identity and finding new values.
Tim Ferriss: And, at that point, when you left the gang, you then moved from one section of – was it at this prison?
Jason Holland: No, it was a different prison. It was in Corcoran.
Tim Ferriss: Got it. And were you then – you were moved to a different location within the prison, or was it –
Jason Holland: Yes. To a different unit for people that were going through that process.
Tim Ferriss: Got it.
Jason Holland: Thank you.
Ian Villatoro: So, for me, God, I guess I can start in 2013. Back then, I was a member of a prison gang here. And for the most part, I’ve, throughout my prison career, as we call it, assimilated completely my environment. I –
Tim Ferriss: Which gang was that?
Ian Villatoro: I’d rather not say.
Tim Ferriss: That’s fine, and I can take it out later, if you want.
Ian Villatoro: I was part of the problem here, clearly. And I remember I think the moment that everything changed for me was I was assigned to education.
Tim Ferriss: What does that mean?
Ian Villatoro: Education, just regular AB1, AB2, AB3, just regular adult basic education.
Tim Ferriss: I see, you were assigned.
Ian Villatoro: I was assigned there, so that I can, eventually, earn my GED. And I was sitting in the back doing all of the things that I shouldn’t be doing with the homies, and I just got tired of it. And I just didn’t want to be there anymore. I had two ways of going about it to get out of education, at least that’s what I thought, at the time. There were actually a third way. I decided just take the GED test, and that way, I would be able to get out of there. And that’s exactly what I did. I took the GED test, and I passed it. I showed up about two months later. I got called up to receive my certificate. And while I was standing in line waiting to get my certificate, somebody who was ahead of me made a comment about now going to college because now, he had a GED. He was a high school graduate, and he was going to go to college.
But the way that he said it, he was being sarcastic. But he said it in a way where someone in the room turned around and looked at him with like this look of disgust, disbelief. And it just so happened that, at that precise moment, he turned and looked at me. And I caught the full force of that look, that disgust. And it angered me because, back them, my mentality was completely different. And I kind of set out to prove, from that point forward, that, you know what, look at me how you want to look at me, but I’m going to prove to you that even a gang member, even someone like me, can get a college education. Back then, the college programs were very, very scarce. It took a moment for me to – it took a little while for me to even find the college coordinator on the facility. And I wrote a couple of community colleges.
Eventually, they wrote back. I got into Lastin Community College up north. And I started taking correspondence courses. And so, here I am, I’m sitting in a housing unit filled with all of my homies because here, in this facility, they house all of the gang members together just to kind of control the violence on the yard. And after the first year, here I am knee deep in college work studying sociology, psychology, philosophy, and just really taking it on. And one day, I just kind of looked up, and I realized I don’t belong here. I was completely out of place.
Tim Ferriss: Meaning in the gang environment.
Ian Villatoro: In the gang environment. And for the first time, I was able to kind of see the world through a clear lens. So, for me, it was definitely education. And that was five years now, and I’ve earned several college degrees. And I can honestly say that education truly transformed me. I was still stuck there, and it took someone in the administration to give me an opportunity to change, to really make that transition into who I wanted to be. Associate Warden Goss who, at the time, was the captain on our facility. He gave me that opportunity. So, it wasn’t just me wanting to. I needed that help. And, fortunately, I was able to find that here. And it’s been a sprint since, and I haven’t stopped.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you.
Brandon Menard: Well, so, I’m kind of the odd man out, in a lot of ways. So, I was never in a gang. I came in, and I was the guy who was going to be used up on the main line. I was the guy they were going to give the knife and say, hey, go get that guy.
Tim Ferriss: What is used up on the main line?
Brandon Menard: It pretty much means that I was expected to do the dirty work as it needed to be done. And then, when I was caught up and washed up and done and done in or whatever, nobody was going to really worry about it too much because I wasn’t in the mix. I wasn’t in that whole politics side. So, I did that exactly once.
Tim Ferriss: Can you just elaborate on what that means?
Brandon Menard: Yeah. So, a guy came up to me on the yard, and he, basically, said, “Hey, this guy, we need to jump on him because he owes money.” And I tried to get out of it, but I really didn’t have a lot of options because they said we’re doing this in about two minutes.
Tim Ferriss: I got it. You were like a free agent.
Brandon Menard: And I was not a free agent.
Tim Ferriss: Well, you were a compelled agent.
Brandon Menard: I was associated no matter – yeah, I was a free agent who was told you’re going to do this. So, I did it, and it was cowardly. I hate it, but I did it. And I ended up in doing a SHU term like Jason but much shorter and Ian here. I got out. I came to another main line yard, and they asked me to do it again. And I said no. We’re not doing that. So, they jumped on me instead. So, that was fun. I came over here to SNY, that’s when you’re not associating with the main line politics. So, I just kind of figured I would fly under the radar. I was just going to do my own thing on my own by myself. And slowly but surely, I just started to get into a couple of things, talk to certain people. I wrote an article for a newsletter, things like that.
And it, eventually, led to me getting offered a job in the chapel, which, if you would have told me when I was say 21 that I’d be working in a chapel, the answer would have been zero because I was 21 and knew everything and was this militant atheist and blah, blah, blah. So, the idea was absolutely unheard of. But I was really desperate for something. I needed to have something to do. So, I took the job. And I remember having a conversation with my boss, Chaplain Krantz, so shout out to the chaplain. And he sits me down, and he, basically, says, “So, tell me about how you look at things.” So, I gave him this really profound like 30 minute conversation about how I knew everything and everything was relative and this and that. And I might be paraphrasing this, but he, basically, sits back, and he goes, “Wow, that’s really stupid.”
And I reflected on that for a while. And he started to, systematically, over the next few months, just like break down every stupid little belief I had and slowly but surely started to turn me around. So, I give him a lot of credit for me kind of going positive, as it were.
Tim Ferriss: Can I pause for one second?
Brandon Menard: Sure.
Tim Ferriss: What were some of the new beliefs that ended up being most helpful to you?
Brandon Menard: The biggest thing, the biggest teaching that he gave me was the theory of teleology, telos. So, all people have an inherent dignity. Everybody has a potential. And if everybody has this dignity and this potential, then, everybody is valuable. Every human life is valuable. We should treat them so. So, this was the basis of morality that I never had. Everything I thought was relative, if it’s good for me, it’s good for me. If it’s good for you, it’s good for you. And that’s a bunch of crap. That doesn’t work. That leads to a very bad place. So, this whole concept now, and really driving it home, and it’s been 16 month in the making so far. But that, for me, has been the pivotal thing is just understanding concepts of morality.
Going from an atheist to a guy who is somewhat of an odd agnostic who acknowledges there’s a higher power but doesn’t know what it is yet. So, for me, that’s a huge shift. And so, I credit that to me getting into the things that I recognize as enforcing morality or enforcing human dignity and the idea that everybody is valuable.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you. So, I’d love to hear from you, Jason, basically the same question. How has the way you looked at the world changed? Or what beliefs or habits have really helped you keep you on a better path or to help you to feel like you’re building towards something?
Jason Holland: Okay. Very good question. So, when I first left the SHU, and I was going through this process of, basically, reconstructing my identity because I had this persona before and now, it’s gone.
Tim Ferriss: Right. And you had status, too, it sounds like.
Jason Holland: Right. Yeah, I did. And so, I come over here, and I didn’t really know what to do. I started re-investing in my education because I didn’t know really what to do. I started getting into these groups. And then, what happened was I was really lucky. I came to this yard, and I met these guys. And I started working around them. And then, I started getting introduced to some of the same ideas, human dignity.
Tim Ferriss: How did you get –
Jason Holland: Well, it was just kind of on the yard, but they knew I was coming.
Brandon Menard: I remember he was coming.
Jason Holland: My brother and I were coming here. And so, we kind of make as splash where we go, and we got introduced, one way or another. And, eventually, I started working with them. And I saw what they were doing, what they were doing here with the program and the pioneer and all of these different things, these interesting things. And, at this point, I started changing my whole perspective around it. And mostly, the biggest thing for me was I knew what I didn’t want. And I knew I had to get rid of criminality out of my mindset. And I knew I had to stop cutting corners. And then, like I said, when I started working with them and started getting introduced to the idea of human dignity. So, human dignity, doing things in the right way, not doing them in a criminal way.
And from there, my whole perception started changing on how I approach people, how I approach situations, how I identify options to solving challenges and problems, finding tools, seeking out mentors, things like that. So, that’s, basically – and it’s still an ongoing process.
Tim Ferriss: So, it sounds like the three of you spending time together has – I’m taking it just kind of one degree further than what I’m hearing, but it seems like that’s been important.
Jason Holland: Crucial.
Ian Villatoro: Absolutely. We’re a team here. We’ve kind of – through all of the things we’ve been able to accomplish on this facility, we’ve been able to kind of form a community of sorts. And it’s really a team effort up front. I know that, for me, even the whole change process, it was a process. But I had to first come to that realization that I can do better, that I could be better. I had to accept it, and I had to believe it. And that’s what we try to get guys to do on the facility on the yard is believe it. Believe in yourself. Believe that you can be better, you can do better.
Tim Ferriss: How do you convince them of that? When you approach somebody for the first time, A) how do you choose the person you approach, and then, what do you say? Anybody can hop in.
Brandon Menard: One of the things is being in the right place at the right time. We have self-taught and picked up and questioned other people about everything from effective communication techniques to ways of getting people over twisted values. I mean –
Tim Ferriss: Why do you guys do it?
Brandon Menard: Because, speaking for myself, just because I’m a masochist, and it needs to be done. When I look out at some people here or anywhere else, for that matter, you watch the news, you watch TV, any of it, it just sometimes feels like people are skin and bones. They need to be flushed out a little. And me, too. I’m just as bad. But I think that it’s a communal thing. Everybody needs to be pitching in because no man is an island. So, we just need to be there. We need to be available. We need to be intentional. We need to really try to help everybody elevate themselves because, if we humanize everyone, we humanize ourselves. And if we cut people down, we’re just cutting ourselves down, too. And it applies here on steroids.
Tim Ferriss: Well, it seems like everything is magnified here.
Brandon Menard: Things are a lot more intensified. It’s a lot more potent here, at least in my opinion, because everybody here is a little extreme, in some ways.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Jason Holland: And you never know who it’s going to be, where the light bulb is going to click, where it’s going to go on. One day, we could be working on a guy for a year just trying to have the right exchanges and interactions with him, and one day, he just gets it. Whereas another day, we could think he’s making progress, and then, something happens. And we have to come in and try to help him and see what happened.
Tim Ferriss: What are some of the approaches or expressions or concepts that you’ve seen help redirect people? When you see people click, and any of you can jump in on this one.
Ian Villatoro: I think the biggest thing, for me, it’s I’ve been there. So, I know what it feels like to not have hope and not have purpose. There are a lot of guys in here who are lacking those two things. And I know what it feels like.
Tim Ferriss: Hope and purpose.
Ian Villatoro: Hope and purpose. And it’s very, very powerful. And that’s what we try to give them. We try to give them a dose of purpose, whether it’s through some sort of program or whether it’s just some one on one interaction, we try –
Tim Ferriss: What might the program look like?
Ian Villatoro: Well, just for example, Defy. Defy Ventures has been amazing, on this facility, because it’s more holistic. It takes a holistic approach. It’s not just entrepreneurship training. It teaches character development. It brings you closer to your family. And it really gets you thinking about who you are and who you can be, most importantly. And it’s been hugely successful here because of it.
Jason Holland: I want to add in, too, empowerment because I think a lot of the guys that we interact with, and myself included for a long time, I just didn’t recognize my potential or think that I really had any worth investing in. And I think that a lot of these guys feel that way. And a big part of what we do is we engage that. And we challenge them to look at their potential and actually rise to it. And I think that we do that to the best that we can that we’re currently able to do, and we’re trying to get better at it.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you.
Brandon Menard: The standard approach like on the institutionalized kind of formal level of any of these things is your program that you would have. Defy, AA, any of these groups, you have content, some sort of accredited content. So, there’s a curriculum, there is a book, there is a time honor, there’s 12 steps, Oxford principles. You have a dosage rate. These guys will go to this group for X number of hours every week. Over a course of a year, that’s X number of hours. And then, you have motivation. And you get a result. And the result could be something like 22 percent reduction in recidivism for substance abuse. Something, right. The trick is the hard to quantify is the motivation.
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Brandon Menard: So, that’s where the hope and the purpose come in because a guy can sit in the chair all day long. A guy can answer questions on a worksheet all day long. But unless he has the hope, unless he has the need for a purpose, unless he has the family begging him to get better, unless he has his buddy that he’s watched move on and is not waiting for him to catch up, you need to create this sense of people that you can rely on and that are relying on you, in some sense, and the realization that you’re part of a bigger community. That sort of step in maturity. That growing up process. Because, otherwise, the entire formula is just going to fall apart.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, no, it’s so true. I mean, you can take the content and shove it down someone’s throat. You can make them sit in the chair. But if they’re mentally sort of teleporting to a different place, and like you said, the motivation is there, just because it’s harder to quantify doesn’t make it any less important.
Brandon Menard: Exactly.
Ian Villatoro: And that’s why here, especially on this facility, we say that time and again. What we’re trying to do here on this facility is we’re trying to create change but from the inside out rather than outside in because you can throw so many programs at people, just like you said, so much curriculum that half of it probably won’t stick, if that. So, it’s a process. It’s an internal process. It’s an individual process because, just like out there in society, everyone in here, even though there are some commonalities, everyone is different. They’ve been through different experiences that have led them to be who they are. So, it’s hard work, but it works.
Giving a person hope, giving a person purpose, especially here, we’ve been able to kind of track the progress of individuals who actually participate in our rehabilitative programs, educational programs. Just like right now, I can let you know, I can tell you that, if you participate in a program, the inmates that participate in a program, that person is three times less likely to receive a rules violation report than someone who doesn’t. So, it definitely does change something.
Tim Ferriss: And if you look at the people who have, as I think, Jason, maybe you were mentioning, some people you kind of deliver the sermon to. You communicate with, and then, they fall off the rails. And then, other people, you work on them for a year, you maybe suspect they won’t actually take to it, and then, they do. Are there any patterns that you guys have seen, in terms of say what people fail to understand or pay attention to that leads them to fall off the rails? Is there anything that really sticks out as a pattern where you’re like, man, damn it, I should have seen it because we’ve seen this 17 times before or 200 times before? I don’t know how many people you guys are communicating with because what do you have 1,500 people or something like that in this –
Brandon Menard: We have, in this facility, we can get up to 1,000.
Ian Villatoro: About 1,000, but it averages at about 900 give or take.
Brandon Menard: As far as Pat, I mean, for my money, and I can’t speak for you guys, right, everybody is really different. And that’s kind of the reason, at least for me, even if a guy lets me down 17 times out of 18, that 18th time it might just click because there are commonalities. Usually, the impetus to change is something like an event where his family shows up. I’ve seen that a lot. But some people, there’s like another group of people that I think just, eventually, they hit this point where they’re just tired, and they just have this realization one late night, and they’re just sitting there, and they say I can’t do this anymore. And if you happen to show up, at that moment, I think you can lead them back into the light. But if you’re not there then and there, then, you’ve probably missed your window.
So, I’m not sure that it’s like commonalities in circumstances so much as it’s these different circumstances lead to change. And if you’re lucky to get there, you get there because it really is a time and place thing, at least in my experience.
Jason Holland: I haven’t personally identified any hard patterns. I can say that the times when I felt like it was starting to sink in is, if I was dealing with a guy who was constantly entertaining the wrong conversations and the wrong company on the yard, and you can tell. And then, suddenly, I had this conversation with them, and out of nowhere, it’s really like a mature conversation. And he’s talking about wanting something different. And he’s just talking to me about it. And then, the next time I see him, he’s actually acting on it. That’s a good indication that he’s heading in the right direction. And then, from there, I think one of the things we’ve tried to implement is repeated exposure. Going back to that guy, going back to him and just working on him, encouraging him, and hoping that he says along on the right path.
Tim Ferriss: So, I have a question for you, Jason, because you were mentioning you and your brother were coming, and people knew you guys were coming and that you had some stature within this gang that you were once part of.
Jason Holland: Sure.
Tim Ferriss: No, no, I’m really curious about this because I’ve known people who have spent time in prison, some very, very close friends of mine. And people have had all sorts of different types of unhealthy coping behaviors. But at a given point in time, in their life, some of those behaviors served a purpose for them, or they thought I did, to escape from something or to survive something. And what I’m curious to know – and sometimes, within that, it’s like you could throw it all out, but maybe there’s like a kernel of something that you developed that could be applied in a good way. So, what I’m really curious about is like you were, it sounds like, had some type of leadership position, or you were somewhat high in the pyramid in this gang.
Is there anything that you were good at then that has translated to you being better at having these types of conversations or recruiting people to – recruiting people is the wrong word, but converting people to look at things differently? Do you think there’s any common ground there?
Jason Holland: Networking.
Tim Ferriss: Networking.
Jason Holland: Yeah. I was good in networking, and I’m, generally, good at people and interacting with them, generally. Not always because no one communicates perfectly all of the time, right.
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Jason Holland: But that’s just one of my strong suits.
Tim Ferriss: What do you think, and these guys could comment on it also, and maybe it’s easier from the outside looking in, but like what makes you good at – what are some of the skills or approaches that make you better than most, do you think?
Brandon Menard: I can tell you what makes Jason really good at stuff.
Jason Holland: Okay.
Brandon Menard: All BS aside –
Jason Holland: Yeah, take me off the spot.
Brandon Menard: I can see you’re like bright right. That’s okay, I got you, bud. So, one of the things about Jason, and I knew of Jason. I never knew Jason until here .and now, I know Jason. But I knew of Jason before. One of the things about Jason was that he was true to his word. He had integrity. I’ll give him that. Now, what his word was, at the time, what that meant was I’m going to do something, he’s going to do it, right. He’s brought that with him though. He has a very strong sense of integrity, and the values have changed with it.
So, the thing about Jason is, if he says he’s going to show up to chat with you, if he’s going to show up to help you out, if he’s going to show up to give you a pep talk, he’ll not only show up, he’ll probably give you a day and a time, and then, be up all night long, if he missed it and beating himself up about it, and then, drag one of us along with him to make sure he gets into the building to talk to that guy the next day first opportunity. And that’s something that I think he was kind of known for before. And now, he’s being known for it again, in a very good way because the new Jason is, in my opinion, a marked improvement.
Ian Villatoro: Very, very disciplined, very dependent.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. So, the ability to keep promises, but the content of those promises has changed.
Brandon Menard: The values underlying –
Jason Holland: I hope so. I’m doing my best, work in progress.
Tim Ferriss: Where would you guys like to be say three years from now?
Ian Villatoro: So, I actually have the opportunity, towards the end of the year, to transfer out to an MCRP, which is a male community reentry program. And what that is is I would, basically, serve the remainder of my term in a facility on the streets wearing an ankle monitor where I’ll have the opportunity to actually gain employment, work, and save towards that day when I’m actually paroled. But, in the meantime, we actually started a podcast here on our facility, Kern Valley 180.
Brandon Menard: I thought that’s what we were doing right now.
Ian Villatoro: That’s what I thought, too.
Brandon Menard: This isn’t our podcast? What the hell?
Ian Villatoro: It was supposed to be. So, this first year coming up, we plan, at least, to kind of use that platform to not only show the guys in here what it’s like transitioning back out to society step by step, but also kind of show society what it’s like being in here and transitioning out into the community. For me, at least, in here, I want to show the guys, look, this is what I did while I was incarcerated, while I was still behind the fence, behind the wall. And this is where I am now. These are the struggles. These are difficulties, the challenges that I’m facing. So, even though you can prepare yourself as much as you can, there are still going to be some challenges. So, you should prepare, absolutely. So, hopefully, we’re able to do that through the podcast.
And in the next three years, I see myself heavily involved in some sort of organization that gives back to this particular community for sure.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you.
Jason Holland: Well, currently, I’m serving life without parole. So, I just hope that wherever I am at, let’s say a law changes and I’m somehow, miraculously, released to society, then, I hope to be doing something good with rehabilitation. And either way, if I’m still incarcerated, I’m hoping to be doing something that’s meaningful towards rehabilitation and the rehabilitation effort.
Tim Ferriss: What do you personally find most meaningful? This is a really important concept, right. I mean, it’s really, really important because I think, as you guys have noted, it’s like without a purpose, without the meaning, it’s very difficult to survive as a human in any environment. But I think, particularly, in an environment like this. So, what keeps you going, and what would you – say three years from now, let’s say you’re still inside, what would make you look back with some pride on the three years?
Jason Holland: Well, again, any time that you see the light go off for the guy who has been struggling, the guy who is where I was, and he starts taking control or more responsibility for his life and starts learning tools to flourish and lead a stable and healthy life, I think that’s a win. And if we can continue to get better and better at our process of approaching it and helping more and more people, that’s purpose for me.
Tim Ferriss: That’s a good purpose in here.
Jason Holland: Yes, sir, I think so.
Tim Ferriss: Are there any particular tools, certainly, Defy, we’re familiar with Defy and have a high opinion of Defy. Are there any other tools that you found helpful to serve as a, this isn’t the best term, but like a gateway drug. If you’re trying to get somebody who is maybe not open, and then, they have that dark night of the soul where their family visits, and there’s a window. And you want to offer them one thing to kind of nudge them towards a brighter path. Do you have any favorites or anything that’s particularly effective that you’ve found?
Jason Holland: Well, the thing that I think has been most effective for me has been asking the right questions, so that they can get to the right answers. And so, if you’re asking the right inquiry, and Brandon mentioned Pastor Krantz earlier. He has a method of, when we take a position on something, he asks us questions to where our position is either exposed for being vulnerable or being solid. And I think that, if you can do that, in the right way to people, then, they are forced to come to their own conclusions about whether or not they’re coming from the right starting place or not. And so, whether that’s a tool or a technique, to me, that’s been a really effective thing.
Tim Ferriss: Any questions you could share? I don’t want to keep you on the spot. Anybody can answer this. But are there any particular questions that you guys use? I obsess over questions because I really think that, whether it’s interacting with someone else or interacting with yourself, asking yourself the right questions, which you guys are helping them to do.
Brandon Menard: So, the pastor, Chaplain Krantz, he’s a military man. So, he looks at things from that viewpoint a lot, when it comes to developing an idea. So, we go to him, the idea fairy lands on the shoulder and gives us some crackpot idea. And we go in there, and we say, hey, we got this really great idea. Let’s do XYZ. And he’ll start running it through sort of a – there will be the practical questions. There will be the purpose driven questions. There will be the purpose driven questions. There will be who is going to run it. Where are you going to get the resources? Who is going to staff this? What’s the idea? And then, it will kind of segue into what are you trying to do? What’s the point? Is what you’re doing tackling a symptom? Is what you’re doing tackling the problem? He’ll really get into it’s a multilevel, systematic teardown.
Tim Ferriss: Stress test.
Brandon Menard: A few times, we’ve surprised him. But he also – I think what Jason is also getting at is the sort of self-leadership model, too. So, any time something pops up, you should be asking yourself the questions, too, so that you know where you stand. Otherwise, it’s too easy to knock you down. So, it’s twofold. You have to have asked yourself the questions. And then, once you have the idea in mind, then, you need to ask the questions about the idea. And if it stands up to both of those stress tests, I think you’re in pretty good shape, at least considering a lot of the other stuff that goes on sometimes.
Ian Villatoro: And for me, it’s a lot simpler really when it comes down to it. I ask myself and I ask others is it the right thing to do. Absent the environment, the situation, is it the right thing to do? And that’s, basically, what it boils down to with me. It’s what am I about to do the right thing? Is it right for me? Is it right for everyone else involved? And that’s kind of the question that I always come up and ask somebody, when I see they’re getting ready to stray, or they’re getting ready to make the wrong decisions. It’s is it the right thing to do. And if they think that it is, then, I question them on it. Like why do you think that’s the right thing? And I just kind of try to lead them through those logical steps. Explain to me why you think putting that metal in that guy is the right thing to do because he called you a name.
It doesn’t make sense, at the end of the day. And it’s very, very basic. But people forget to ask that question sometimes.
Tim Ferriss: Let me jump in on that because this is – you were talking about it’s all relative. So, if we get into like moral relativism, one can almost argue that whatever they want to do is right, right, given whatever story or narrative they’ve built up for themselves, right. So, you had it was two counts of armed robbery?
Ian Villatoro: What I was convicted for, yes.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. So, the list may be longer, but that’s the official.
Ian Villatoro: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: At the time, how would you have explained why you were doing those things?
Ian Villatoro: I could never justify what I did.
Tim Ferriss: Not now, but at the time, how would you have –
Ian Villatoro: It was just a haze, a cloud. I was drinking heavily. I was using drugs heavily. I, like I said before, gravitated back to individuals that I used to hang out with, that I used to run with in my past.
Tim Ferriss: Run with being in a gang capacity?
Ian Villatoro: Yeah. And I just kind of reverted back to old ways that I had left behind. And my judgment was very clouded, and I just kind of went with the flow, which is what a lot of guys do in here. They just go with the flow. They assimilate this environment. They suck it up. And because it’s prison, everything, every excuse you’ll hear here, you’ll almost always hear it’s prison, because it’s prison, because it’s prison. Well, just because it’s prison, it doesn’t make it right. And back then, that’s what it was. I wasn’t in my right mind, no clear judgment.
Tim Ferriss: And so, your judgment seems clearer now. What I’d love to hear from any of you guys is how you have recovered from slipping or relapsing, or when you’ve had the temptation, what you’ve said to yourselves. I know people who are drug addicts or former drug addicts, alcoholics. My best friend growing up, unfortunately, died of an overdose. I have not a lot of firsthand experience, but I’ve watched even with, let’s just say, on a very mundane level, people who are listening to this, they have behaviors, and they try to change the behavior. And maybe they succeed for a while, and then, they slip. And maybe they slip, and they stay slipped for a long time or not. But you guys seem pretty far on the other side, at this point. But could you talk about any times when you’ve either slipped and then, had to fix – had to come back or had the temptation to slip?
Brandon Menard: How long do we have?
Tim Ferriss: I think we got a bunch of time. I got a sticky note here that says a bus broke down, and we have a delay. So, their misfortune is our good fortunate, I’m afraid for them.
Ian Villatoro: I lead by example. So, when I feel – when the anger seems to get the best of me, I always think, if I lead by example, what’s that going to say to all of the other guys? And, like I said, it’s teamwork here with the team. I always try to keep that in mind really
Tim Ferriss: Right. So, you’re setting an example, whether it’s good or bad.
Ian Villatoro: Exactly. And just not too long ago, I lost my cool. And it was kind of embarrassing.
Tim Ferriss: We have one of your men laughing here. If we could talk about it, let’s talk about the details.
Ian Villatoro: I’m now known as very level headed. I keep my cool because I’ve kind of learned to do that. But here in prison, we have all sorts of personalities, all sorts of people with issues and whatnot. And one of the worst happened to move in next door to me. And look, I’m a programmer, man. I like getting out to my programs on time because, half the time, I’m standing in front of that room making sure the guys are heading in the direction they need to head in. And this particular individual decided to hold his tray because he felt he didn’t get enough food. And, obviously, that turns into a problem because now, he has –
Tim Ferriss: So, holds his tray. So, he doesn’t release his food tray.
Ian Villatoro: He doesn’t give up his tray through the port, which means that now, he has something solid that can be used as a weapon. And, obviously, that’s a safety concern. So, for the time being, they kind of closed that section down pending that issue being resolved. And that made me very upset. But what made me even more upset was that, when they tried to reason with him and told him, if you continue doing this, you’re going to mess up the program for everybody else. And the guy started yelling expletives out the door and, basically, cussed everybody out. And here I am standing next door in full blues waiting to come out to run this program, and this guy is over here crying about not having enough food. And I kind of lost it. And he ended up giving up the tray. And we had some very unpleasant exchanges, and I was pumped up. And I was really, really upset. And I showed up to the group, and these guys are looking at me like what the hell happened to you.
Brandon Menard: Hair is all over the place, foaming at the corner of his mouth.
Ian Villatoro: Yeah, it was bad. I felt, emotionally, I was ready to go there.
Tim Ferriss: Like to cross the line.
Ian Villatoro: Yeah. And then, I took some deep breaths, and I told myself you have to practice what you preach, man. And I’ve done it before. I’ve never allowed myself to go that far. And I had to humble myself. When I came back in, I went up to the guy’s door, fully expecting that door to open, by the way, and I apologized to him. And I said, look, man, I don’t know what the issue was, if you didn’t get enough food. Do you need some – it turns out, the guy didn’t have anything in his cell. So, maybe he was hungry. He was kind of a big guy. So, I had to humble myself, apologize, and kind of practice that effective communication that we always try to teach others here. And it worked. The situation was de-escalated. And the next morning, he’s like hey, good morning, buddy.
So, obviously, I still kept an eye on him for the next week because you never know. But it turned out well. And really, it’s just about practicing what I preach, at the end of the day. And, again, leading through example. And I can’t – how would that look if the guy who is preaching effective communication and resolving your conflict in other ways, other than the physical way, how would it look, if I got into a fight in the day room because the guy called me this and called me that, and I went there. It just wouldn’t work.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, the accountability.
Ian Villatoro: Absolutely.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you. What about you guys?
Jason Holland: I would repeat a lot of what Ian said. I think that, at this point, we’ve made a lot of public statements about where we stand on these types of issues. So, if we slip up on it, it’s a pretty big hit, for one thing. Secondly, for me, personally, I have to always ask myself what’s the outcome here. How does this end, once it starts? And so, it’s just trying to avoid the situation from the get to. Now, regarding a scrape of like a violent nature or something, you can’t possibly take in all of the variables that come with that. Anything could happen at any given time. But I think that one thing I’ve tried to keep in mind is that every act that I take, I’m trying to reduce the possibility of that. So, every interaction, I’m trying to keep it to where it doesn’t even go in that direction. Regarding substance abuse, I’ve had a problem with that, in the past.
And so, again, I’ve had people that are close to me that have a severe drug problem. And it’s created a lot of anguish for me. And, at this point, I think, I don’t know, I’ve created enough mental leverage to stay away from it. But if I ever am tempted again, it comes back to what’s my outcome here. And what are the public statements I’ve made? And how much of a hypocrite will that make me? So, I just stay away from it period.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you.
Brandon Menard: Man, let’s see. Whereas there’s the soft skill like there’s the effective communication way of doing things, and then, there’s sort of like my way, which is not that all of the time, although I think I’m getting a little better. So, I snap at people fairly regularly and have to go up afterwards and be like my bad, I suck. As far as I’ve never particularly had a substance abuse problem myself –
Tim Ferriss: And that’s just an example of there are many different ways people can slip.
Brandon Menard: I have an arguing problem. And there are times when I get into that sort of concrete thinking thing. And even if I know I’m wrong, I’m still going to argue my point. That’s led to some beefs before, although I’m trying to not do that anymore. And that’s where I’m kind of picking up from these two guys over here.
Tim Ferriss: How does your process or day change, when you’re trying not to do it? So, what do you do to try to decrease the likelihood?
Brandon Menard: I find that when I think before I say things, it tends to work a lot better. And I know it sounds like kind of silly, but that’s – I haven’t often done that, in the past, although I have now. So, as long as I have sort of a mental checklist to run through and ask myself questions as we go, am I thinking about this clearly, do I understand what he’s saying, are we clear on the terms, have we clarified what the heck we’re actually talking about.
Tim Ferriss: So, just injecting a pause between the response.
Brandon Menard: Yeah, exactly. So, as long as I take a breath before opening my mouth, which is when I usually get in trouble. Incidents on the yard kind of thing. I mean, there have been times where there was the guy who clocked me in the face one day out at yard, and I had to walk away from it.
Ian Villatoro: And it was because of something he wrote in our newsletter.
Tim Ferriss: Let’s dig into this. So, what did you write in the newsletter, and why did he punch you in the face?
Brandon Menard: And I don’t know how much of this will have to be cut out or whatever.
Tim Ferriss: It’s all right. We can always edit it later.
Brandon Menard: There was an incident that took place back in the vocational class where a gentleman had gotten heated, and somebody had to step in between it and stop him. And this incident led to a conversation later on.
Tim Ferriss: With him.
Brandon Menard: Well, the guy who had gotten heated had hit the guy who stepped in between them. And the guy who had gotten hit, which was another one of our Pioneer Newsletter guys, another reporter, another editor. So, he had taken the hit and walked away. And we applauded that. We said, hey, look, you de-escalated it. You humbled yourself. You took the hit. Great job.
Ian Villatoro: Now, you have to remember, in prison, if you get hit, and you don’t hit back, that’s a bad thing, according to prison standards.
Tim Ferriss: That sets a precedent.
Ian Villatoro: Exactly.
Brandon Menard: Somebody had said, well, first you get hit in the face, next thing you know, people are just coming up and stealing your store.
Tim Ferriss: Your store is just whatever you have –
Brandon Menard: Yeah, your canteen. Your hygiene, your food. And I had written this piece about, yes, because that’s what we’re going to have. We’re going to have roving gangs of marauders hijacking people in stage coach robberies for their store. And I kind of made light of it. Well, the gentleman who had gotten heated way back in the beginning, somehow, interpreted this as hey, I was telling people to beat him up on yard and steal his store. So, he saw me at yard, when I was out there reporting on a football tournament or a soccer tournament and took a swing, and he got me. And I had just – oh, I wanted to get him. I was seeing red. My hackles were up. But I was telling myself, I was like, dude, you just wrote this thing about it’s okay to walk away from taking a hit. Don’t worry about it. You’re not a bitch.
And I had done this whole thing. And this guy cracked me and was standing there. And I had to take a breath and be like we’re not doing this right here. We’re adults. And I had to turn around and walk away. And everybody saw it. And I was getting the blues for a while. But then, slowly, people were like yeah, man, don’t worry about that guy. It’s cool.
Tim Ferriss: What’s the blues? Meaning you were feeling –
Brandon Menard: Oh, man, I was just getting – there were some people that were coming up and ribbing me and saying some pretty hurtful things, man. But that’s okay. I’m used to that.
Tim Ferriss: So, how did you feel after that? Were you proud that you did that? Were you like, man, I should have ripped that fucking guy’s face off?
Brandon Menard: No, I was – I felt bad that I had, actually, that I had wrote something that he interpreted – I should have gone and talked to him beforehand. I should have been like hey, dude, we’re going to write an article about something that happened involving you. And I should have been like is this cool. And I didn’t. And that was my screw up. And that made me feel bad. And I actually went back, and I had talked to the guy a few other times and asked him if he wanted to subscribe to the paper. And that probably wasn’t smart. I thought I was giving him a peace offering, and he just started kicking the door and yelling at me. So, I had to walk away. But yeah, I felt bad that I – I felt I handled it badly. Yeah, I walked away, but I had allowed a situation to happen where this guy was mad enough to hit me, and that was where I screwed up.
So, I managed to not turn it into a big deal, but I still F’d up in there somehow.
Tim Ferriss: Where would you like to be in say three years’ time? Like three years from now, looking back, you’re like yeah, I did a really good job, or I’m happy with my progress. What would need to happen?
Brandon Menard: If I can look at the yard I’m on three years from now and 51 percent of the people on that yard, I could be like yes, these are grown up, mature adults, and I had some small part in that, yeah, it’s some program I helped run or came up with or bring to the yard or some sort of stats that we had done to figure, then, I’d be like yeah, I did a good job because everything is to that end for me is making people kid of realize their maturity.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. So, 51 percent just meaning the majority.
Brandon Menard: Yeah. I want a saturation rate that’s 51 percent. Then, I know our product is a success.
Tim Ferriss: So many different directions I can go with all of this. First thing I probably should at least check off because I know some people listening are going to be like wait, they have a podcast.
Brandon Menard: Yes, welcome to the Kern Valley 180 podcast. We’re here with Tim Ferriss.
Tim Ferriss: That’s right. Thank you for having me, gentlemen. How did that come to be? And how do you guys record it? And what do you talk about? So, do you have gear, do you have a room? How does a podcast come – does it only get distributed among the people at the prison? Is it more widely distributed?
Ian Villatoro: So, the leadership here is very progressive. When CDCR said we’re going to head more towards rehabilitation, the administration, the leadership really took that direction at heart and are following it. Absolutely. The idea came about I think there’s another podcast out in San Quinton, a much lower lever facility. And but the things that they talk about there, and not talking smack about them, it’s more average day, daily occurrences on the prison yard type deal. Here, I think we’re creating, we’re establishing more than just talking about canteen, talking about the sports in the yard. We’re really trying to highlight that rehabilitation. And we were approached by the administration if we would be interested in doing something like that. And we jumped at it. It turns out that this institution has a media room, which it looks very much like a TV studio.
They have all of the equipment, and it just kind of sits there because they have no other use for it. So, they’ve allowed us to use that room for podcasts. We’ve been able to interview our warden, which I hear is the first time that has happened that inmates actually interview their warden on a podcast. And we were able to interview the CEO of honor of Defy Ventures, for example. And we have a long list of people. And now, we’ve interviewed you.
Brandon Menard: Because that’s what we’re doing here.
Ian Villatoro: That’s what we’re doing here.
Tim Ferriss: You guys are welcome to ask me anything you want. Take some responsibility off of my hands, which I like. But first, let me ask, following up on something that I kind of passed by, is this widely available? Or is it only for people in the facility?
Brandon Menard: It will be.
Ian Villatoro: Yeah, it will be. Once we record – finish our third one, I believe, it will be downloadable on iTunes.
Brandon Menard: I think it’s iTunes.
Ian Villatoro: There’s actually two versions of it here because, like I said, there are video cameras. It’s like a TV studio. There will be like a video podcast version of it available throughout the institution, so that all of the facilities here can watch it and hear it. And then, out there, for the public, it will be what I believe just strictly audio podcast through iTunes.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. And you guys are welcome to use this audio. I’m happy to give you guys the audio, too. But you sounded like you had a question.
Ian Villatoro: I wanted to ask you what compelled you to come into a Level 4 maximum security prison and sit down with us to ask all of these questions?
Tim Ferriss: I think that it’s very common, whether it’s inside or outside, for people to separate between us and them or me and others. And when I look at, for instance, some of the people I grew up with were my best friends, like I mentioned one died of a Fentanyl overdose. Others have been in prison. And just like you were saying, there’s sometimes this almost magical, positive window when someone sees their family or has this dark night of the soul, and there’s an opportunity for growth. There are also these windows that open, which are opportunities to make really terrible decisions.
And circumstances, I’m not saying you don’t have personal responsibility, we’re all responsible, but at the same time, I think it is wildly unreasonable for people to think that they could never find themselves in a position, if their life had been different, if their surroundings and friends had been different, where they would have made terrible decisions that could have landed them in a place like this. And so, I think that my hope in coming here was A) to just learn about a new environment and to get to meet people here, honestly. I’m very interested in learning as much as I can about like what does human nature look like inside the walls. And not because these humans are necessarily intrinsically different from the humans outside. They have very different stories. But what does it look like, like you guys have mentioned, when everything is intensified and magnified?
Does that tell us perhaps something about ourselves, more broadly speaking, right? And also, not to say that everyone here should be completely forgiven of all of the, in some cases, terrible things that they’ve done to other people, but that I do think it’s possible to have empathy for the humanity in each and every person, while still holding them accountable.
Ian Villatoro: And that’s, I think, one of our main goals on our podcast is look, we’re not trying to justify anyone’s actions, anyone who is here. Mistakes were clearly made. But, at the end of the day, we want people out there to realize that people in here are just people. We’re humans. We have that label prisoner, convict. And people sometimes tend to associate who we are strictly on the crime that we committed that maybe that bad day, maybe that bad decisions, maybe a series of bad decisions. But, at the end of the day, we’re human. I’m here because I committed a crime, but I’ve moved past that. I’m, obviously, reminded every day, when I wake up, and I’m still in prison.
But I’ve been able to forgive myself and really worked on myself, in order to someday gain that forgiveness from my victims because there are victims. And for me, at least, that’s what we want to communicate out there. Look, we’re just people. Anyone can make mistakes. Sure, there are degrees of mistakes, but it’s tough. It’s tough, sometimes, when you watch the shows on TV, and you hear the narrative about prisoners. And it’s just always the negative.
Tim Ferriss: And another reason that I’m here is, with Defy, and I really wanted to chat with you guys, is that I’m fascinated by why people change, whether it’s for the better or for the worse. What is that moment? What is that conversation? What does the chaplain say to you or ask you? Or what happens in the SHU? I’m really interested in these tipping points for people, and I’d like to study them because, if you study them, and you can then figure out like, all right, this particular tool works really well. And it seems to work, and you spot some type of pattern. I don’t think that – if we assume that human nature is human nature, which I suppose that’s a bit of like a [inaudible]. But in the sense that the people inside are not that different from people outside, I think there’s a lot to be learned in here that could also be applied outside of here.
And not that I like the fact that everything is intensified here but it’s, in a way, very similar. I’ve spoke with Sebastian Younger who was a war – well, is considered by many to be a war journalist, but he’s been deployed overseas, and his best friend was killed overseas, with I guess it was a mortar round. A horrible tragedy. And he’s seen many people killed. And in war, you also see the certain aspects of human nature that are just amplified. And I think that gives you an opportunity to see things that you might not otherwise see and learn things you might not otherwise learn. So, but the fact that you guys have made a series of bad decisions and have made a series of good decisions is very interesting to me. So, that’s part of the reason, some of the reasons I’m here.
Jason Holland: Can I ask you a question?
Tim Ferriss: Absolutely. Fire away.
Jason Holland: So, one of the things that you do, as you were saying, you’re trying to, basically, break it down. You’re trying to figure out what it is that makes a person tick, right? So, do you have go to questions? Are you trying to get to the through process? What is it that you’re looking for, when you’re asking questions? What process are you going through?
Tim Ferriss: Usually, I am following my own curiosity. So, if someone has experienced any type of sudden change, I’m very interested in why that change took place. So, I’ll explore that. I might ask someone if you look back, say at your business, over the last five or ten years, were there any specific decisions you made that you view, in retrospect, as really critical. Or was there anything you said no to that you were tempted to say yes to that made all of the difference? Was there something you were told you had to do that everyone told you you should do that you decided not to do? Was there anything like that? I’d like to explore the good decisions, but I also really like to explore how people deal with hardship and failure and darkness.
So, I really try to, when I’m talking to anyone, no matter how successful they may be. If I’m interviewing Richard Branson or interviewing it really doesn’t matter, any type of icon who might be thought of as this perfect super star, I know they’re not. No one is perfect. And so, I will ask them, rather than just going through the highlight reel, we’ll talk about the highlights, but I’ll say can you take us back. People may listen to this and think that you’ve got it all figure out and that you haven’t had your tough times. Can you take us to a tough time or a period that you suffered from depression or where you thought it was all over? And walk us through what you said to yourself. Walk us through who helped you had how they helped you. Like how did you get out of that funk? I’m very interested in that because I think those are the – that is when some of the most critical decisions are made.
And it’s like if everything is lining up, it’s really easy to be supportive of someone else or supportive of yourself. But when things start going sideways, when maybe you slip, maybe you relapse, maybe who knows, you’re paying too much attention to your business, and you’re not paying enough attention to your kids. And your kids make some really terrible decisions. We’re all going to fuck up. How do you then respond to that fuck up is more interesting than the question have you fucked up because the answer is obviously yes. The more interesting question to me is like, all right, you fucked up. Now, what happens? And so, certainly, in a different context, but I’ve beaten myself up horribly my whole life. I’ve had a very sort of mixed relationship with myself and have been very, very brutal with myself just in terms of self-talk for the majority of my life.
And I’ve only, in the last few years, realized how unproductive, counterproductive that can be. So, the way now, externally, if you were watching me respond to a mistake, it might look the same as it did five years ago, but what’s going on in my head is very different. Does that make sense?
Jason Holland: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: And so, what I try to do then, if I’m interviewing someone, is to ask them to help me step into their head to see what’s going on behind the scenes. Or if they’re afraid, when they’re most nervous, if they’re a championship fighter, and they’re getting ready for the biggest fight of their life, what are they saying, in their head, as they’re walking out to the octagon? After months of training, and their entire career is on the line, and they could have their head caved in, what are they actually saying in their own head, when they’re listening to their music walking out? These are the types of questions that I’ve been exploring more and more, in the last few years because I think that you can learn from a real fighter like say Tim Kennedy, also Greenbury Sniper. Just an incredible guy.
You can take lessons from him and apply it to business. You can take lessons from business and apply it to military, in some cases. You can take lessons from chess and apply it to working with people in the yard, I’m sure, in some cases and vice versa perhaps. So, usually, I’m digging for the internal process and trying to find phrases or questions or concepts that can be applied to a lot of different things. That’s very often what I’m looking for. Yeah. That would be my first stab at it. Something like that.
Jason Holland: All right.
Tim Ferriss: And also, to dig out the humanity in someone. To encourage people to be vulnerable when they can be. Or to like push to a point where they’re at least a little uncomfortable. I think that’s when interesting things happen. Not in the sense of pushing yourself closer to say a red line situation. Not pushing in that direction. But I remember interviewing this woman named Renee Brown who is a researcher. And she studied a lot related to shame and vulnerability and related topics. And she said something to me that had a really big impact. And I’m paraphrasing. But she said very often, we think that we need to develop trust with someone, and then, we can be vulnerable. And she said but very often, it’s the opposite way around. You have to be vulnerable first before someone will trust you.
And that really stuck with me. And, in any case, but I’m trying to find some of the connective tissue and these commonalities that can apply anywhere. It’s like if humans are humans, which by and large, I think is certainly the case, and whether you go to the middle of nowhere in the jungles of Borneo, or you’re in New York City, or you’re in here, or you’re anywhere else, the same type of pain, the same need for purpose and meaning, it’s all there. It’s universal. So, I try to tease out, hopefully, things that people can apply in any of those contexts.
Jason Holland: Thank you.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Of course. Well, let’s see. I’m struggling with – I think this is a pretty natural place to start to maybe wrap up a bit. But do you guys have anything that you would like to ask or say to people who are listening?
Ian Villatoro: Maybe not ask. But as I said before earlier, my change came through really education. It really opened my eyes. Credit wise, I have enough college credits, or I have the equal amount of credits that someone halfway through their masters would have. But I can’t achieve that because there is no funding for post-secondary, four year graduate degree levels. So, I’m hoping that some legislation will gain some traction that would give the opportunity for individuals in our circumstance to apply themselves and earn higher degrees.
Brandon Menard: I would just say I guess it’s kind of an ask. It would be something like please don’t write us off in prison. We’ve made some really, really bad choices, absolutely. And we are responsible, and we are accountable for those. And nothing can take them back. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t change and do better. And I think, a lot of times, from what you see on TV, what you hear about most often, Hard Time, Lock Up, shows like that, it’s kind of painted in the light that there’s no hope for people in here. And that’s really not the case. We see it. I hope that you come to see it. I hope people listening will hear it. And just don’t give up on people inside prison.
Jason Holland: If I could say anything to anyone out there, it would be that I find myself now in a place where I actually have meaning in my life, and I feel like I’m bringing value to other people. But that’s mostly because of my community in here and because of my family and friends on the streets who never gave up. So, for anybody who has someone in their life that’s struggling, I would just say don’t give up on them. Hold them accountable. But continue to give them hope and try to provide them tools and opportunities to where they can make a change and start making some good decisions because you just never know who that person can really become. So, just don’t give up.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you, guys. On the inside or the outside, right, I think those are good rules. Good recommendations. And it’s what I consider a real privilege to share time with you guys, because if I think about it, you have the opportunity, potentially. It’s like if you build up to get to that 51 percent, potentially, and beyond. But if you have develop your own program of sorts, and you have your approach to helping people develop this meaning and this hope and also tilt, just slightly, in the positive direction, a more positive direction, it doesn’t have to become Mother Theresa overnight, which is pretty unlikely. But just like one degree better, right. That one degree, it’s like you start off here. And if you change your position walking one or five degrees in a different direction – like if you walk 10 feet, it doesn’t seem like that far away.
You walk 100 feet, okay, now, it’s quite a bit of a distance away. And then, you walk a few miles, now it’s completely different destinations. So, that initial change can make a huge difference, ultimately. And it strikes me that like well after you guys have left this place, you could leave a legacy of people who continue to do that, potentially.
Ian Villatoro: That’s the goal.
Tim Ferriss: So, you’re kind of like senior class teaches the junior class, teaches the sophomore class. And that’s a really meaningful legacy.
Brandon Menard: So, long as there’s no alumni coming back.
Tim Ferriss: So long as there are no alumni reunions. That’s right. The graduation with no reunions. Well, guys, I really appreciate you taking the time. And I certainly wish you all the best with everything that you’re working to build inside yourselves and outside. Keep it up with the podcast.
Brandon Menard: Thank you for coming on the Kern Valley 180 podcast. We’re your hosts –
Jason Holland: Good luck on your podcast, Tim.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you.
Brandon Menard: I’m sure it will take off one day. You could be like us with tens of hours of experience.
Ian Villatoro: Yeah. You’re struggling a little bit out there.
Jason Holland: Now that you got the big interview out of the way.
Tim Ferriss: That’s right.
Brandon Menard: The elephant in the room is gone.
Tim Ferriss: So, I think we should get back to the excitement across the yard. So, you guys want to give your names one more time?
Jason Holland: Jason Holland.
Ian Villatoro: Ian Villatoro. I’m sorry, I have to disclose. My name is Gilian, but it’s so strange and odd that everyone just calls me Ian. So, it’s Gilian Villatoro, but it’s Ian Villatoro.
Brandon Menard: And I’m Brandon Menard.
Tim Ferriss: All right. Gentlemen, thank you so much. And keep it up.
Brandon Menard: You, too.
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