A SECOND CHANCE
Deirdre Smith walked outside at the Santa Barbara County Jail.
She spoke into an intercom and gave her code for a guard to remotely open a gate in a tall chain link fence topped with barbed wire. She and her visitors left the area by the main jail and walked around the fences within fences on a large tract of pavement.
As she led the News-Press on a recent tour, the 1993 San Marcos High School graduate looked up on this sunny day toward a grassy hill and another building.
That’s where she was an inmate.
“It was theft,” Mrs. Smith, 44, told the News-Press as she returned with the jail’s foster pit bull mix, Tess, to her office in the Inmate Services building. “I stole a lot of money from my employer. It was in 2001.
“2002 was when I did my (seven-month) sentence here,” she said.
Mrs. Smith said she knew she had to turn her life around.
Today, Mrs. Smith, who went on to earn college degrees, has dedicated herself to helping inmates get a second chance.
Last year she became the jail’s inmate services manager and brought a special empathy with her.
“It’s very easy for me to put myself in their (inmates’) shoes because I’ve walked a mile in their shoes,” she said.
Mrs. Smith oversees the Sheriff’s Treatment Program, which provides classes in areas such as anger management, criminal and addictive thinking, drug and alcohol education, and relapse prevention. In addition, Mrs. Smith works with Santa Barbara City College, which teaches classes at the jail on topics such as stress management, GED and training in the restaurant industry, and the Family Services Agency, which instructs inmates about healthy relationships.
Last Monday, the jail honored one of its current inmates — the first female inmate to receive a Santa Barbara City College Career Skills Institute digital badge and certificate while incarcerated. She participated in the emerging leaders program.
Mrs. Smith recalled how the jail’s classes got her on the right path back in 2002.
“I took advantage of every class they had here, even if it did not apply to me,” Mrs. Smith said. “They had parenting classes, and I knew some day I could potentially have children, which I did.”
Mrs. Smith said she knew she had to achieve something important to fight the stigma of her felony. She took classes at Santa Barbara City College, then earned a bachelor’s in psychology in 2013 at Cal State Channel Islands in Camarillo and a master’s in clinical psychology in 2015 at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks.
Afterward, she worked at the Santa Barbara Day Reporting Center, where she helped state paroles with their reentry into society, before becoming the jail’s inmate services manager.
Mrs. Smith said she oversees classes that help more than 100 inmates, men and women, as they prepare for brighter futures with education and careers.
“When I stand in front of them, and I’m Mrs. Smith, the program manager, they’ll listen and respectful,” she said. “It may go in one ear and out the other.”
But she said the inmates trust her more when they learned she served time at the jail.
“I understand all the barriers they face in a way that the other counselors can’t because they’ve never been there,” Mrs. Smith said. “There’s an automatic trust and rapport built in, just because I’ve been here and I used to be one of them.”
Lindsey Gong, one of the four correctional counselors teaching the Sheriff’s Treatment Program classes, told the News-Press that inmates find Mrs. Smith’s personal story encouraging and like the fact she’s a good listener.
“She’s very, very approachable and very sweet,” Miss Gong said. “She wants to do what she can to help everyone out.”
Before Mrs. Smith’s arrival, the Sheriff Treatment Program had developed a reputation for inmates who successfully made the transition into Santa Barbara City College after their release.
That reputation led Alice Perez, formerly one of City College’s deans of instruction and more recently California’s vice chancellor for academic affairs for community colleges, to join the jail staff this fall as a correctional counselor.
“I’ve been keenly interested for many years because I’ve been on the receiving end of having some of the best students coming out of the Sheriff’s Treatment Program and coming into our college program,” she said. “They go on and get their A.A. degrees and transfer to four-year colleges and universities.
“They were highly motivated students who had a real desire to learn and grow,” Dr. Perez said.
Mrs. Smith noted the treatment program is voluntary, but there’s an immediate incentive for inmates to sign up. She said those who complete the entire program can be eligible up to 42 days off their sentence.
“But when they show up, they’re expected to work. They’re expected to perform,” she said. “They’re expected to share (during discussions). They’re expected to be vulnerable.”
She added that the program is designed to help not only inmates but the community.
“One of the highest committed felonies in Santa Barbara County is domestic violence, so we want to make sure that through the anger management and healthy relationships classes that there are no more victims,” Mrs. Smith said.
After completing the 90-day program, inmates are awarded with a graduation ceremony where Sheriff Bill Brown speaks, Mrs. Smith said.
For the future, Mrs. Smith said she would like to see the Sheriff’s Treatment Program’s trauma-informed curriculum expanded. She explained she’s making sure her staff get more training in trauma and how it manifests itself in inmates.
Mrs. Smith noted she’s looking forward to the program growing when the new county jail opens next year in Santa Maria. She will drive back and forth between Santa Barbara and Santa Maria to oversee courses at both jails.
“Our new jail in Santa Maria will have an entire space dedicated to vocational training,” Mrs. Smith said. “Right now, I’m creating a partnership with Allan Hancock College.”
To support themselves, inmates need jobs where they can make more than the minimum wage, Mrs. Smith said. She noted she would like inmates trained in areas such as construction, an industry that is friendlier for hiring felons.
“At every graduation I tell them, ‘In case nobody has ever told you, you are worthy of being successful. You are worthy of achieving any goal that you choose.’ ”