Jefferson Awards: Helping Peninsula Inmates Make Positive Choices

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Shirley LaMarr - Jefferson Award Winner. (CBS)

Shirley LaMarr – Jefferson Award Winner. (CBS)

SAN MATEO (CBS 5) — Shirley LaMarr’s life has come full circle. Twenty-two years ago, she was the one wearing an orange jumpsuit at the county jail. But now she goes to work at the Maguire Correctional Facility in San Mateo to help run an in-custody recovery program called Choices.

“Everyday I walk through that door with this thing on here, I prove to them that they don’t have to be in orange,” LaMarr said, fingering her employee security badge.

LaMarr said she did it all, drugs and crime, but she left that environment of abuse behind when she entered the Delancey Street program and turned her life around.

“The philosophy is don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal. It’s on the wall downstairs,” she explained. “Give back, give back. Give a damn about somebody else.”

And that’s what she’s teaching with the Choices program, a unique joint venture of the San Mateo Sheriff, the county Health Department, and the Board of Supervisors, based on the Delancey Street formula.

LaMarr started as a counselor with Choices 17 years ago. She now helps run the voluntary program where county inmates receive counseling, mentoring, education and a healthy dose of LaMarr’s tough love.

She said, “I know the dark side, and I know the light side. I show you both pieces. I give you both things and I demand that you pick the right side to be here.”

“I heard Shirley before I saw Shirley,” remembered Rosalind Walton. She served time for drug possession before LaMarr helped her pick the “right side.”

“She would walk into a room and everyone would stop and listen,” Walton said. “She gave me inspiration and she empowered me to know that change was possible.”

San Mateo County Sheriff’s Captain Mark Hanlon said Walton is one of many success stories.

“It’s important to us because we have seen some of the changes,” Hanlon said. “We don’t have as many in the revolving door, inmates coming back once they’ve been through this program. There’s a support network here.”

Former inmate Chris O’Dell shakes his head when he looks at his old cell. Choices inspired him to go to college and find a job. Now he’s giving back as a counselor with the program.

“Choices taught me the value of decency,” O’Dell said. “They taught me how to be accountable and how to live as a community.”

“If you want it to work well for you and keep at it, you have to continually give it back,” LaMarr said. “So everyday I wake up, I give it back to somebody. My life is more than just about staying clean and sober and staying off drugs. It’s about making people really understand what change looks like, what it takes, what it is.”

For helping inmates to see change and make positive choices, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Shirley LaMarr.

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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