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Inmates Share Powerful Message With Military Members

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) - Military men and women and prison inmates are coming together for a first-of-its-kind program in California, if not the country.

Seventeen inmates at California Medical Facility state prison in Vacaville were carefully vetted to participate in the military assistance program, known as MAP.

The inmates, many of them former military, are helping deter airmen from Travis Air Force Base from a life of crime and imprisonment.

Captain Joseph Cachuella says there is a small percentage of vulnerable active military members on almost every base who are going down the wrong path and who need help.

"The temptation is all around our airmen to make bad decisions. They may not think they're the ones to do it, but when you're in that environment, it's easy to say hey I'm just gonna pop that ecstasy pill or smoke that joint, not thinking they're gonna get caught," said Cachuella.

The MAP program allows the airmen an opportunity to go inside prison walls and get a first-hand look at life behind bars.

"The guys on the outside take prison for granted. They never think they could wind up in prison, but we are the example, that yes you can," said 56-year-old inmate Keith Thompson.

Thompson leads the MAP program. He was one of them with 10 years of active military in the U.S. Army. Thompson even made staff sergeant with dreams of a long career. But that dream was soon shattered by one mistake that handed him a life sentence.

"Our experiences is what we're trying to pass on, with hopes that it will enlighten them on what they could possibly face," said Thompson.

As Thompson addressed the airmen he said, "you're only one bad choice, and one poor decision away from wearing this blue uniform."

The program started with inmates sharing personal stories of the consequences of their negative choices.

"This is a reality check. They see us, we reveal our stories, and they go wait a minute, I have a career, I have all of these things that I can potentially lose, maybe that will have an effect," said inmate Cole Bienek.

"A lot of realization that the stories that the inmates are telling are very similar to what the service members are going through," said CMF warden Robert Fox. "It gets emotional, and you can really see the bond between the two groups."

The MAP program takes the airmen through all aspects of inmate life, from working in the yard to even eating in their dining commons.

And although the experience is temporary, the impact is life changing.

"It makes me want to reflect on myself, and make sure my friends are OK," said airmen Candace Hedin as she experienced MAP for the first time.

"Seeing people that actually are facing 25 to life and hearing the decisions they made to get them in their situations helps me realize I need to pay more attention to the decisions I make and the possible outcomes," said 22-year-old airman Jonathan Rocca.

Rocca recently lost a stripe after his first run in with the law.

"I got called into security forces, and lost a rank myself, and my possible spot for staff sergeant, and now I have to wait another 20 months," he said.

Rocca didn't wish to disclose the details of the incident but says "it makes you understand you're not invincible."

And the rewards of the program don't stop with just the airmen. For the inmates it's a chance to heal, give back, gain self worth and a sense of accomplishment.

"If I can change the life of one of the airmen, then I've achieved my goal," said Thompson.

And while the airmen are only behind bars for seven hours, if the pilot program works, this will be last time they're incarcerated.

Depending on the success of MAP at CMF, the hope is to spread it to other cities throughout the country.

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