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Visionary's Programs Transform Inmates' Lives In & Beyond San Francisco County Jail

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) -- San Francisco County has spent nearly 40 years pioneering ways to shut the revolving door of inmates going in and out of jail, thanks to a woman with a vision.

Sunny Schwartz With Prison Inmates (CBS)
Sunny Schwartz speaks to inmates in a classroom (CBS)

Sunny Schwartz speaks to inmates in a classroom at the San Francisco County Jail in San Bruno. The scene is a far cry from the jail of years past.

"Traditional incarceration was about playing cards and dominoes, watching really bad TV and never taking the time to look at yourself in the mirror and say, 'My God, what have you done?'" said Schwartz.

She came across a disturbing case in the 1980s: a child molester who was set to get out of jail in two weeks, who was promising to re-offend, and he did. After that, she set out to find new ways to help inmates come out of jail better than when they entered.

As Program Director under former San Francisco Sheriff Mike Hennessey in the 1980s, Schwartz and he co-founded several programs to change lives.

"Restorative justice is about making it right and including everyone impacted by violence and other crime," Schwartz said.

One program, Resolve to Stop the Violence Project, or R.S.V.P., in 1997, did something radical each week. It put inmates face-to-face with violent crime survivors.

"It's an opportunity for the men and women in our program to stand in the shoes of those who've been violated for the first time hearing the horrible impact of their crime," she said.

Schwartz also founded Five Keys Schools and Programs in 2003, the first high school within a jail that's since expanded into dozens of jails and communities California.

Five Keys serves 4,000 people a day. It's awarded more than 2,800 high school diplomas or GED equivalents. The comprehensive programs are models for the nation, according to Five Keys executive director Steve Good.

"We could cite the facts--reduction in violent crime by 80%--recidivism rates for our graduates around 30%, compared to statewide averages of 65% or so," said Good.

The opportunities to learn give hope to the inmate who calls himself Sleepy Hollow.

"Learning is a personal achievement that makes you feel worthwhile of being alive in the first place," he said.

Current sheriff Vicki Hennessy credits Schwartz's determination.

"She's a force of nature. She's a visionary. She has a lot to say, she has a lot of ideas," Hennessy said. "She doesn't give up."

So for pioneering programs that transform the lives of inmates in San Francisco County and beyond, this week's Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Sunny Schwartz.

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