Pastor Eddie Perez packs one of two pickup trucks full of Christmas gift bags for inmates to be delivered to every inmate and staff member at both Santa Barbara county jails. | Credit: Ryan P. Cruz

Husband and wife Eddie and Alice Perez are working together to change the way the community treats the more than 700 individuals housed in the two Santa Barbara County jails — Eddie through his nonprofit Impact Ministry and Alice as the new inmate services programs manager for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jails — and together the couple has partnered with area organizations to spread the holiday cheer in both facilities, gifting each and every inmate and staff member with a special “Christmas gift bag” in a tradition that is now going on its fifth year.

Before the two met, and before he was ordained as a pastor, Eddie had become all too familiar with the heaviness of the holiday season behind bars. For all of his adult life, all he could remember was Christmas in prison; he spent 38 years in California prisons, 31 of which were spent isolated in 23-hour-a-day solitary confinement.

Volunteers from the Sheriff’s Office Programs Unit, Freedom 4 Youth, and Impact Ministry work to pack more than 875 bags worth of snacks and hygiene items for inmates in local jails. | Credit: Ryan P. Cruz

When he was paroled in 2011, after turning his life around and working a 12-step program that centered on deconstructing the mindset of those addicted to a life of crime, Criminals and Gang Members Anonymous, he found himself drawn to Santa Barbara. (Coincidentally enough, Perez said it was because of something he saw in a copy of Santa Barbara Independent that had been left in a McDonald’s in Fullerton, where he was living, and which featured an item on a transitional program for formerly incarcerated students at Santa Barbara City College.)

After convincing his parole officer to grant him a one-day pass to take the train up to Santa Barbara to enroll in the program, and arriving at SBCC’s oceanside campus, he knew he was home. It was that same day, wandering around campus looking for the offices, that he first met his future wife, Alice, who was then working as a dean at the college.

Though they wouldn’t see each other for at least a year after that first meeting, both felt an immediate connection. But neither could know exactly what would be blossoming with this unlikely partnership in just a few years.

The couple eventually started dating, then married in 2014, and Eddie began teaching the 12-step program in local schools, teaching junior high and high school students about avoiding the gang lifestyle and the need to focus on education. While there is a large focus on substance abuse programs and other addiction recovery groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, he says there is often a lack of resources for the many youth that become addicted to the thrill of gang life and the culture surrounding the lifestyle.

“Hundreds of men and women, they’re addicted to the lifestyle,” he said. “This group is for the mentality of gang members, to help them have a way to find a way out.”

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Soon, Eddie started Impact Ministry, and the two began working as chaplains in the county jail. Alice was hired as a correctional counselor — the Sheriff’s Office term for a teacher inside the jail — and this past year, she was brought on as the inmate services programs manager, in charge of all programming and classes available in both the South County Jail and the nearly one-year-old Northern Branch Jail.

In 2017, Eddie had the idea for the Christmas gift event. It originally started with about 150 gift bags distributed to one women’s unit, intended to lift the spirits of inmates missing their families. The next year, they had the idea to expand to every inmate in every unit.

This year, a group of volunteers from the programs unit, chaplains program, Impact Ministry and area nonprofit Freedom 4 Youth help pack the 875 gift bags full of donated snack chips, cookies, energy bars, chocolates, ramen, coffee, shampoo, and conditioner for each of the men and women in both facilities. The bags were all stuffed in two pickup trucks’ worth of goodies, which were delivered to both jails on December 18 and 19.

While the gift bags may seem like a small gesture, for those spending long winter days locked away from family, awaiting court dates for early next year or serving short-term sentences, a bag of goodies can be a much-needed pick-me-up.

Husband and wife Eddie and Alice Perez are working together to change the way the local community treats the more than 700 individuals housed in the two Santa Barbara county jails — Eddie through his nonprofit Impact Ministry and Alice as the new Inmate Services Programs Manager. | Credit: Eddie Perez

“For a moment, you are taken out of yourself, that’s the ticket,” Alice said. “That’s what it’s all about.”

Many of the individuals in our local jails, she said, are those struggling with mental illness, homelessness, or substance abuse. “They don’t belong in jail,” she said.

She said that the community often sees the jails as “a dumping ground,” but hopes that the perception will change as people in Santa Barbara see the positive effects of more rehabilitation-based programs offered in the jail.

“Luckily, we have a sheriff that’s open to that in Bill Brown,” she said. 

The Sheriff’s Office has recently started hiring more correctional counselors to teach the courses offered to inmates, she said, and many classes start up again early next year. On January 23, a whole slate of for-credit courses will be offered through SBCC.

“One day at a time, little by little, we see things growing,” Alice said.

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