Ex-prison official now tickles ivories, distributes teddy bears

By Sarah Brown

Of The New Era

Ray Novencido retired before he turned 50. If he hadn’t, he might not be alive today.

That’s because, he says, a person who works in the California prison system doesn’t typically live to see age 60, and Novencido was on his way to becoming a confirmed prison warden.

The 70-year-old spent his career working his way up the ladder at the California Department of Corrections while also instructing officers in weapons self-defense, but now he passes out stuffed Teddy bears to senior citizens in assisted living facilities.

The Sweet Home resident first moved to Oregon in 2005 and joined the Sons of the American Legion in Lebanon, where he enjoyed playing music for his friends, he said. One day, he learned that Kay Jewelers was selling stuffed teddy bears to benefit St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, and Novencido came up with an idea.

He presented the idea to the Sons of the American Legion, who voted to allocate $1,500 for him to purchase the bears and share them with residents in local assisted living facilities. Since then-save for a couple years spent in Reno-Novencido has been singing to senior citizens while giving away the bears every Christmas season.

It’s a win-win situation, he said, because those who benefit include the children at St. Jude’s, Kay Jewelers, Sons of the American Legion, recipients of the stuffed animals, and Novencido himself, who says he does it because of his Christian values.

“I just thought it would be a worthwhile endeavor, and I was having fun at the same time,” he said. “For me, and for a lot of people who are the recipients of the stuffed animals, it’s overwhelming. It’s very emotional. For the folks living here, most of them have nobody, and that little bear is their little security, and they want it.”

Novencido brings along his granddaughters, Sabrina Wideen and Mary Kay Novencido, and their friend Michael Stratman, to help.

Stratman said Novencido has helped him, personally, so he enjoys returning the favor by participating in the sing-song bear giveaway.

“I’ve been to three different events of these, and a lot of them, their faces will glow up and they’ll get really excited when you go and hand them a bear,” Stratman said.

Mary Kay likes helping Novencido, her adopted father, because it helps them bond, she said, but she also notes how important it is to him to make time for the people he visits.

“It touches my heart knowing that that’s what he cares about most, making other people happy. It makes me think that when I grow up, I want to be like him.”

One of the places they visit is the Veterans Home of Lebanon, where soldiers who may have experienced difficult times of war now find comfort in the softness of a little bear, Novencido said.

Originally, he had planned on becoming an English teacher, but that changed when he learned he could make more money and move further up the career ladder if he joined the California Department of Corrections.

He started out as a correctional officer, then got promoted to sergeant.

After working at Soledad State Prison, Novencido transferred to San Quentin and moved up to lieutenant. During his time there, he developed several training manuals for the correctional staff as chief weapons self-defense instructor.

One of the manuals he wrote included baton training, with an element of martial arts.

“I hold an instructor’s certificate in Filipino stick fighting, so I incorporated a lot of the techniques with baton, and they work pretty good.”

He also wrote a manual titled, “A Tactical Procedure in Cell Extraction,” which to this day is used nationwide, he said.

“It’s a specific method of removing hostile, violent inmates from a cell,” he said. “It’s something I developed based on an actual experience where we had to extract an inmate from a cell who was armed with a shank.”

At that time, there was no specific method of take-down, and his partner got stabbed in the chest during the incident. Novencido began mulling over what had happened and second-guessing how it should’ve been handled.

From that experience, he developed a technique wherein the first officer corners the inmate with a shield and the second officer uses a baton to distract the inmate. Officers three and four can then control the inmate’s arms and legs.

“Then we use some pressure point techniques and get the guy to submit. We’ll handcuff him and take him out. It’s quick. Very quick.”

Because of his work, Novencido was transferred to the officers training academy to serve as assistant commander.

“I have four black belts,” he said. “Because of that, and my development of certain systems, they sent me to the academy to teach the instructors.”

Following the academy, Novencido transferred to Tehachapi, then to New Folsom Prison as Captain, then to Old Folsom Prison where he worked his way up to interim warden.

In 1995, California opened an ultra-maximum security prison in Susanville, the High Desert State Prison, where Novencido again worked his way up to interim warden.

“The serious offenders are housed in Pelican Bay State Prison, south of the Oregon state line. When they complete their term of confinement in a lock up unit, they get released into general population (prisons). The closest one is Susanville.”

Because of that, incident rates at High Desert went up and overburdened the staff, he said.

“It was just overwhelming, and I said, ‘You know what? I’m too old for this. Time to go.'”

But there’s a little more to the story about why Novencido retired early. It involves personal problems at home and an FBI investigation at the Corcoran State Prison.

In short, he said, correctional officers at the prison were pitting rival gangs against each other, taking wagers, and shooting inmates. In a period of four years, seven inmates were shot dead. Video footage and falsified reports of the incidents were smuggled out, and brought to Novencido.

“They brought it to me because I develop a lot of the systems, and I taught legal aspects in the department at the academy,” he said. “I took them to the FBI, and that culminated in a major investigation.”

A movie released in 2008, “Felon,” depicts what happened, and Novencido said he believes the character, Gordon, portrayed by Sam Shepherd, is based on himself.

Meanwhile, while waiting for confirmation as an official warden from the state senate, Novencido said the department used his family life against him in retaliation. Though he won that battle, he’d had enough.

So, after being surrounded by violence for 26 years, here now in Sweet Home is a man who brings the tranquil joy of a stuffed animal to hundreds of confined senior citizens throughout Linn County.

“There was just a lot of violence. I’ve witnessed it, I’ve been involved in it. Now I just want to live a peaceful life, a life of non-violence, an impassive and non-aggressive life.”