Earthy Young is sitting at a table in the large industrial kitchen at Medford House, a residential treatment program, located in a poor section of Hayward, right below the BART tracks.
Young was 22 years old when he went to prison in 1984. He has been out since July 2011 after serving almost 27 years, most of them at San Quentin.
In the parking lot of Medford are rusty barbells and weight tables that are used by some of the 300 parolees that come through the doors each year, about 20 percent from Oakland. The average stay is between 90 days to six months and when parolees complete the program, they have the option of continuing in permanent housing associated with the program.
Like other staff serving the formerly incarcerated, the Program Coordinator Raynetta Lewis has spent time in prison herself. She agrees with many in the re-entry field that the lack of role models is a contributing factor to criminal behavior.
“Ninety percent of the men that come through here did not have a positive male role model growing up,” she said. “Many of their dads were abusive, absent or worse, so the men are angry and have a lot of abandonment issues.”
But typical prison culture discourages publicly expressing emotions other than anger.
“Prisoners consider it a sign of weakness if you have emotions other than anger,” Young said. “But in reality there is a lot of sorrow, a lot of guilt, a lot of pain that men are dealing with that they have never dealt with in their whole lives.”
At San Quentin, Young attended substance abuse and anger management classes, but said it was his changing idea of manhood that made the biggest difference in being able to quit crime.
“I thought manhood was how much I could drink, how many women I could have, how many babies I could make, how good I could fight, what my car or clothes looked like. But I realized that all these things don’t have anything to do with manhood at all.”
Created to help former prisoners get to these core issues, the Gamble Institute has served more than 377 men and women since it was founded by Elizabeth Marlowe in 2009. It provides mentoring and leadership development and teaches healthy communication and empathy through its “Non-Violent Communication” training. The institute is on a stretch of San Pablo Avenue between 25th and 27th streets that houses many re-entry programs.
“Prison and street life create anti-social behaviors that make it very difficult to re-integrate,” said Marlowe. “You can have all the job skills, all the addiction treatment, but if you don’t get to the underlying core issues that drive this behavior, it won’t work.”
A nurse practitioner for 15 years and affiliated with the University of California, San Francisco, School of Nursing, Marlowe uses research to study the impact of their programs.
“We are measuring the effects of our interventions on empathy, self-esteem, self-efficacy, social support and coping – all attitudes that counter the anti-social thinking and behavior that many prisoners have learned,” she said.
Marlowe is convinced that building a family-like program makes a crucial difference.
“Parolees and their families can participate in any program we have, even if the client goes back to prison,” she said. “We help extended family members and parolees talk about the impact of incarceration on their lives, which other programs often do not.”
Young’s experience matches the goal of the Gamble Institute.
“The staff here were the first people I met that really cared,” he said. “It is like a second home.”
Young has used the Gamble Institute along with Medford House as a base of support. He is enrolled at Merritt College, studying Environmental Management and made the honor roll last semester.
“I can give something back now,” he said. “It’s my responsibility as a man to support others who are in the same situation I was in.”
But Young’s evolution is about more than the right program – he credits his ability to cope with his lengthy incarceration to faith.
“I developed a relationship with my Creator that guides my life,” he said. “In those 15 years when I was turned down at the parole board, I never lost sight of hope. I felt free on the inside even though I was in prison. I came to terms with the fact that we all have to be accountable for our deeds.”
Young doesn’t let his newfound freedom gloss over the losses he had while in prison.
“My daughter was born shortly after I was incarcerated. She and her mom visited me a few times a month in the first few years, but as time moved on, my wife grew distant because of me being inside,” Young recalled. “My mother and father had a close relationship with my daughter and my brothers and sisters played the role of aunts and uncles. But I didn’t get to see her much in her teens and she has a lot of hurt in her heart.”
This last holiday season, Jones had his first Christmas with his family in 27 years. Young’s face glows as he tells about the reunion with his sisters from Mississippi and his brother, mother, nieces and nephews from all over California who joined together to welcome him home.
“My daughter is 26 years old and we just spent our first Christmas together in all those years,” he said. “It was a real family reunion. This is what keeps me going.”