Getting Out and Staying Out: Lessening the Grip of a Criminal Lifestyle (Part II)

Yema Lee, Leadership team/The Gamble Institute

Yema Lee, Leadership team/The Gamble Institute

It’s Wednesday morning in a large building by the Oakland International Airport.

In the room are 62 men who have one thing in common: They were all released from prison in the last week and this is their first mandatory PACT meeting run by the California Department of Parole. PACT stands for Parole and Community Team.

There is a palpable sense in the orderliness of the crowd as the men are still under the supervision of the Department of Corrections. A parole agent barks in an authoritative voice: “No cell phones, no pagers, no hats, no eating and no sleeping. The purpose of this meeting is to help you stay out of prison and if you can’t stay awake maybe you are not ready to be out of prison.”

The former inmates are treated to a motivational talk that is part pep-rally, part sermon and part narcotics anonymous rap delivered with true showmanship by Kevin Grant who is the Violence Prevention Network Coordinator for Measure Y. Grant’s talk is designed to help former inmates look at their addiction to the criminal lifestyle itself.

“If that doesn’t change, they don’t have a chance,” said Grant. And many in the re-entry field agree with him.

Criminologist Edward Latessa has spent more than 20 years researching what does and doesn’t work in changing the behavior of the formerly incarcerated. At a talk at the Center for Criminal Justice Research at the University of Cincinnati, he said, “Thinking and behavior are linked: Offenders behave like criminals because they think like criminals; changing thinking is the first step towards changing behavior.”

Grant, who is African American, spent 15 years inside prisons himself until his release in 1980. That puts him in a unique position to address these men who range in age from the early 20’s to the mid 50’s.

“The thing that hasn’t changed since 1999 when I helped start these meetings is that most of the people sitting here look just like me and that hurts,” Grant said. “Face it – your primary drug of choice is the criminal lifestyle.”

But Grant doesn’t agree with the concept of “rehabilitation.”

“Rehabilitate sounds like we’re talking about putting something back to the state it was in. I wasn’t a responsible adult before I was doing crime – I can’t recover something that I never had,” Grant explained. “When I ask a room full of convicted felons if they ever had five years of being clean and sober, hardly one hand goes up. What they never had was a healthy adulthood – a five year relationship with a girlfriend, an employer, a connection to a community without substance abuse or criminal behavior.”

Yema Lee is a former inmate whose childhood was so filled with trauma and instability that she used alcohol and drugs to dull the pain.

“I was molested, I was gang raped, robbed, physically abused, all of that,” she said. “I was mad at everybody and especially people in authority so I would go off on the cops when they hassled me. My anger got me in a lot of trouble.”

Lee, a native of west Oakland, spent 15 years in and out of prison.

“I never felt supported by parole,” she said. “They wait for you to screw up and then they give you a bad referral. I just couldn’t control the addict in me that was ready to use whenever times got tough.”

Finally, Lee got the substance abuse treatment that she needed at Women on the Way – a long-term residential program in Hayward, which serves many Oakland residents. However, prior to that – after being released from prison in 2010 – she found her way to the Gamble Institute, an Oakland based re-entry program founded in 2009 that offers computer literacy courses, Non-Violent Communication training, a leadership program, peer counseling and family reintegration. With the support of the program, Lee is now attending Merritt College.

“Finally,” she said, “I have found a family here that supports me in my recovery.”

Grant agrees with the increasing emphasis on family reintegration.

“What helps is if they get in a healthy relationship with their girlfriend, their mom, their brother, someone that will stand besides them, he said. “But most of the men don’t have healthy relationships, so having case managers that build authentic relationships is crucial.”

That is what exactly what Project Choice, funded by Oakland’s Measure Y, is trying to do. Dan Simmons is the program officer for Oakland’s Measure Y Re-Entry Services.

“A lot of inmates don’t know how to talk to a woman without being disrespectful or how to conduct themselves at a job interview so Project Choice works on their attitudes and how to connect to families,” Simmons said. “The same case manager works with them prior to release from San Quentin and follows them for up to six months post release.”

Being a former inmate himself, Simmons knows that staying out of prison takes more than the right re-entry services. At a certain point, he made a decision that he was never going back.

“I was 39 years old and I was tired. I also had the capacity to humble myself, which you need if you are going to be successful on the outside,” he explained. “My first job was cleaning dog s–t from someone’s balcony – five years worth of built up dog s–t for $5.25 an hour. I knew right then that I was either going back to prison or I was going to clean this mess up. I knew that if I didn’t, it was going to be a lot easier for me to say no to a lot of other things.”

Simmons wants to change the equation of how re-entry monies are spent and said he hopes that new monies coming to the county through realignment can help.

“Almost 70 percent of former inmates return to prison and we put most of our resources in their direction. But we need to look at the other side of the equation – at what makes the other 30 percent successful,” Simmons said. “The ones that have been out for 10-20 years need to be mentors to those that are coming out. Whether it is professionals like myself or blue-collar workers – there are a lot of us in Oakland.”

Grant is doing his part at mentoring at the PACT meeting. He finishes his talk by telling the men, “It ain’t gonna be easy, but was it easy waiting in line to eat or pee in prison? Quit catching the bus to San Quentin to wash dishes! You have got to find a place in you that is past your violence, past your upbringing and past your addictions in order to get beyond your criminal lifestyle.”

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Follow this 10-part series from the Index Page: Lessening the impact of incarceration in Oakland

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