Lessening the Impact of Incarceration: The Series

The cycling of mostly men of color through the California prison system and onto the streets of Oakland is a revolving door that impacts many families by having a brother, father, son or mother that has spent time in prison. Parts of the East and West Oakland that are most impacted by poverty, crime and chronic health problems are the same communities that absorb the majority of the formerly incarcerated.

This series will put a face on the formerly incarcerated, examine the obstacles they face upon re-entry and bring the impacts on their families and children into the limelight while looking at the opportunities and challenges that realignment presents.

Getting out and staying out: Lessening the Impact of Incarceration on Oakland (Series Overview)  – June 25

Alameda County Ahead of the Curve with Realignment  – June 26

Reducing Recidivism: The Revolving Prison Door –  June 27

Barriers to reentry challenge parolees looking for work, stable lives – June 28

Changing Your Mind About Doing Time – June 29

Lessening the Grip of a Criminal Lifestyle – July 2

What’s it Like for the Kids When Mom or Dad Are in Jail or Prison? – July 3

Beating The School to Prison Pipeline  – July 5

Teens Struggle When Parents Are In Prison – July 6

Safety, caring help youth break the school to prison pipeline  – July 9

A blueprint to ending recidivism for Oakland’s families (Analysis) – July 11


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A Blueprint to Ending Recidivism for Oakland’s Families (Analysis)


“The choice is clear: We can no longer afford to simply lock people up. It is time for California and its counties to fix our broken criminal justice system and to take a new approach to keeping our communities safe.”   ~A recent ACLU report, Public Safety Realignment: California at the Crossroads.

Alameda County faces an historic opportunity with realignment, but if it is not done well, it could have a limited impact on the people most affected by incarceration. Michael Shaw, the director of the Office of Urban Male Health at Alameda County’s Public Health Department said, “It is good that we can now work with offenders on a local level as huge barriers existed when family members were hours away.”

But, Shaw cautions, “unless we look at the cumulative impact of incarceration on our most vulnerable communities, we will still be addressing only part of the problem.

“We spend millions of public dollars in some of the same blocks of this county,” he says. “A woman in East Oakland might be on Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, have a child in the foster care system, a partner or who is incarcerated and she receives health care and mental health from our behavioral health.

“Major shifts in the county’s leadership have made a difference, but we also need to change the culture of those institutions. These systems need to coordinate our approaches to this family so we can make a difference that is sustainable and helps this family change over time, not just in an emergency.”

Sometimes the system works against the formerly incarcerated and their families, said Shaw.

“Many men on probation have orders to support their children. If Child Protective Services finds out that they are working, they can garnish their wages, making it very difficult for them to live on what they make. So they often quit their job, which pushes men away from their families and back towards the streets. This needs to change.”

Dozens of representatives from Alameda County’s Probation and the Sheriff departments, service providers at re-entry agencies and many former inmates echoed the need for the county to focus on the following in order to help Alameda County’s former inmates get out and stay out:

  • Jobs, jobs and more jobs – The private sector needs to be more involved in training and work force development so that former inmates have a chance of becoming productive citizens of Oakland.
  • Substance abuse treatment – More short- and long-term residential treatment programs that tackle addictions including to the criminal lifestyle itself.
  • Transitional clean and sober housing – Which supports former inmates people as they make gradual changes.
  • Training – For child welfare workers, police, probation officers and educators on the impact on children and families when a parent is incarcerated.
  • Family re-integration work – To help all family members establish healthy connections post incarceration.
  • Development of coordinated data systems – In the sheriff’s and probation departments that follow all released inmates and target evidenced based interventions based on that unique individual’s history.
  • Track the interventions – That formerly incarcerated receive and analyze what does and does not work to reduce recidivism.
  • Former inmates need to be trained as peer mentors, speakers and staff – In re-entry programs so they can give back to the community.
  • Schools and school districts – Need to figure out how to give kids the individual attention they need to thrive and which will help them feel engaged in school. Schools also need to end the use of suspensions for routine discipline and help parents realize the importance of getting their kids to school.

It is important to note that the job of realignment does not reside only within the sheriffs or the probation departments. A report from the University of California, Berkeley, Law School entitled, “Realignment: A Bold New Era in California Corrections” states, “Many members of the locality must step up and accept their responsibility and roles to help offenders to turn their lives around and to promote safer communities for everyone.”

Doris Mangrum, the producer of the movie “Stains: Changing Lives After Incarceration” couldn’t agree more.

“In many disadvantaged communities like Oakland, we see a reduction of crime and new efforts at revitalization, but this has to be an effort by all of us,” Mangrum said. “This can’t be done by law enforcement alone; it can’t be done only by public organizations or people of faith. We all have to pitch in. Whether it is mentoring a youth or helping with Get on the Bus or contributing to Project What! the larger community needs to pitch in.”

“Crime doesn’t ever happen in a vacuum,” said Carol Burton, executive director of Centerforce – a statewide agency serving the incarcerated and their families. “Crime is related to all of the other things that don’t go well in poor communities of color when they have substandard schools, when they are traumatized by living in violent communities and in areas where there are chronic health issues.

“The best way to reduce crime is to give families and communities what they need to become strong, productive and viable member of their communities.”


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Helping Youth Feel Safe, Cared-For Key to Breaking School-to-Prison Pipeline

By Barbara Grady

Nick Smith and Eric Young graduated high school and have good jobs, despite obstacles stacked against them

Nick Smith was shuttled from high school to high school in recent years, whenever a relative died or was shot.

When his mother died of cancer three years ago he moved from San Ramon Valley High School to San Leandro High so he could live with his older brother. When his brother was shot and killed, he moved to Oakland to live with another brother. By the time he got to Oakland Technical High School his senior year, he discovered he hadn’t taken enough core academic courses to graduate. Nobody had counseled him to take the right classes; indeed he did not have any adult in his life he could turn to for advice.

“Teachers can’t interpret a student’s situation,” Smith said of what it was like to be in school during all the rocky and sad events of the past few years. “They didn’t know what was going on.”

Adding to the wounds, staff at some of the high schools did not seem to expect much from him or care one way or another what happened to him.

”At San Leandro, they gave me just about all elective classes and hardly any core courses or A-G courses,” he recalled of his junior year. “They didn’t put me in any of the classes I was in at my other school.”

But despite the turmoil in his teen years, Smith succeeded.

The 18-year-old graduated last June from Dewey Academy high school where he was editor of the school newspaper and voted most likely to succeed by his classmates. The Oakland public high school is a small, close knit campus where students get a “second chance” to earn the credits they need to graduate.

Now Smith is a mentor in the the African American Male Achievement Initiative in the Oakland Unified School District and is taking classes at College of Alameda, having just completed a paid internship at Kaiser Permanente.

What made the difference in Nick’s life that allowed him to persevere as a student despite losing his parent and being faced with violence and constant relocation? What does it take to break the school to prison pipeline that students from low income and troubled home lives often get pushed into?

“At Dewey, it wasn’t like teachers always telling you ‘I know you can do better.’ It was like ‘I know you are smart and I believe in you.’ That was different,” Smith said, when asked what gave him the strength to persevere. “We all supported each other – teachers and students.”

In a word, he found caring adults and mentors who believed in him while he attended school in a safe and secure environment. His natural intelligence and interest in learning were able to blossom when those mentors and teachers had high expectations of him.

Hattie Tate, one of his mentors as the former principal of Dewey and now department administrator for OUSD’s Full Service Community Schools program, said kids need three essential things be able to learn and succeed.

“The first thing a child needs to be able to learn is to feel safe,” said Tate, describing a philosophy that has fueled her work in OUSD and is the subject of doctoral dissertation.

In neighborhoods where gunshots can be heard most nights and pimps lure or kidnap adolescents as they walk to school, some kids just do not feel safe. So Tate – who also is a transition coordinator for youth returning to school from the juvenile justice system – said the schools need to go above and beyond to make themselves safe havens for their students.

The second need a child must have answered so he or she can learn is a caring relationship with an adult who believes in them, Tate said. Thirdly, a child needs to have high expectations set for them.

“You establish a relationship based on expectations of success,” Tate said, describing the core direction she has given her staff at Dewey and at her other jobs in OUSD. “You build relationships with them they may have never had before.”

Eric Young, 18, who graduated from Dewey in 2011, is now an intern with the African American Male Achievement Initiative and has a job leading an after school program at MetWest High School.

While you’d never know it from his gentle ways and sincere eyes, Young was once the type of kid that statistically is likely to wind up in prison. He was often suspended from high school and even expelled from a couple. He was often in trouble, he said, because as he described it, he had to fend for himself from the age of 12 since “my family was struggling.”

Young went to six different high schools in the four years from ninth to 12th grades, sometimes because of his family’s instability and once or twice because he was “kicked out” of a school.

But Young likes to read and is adept at doing research online. When he arrived at Dewey Academy, some teachers noticed how smart he was.

“The teachers approached me because they kind of noticed I was focused,” Young said. “One day, my English teacher Mr. Tinsen noticed I was reading a book, so he gave me some more books.”

He said in his past experiences, teachers usually only approached him when something was wrong.

“I like to read and I like learning; it was just that school was something I was never into,” until he decided to get serious and until he went to Dewey, he said.  At the same time, he had inwardly determined that he was going to succeed. And he did.

Oakland Unified has been looking at ways to turn out more kids like Smith and Young – to help kids overcome obstacles of poverty and family turmoil and graduate from high school with promises of jobs or higher education. OUSD wants to stem its high drop out rate of 37 percent – and 46 percent among low-income African American boys – and do a better job engaging high school students in learning.

The experiences of Smith and Young show, according to Tate, what kids can achieve when teachers and adult mentors give them individual attention and show genuine interest in their success.

Through its African American Male Achievement Initiative, through restorative justice programs and converting some campuses to Full Service Community Schools, OUSD is working towards its goals.

Chris Chatmon, director of the initiative, said among the most effective pieces in the program is Manhood Development Classes, in which students are paired with adults who become their guides and mentors.

“It is amazing what we have been able to achieve,” Chatmon said of the program that provides kids with individual attention and coaching. “We saw an impact on attendance rates and a decrease in incidences of discipline. And then we saw improvement in grade point averages.”

That individual care, added with the practices of the restorative justice program that stresses repairing harm done rather than kicking kids out when things go wrong, have been turning around the mind set of students and teachers alike at Dewey, Castlemont High School, United for Success Middle School and other campuses where these programs have been tried.

“We’re trying to provide a framework to discipline that is an alternative to suspensions so we are not pushing kids out of school into the criminal justice system,” David Yusem, director of OUSD’s restorative justice program, said.

“If you suspend a kid, they often end up resenting the kids and teachers who suspended them,” without ever getting to the point of feeling accountable for whatever went wrong, he said. “A lot of kids get suspended multiple times, over and over again, then they fall behind and they don’t feel like part of the school community. They’ve been alienated and isolated and told they are not welcome,” he said. When kids are “pushed out” in this way, they drop out.

Restorative justice, on the other hand, asks kids to be accountable for their actions and repair what harm they’ve done because they are part of a community that has suffered as a result. It uses conversation rather than isolation as its basic tool.

“When students do something wrong, there is a certain amount of shame associated with it and restorative justice allows students to work through that shame and change,” Yusem said. “It is a healing thing. It lets them know there are people at school that care about them, that they are part of a school and a community.

“If they believe they belong there, kids will take more responsibility for their actions because they are not thinking about leaving,” he added. “It also increases teacher retention because it improves student teacher relations.”

Even though it doesn’t have money to formally roll out restorative justice programs at more than seven to 10 campuses, OUSD decided to adopt “a restorative justice framework,” said Superintendent Tony Smith and “to reject zero tolerance” as a philosophy and methodology. Zero tolerance strategies involve kicking out offenders through suspensions or expulsions

“Suspensions result in disengagement caused by being pushed out of the classroom repeatedly,” said Barb McClung, coordinator of Behavioral Health for OUSD.

On the path to change, however, OUSD discovered it has been operating with some entrenched racial biases in its discipline practices. In data collected and examined by the Urban Strategies Council, it was found that many of OUSD’s African American males were swept up onto a kind of school to prison pipeline, fueled by suspensions and missed classroom time. The Urban Strategies data analysis found that African-American boys were six times more likely to get suspended than white boys.

Chatmon said now staff within OUSD are beginning to have “courageous conversations” about race and discipline and changing its ways.

“We are talking about a culture shift and a paradigm shift and that takes time. We are still working on our models and our systems. But we’ve definitely seen successes,” he said.

Some schools this year, notably Bunche Continuation High School and United for Success middle school, were able to eliminate racial disparities in suspensions this year. Others such as Dewey and some classrooms within Castlemont have taken up the mantle of giving kids individual attention, setting high expectations and believing in them to reach them.

Those, along with safe environments, are the ingredients that lead to academic achievement and graduation from high school.

And, as statistics prove, graduation from high school is a youth’s best armor against incarceration.


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Finding Ways to Help Teens Who Struggle When Parents Are Incarcerated

Youth Playground

Youth Playground

Eunique is a vibrant 18-year-old African-American student at Oakland’s Fremont High whose Dad was incarcerated when she was seven years old.

“I’ll be honest with you,” she said as her broad smile stopped in its tracks. “I didn’t get any help from anybody during all of the years that my Dad was in prison. No one ever asked me how I was doing.”

During the nine years that her Dad was away, Eunique said she felt like an outcast.

“I felt like I was all alone and different than all of the other kids and families,” she said. ”It was awful.”

Studies show stories like Eunique’s are the norm.

Teens face unique challenges, according to “Children on the Outside: Voicing the Pain and Costs of Parental Incarceration,” a Justice Strategies report published in 2011. Like other children of incarcerated parents, they often face separation from siblings, having to move from place to place and increased poverty. Teens have an increased risk of delinquent behavior and an increased likelihood of school failure along with a sense of stigma and shame that impacts on their sense of who they are in the world.

Thousands of Oakland’s youth have been affected by having parents in prison or jails. However, there is no data on how many youth have been impacted because neither the Alameda County Probation Department nor the Sheriff’s Department has been required by law to track this information. The probation department is currently developing a Family Impact Statement in collaboration with Alameda County Children of Incarcerated Parents that will create a clearer picture of the needs of the family left behind.

For some professionals in the field, the lack of data and programs for children of prisoners contributes to the failure in reducing recidivism. Doris Mangrum worked at Santa Rita County Jail for over 20 years and is the producer of the movie “Stains, Changing Lives After Incarceration.

“We will not reduce recidivism until we have programs that consider the needs of the youth that are left behind,” Mangrum said. “Family members are the most important part of a successful re-entry.”

Community Works is an Oakland nonprofit that aims to lessen the impact of incarceration on families and communities. They started Project WHAT! in 2006 to create programs and advocate for teens impacted by parents in prison. The youth are trained in team building, leadership skills and criminal justice advocacy. Following the training, the youth participate in a weekly leadership group, have the opportunity to become peer mentors and join a speaker’s bureau that focuses on speaking to teachers, social workers and police. The speaker’s bureau has already reached more than 5,500 people in 14 California counties and seven states.

“These teens face incredible challenges,” Project WHAT! program director Mailee Wang said. “They are going through puberty without one of their parents and a lot of them are forced to grow up early. They are often doing the jobs of the missing parent – cooking, paying the bills and looking after younger children. They are dealing with losses like not having a parent see them walk the stage at graduation.”

Eunique said that her teen years were especially difficult.

“I didn’t have a mom and if you don’t have a second parent, it’s really hard. When my Dad was incarcerated, I didn’t have anybody at school events and that hurt. I wish judges would take kids into consideration, but it seems that once you have committed a crime, they don’t care about the kids.”

Wang brings her own experience of growing up with incarcerated parents to her job.

“My mom’s incarceration started when I was young and has gone on most of my life. I remember visiting her – I didn’t care that she was in prison – I didn’t care that there were barbed wires. I was just happy to see her.”

Sports helped Wang stay focused through her teen years, but she didn’t get any support from her high school.

“When my dad was incarcerated, everyone knew – it was in the local newspaper,” she recalled. “It would have been nice just to have a conversation with a school counselor.”

Wang now works to educate others on how maintaining family relationships is essential for both prisoners and their children.

“A social worker at one of our trainings admitted that she was scared to go into prison and questioned why she should let a child on her caseload visit a prison,” she said. “A probation officer asked, ‘If their parents are felons, why should I try to help them have contact with their kids?’

Wang said she was proud of the response from one of the Project WHAT!’s youth: “The young woman said, ‘They are felons to you, but to us they are our parents. You might be scared to go, but you haven’t asked us how we feel.’”

Hattie Tate works with the Oakland Unified School District to ensure successful transitions for youth leaving the Alameda County Juvenile Detention Center.

“The teens who have incarcerated parents carry a lot of resentment and anger. They don’t understand that their parent’s mistakes don’t give them the right to continue their role as victims,” Tate said. “We try to help them move past that victim place to a place of empowerment.”

But experts say getting to a place of empowerment is hard when it feels like the deck is stacked against you. Most of Alameda County’s re-entry programs are not set-up to address the maelstrom of psychological and social problems that teenagers and their parents face upon re-entry. The 64 teens that Project What! has served since 2007 represent only a fraction of Oakland’s youth who have been affected by parental incarceration.

“Every one of the youth that we have worked with have someone in their families involved with the criminal justice system,” said Celsa Sneed, the director of the Mentoring Center – an organization that serves youth that are incarcerated, on probation, parole or facing expulsion from school. “It has become so prevalent in their neighborhoods and in their families that it is almost a forgone conclusion that they will spend time in jail or prison.”

Realignment presents an opportunity to lessen that harsh reality. John Keene, the Deputy Chief Probation Officer for Adult Services, said he hopes that over the next several years, realignment monies will be used to attend to the needs of the youth that are left that are behind and support family re-integration.

“If we can impact the lives of parents when they come home, we are going to put them and their children in a better place for their future,” Keene said.


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Beating the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Incarceration Skool

Incarceration Skool

By Barbara Grady

Judge Gloria Rhynes leveled with the young Oakland mother whose third grader had missed two months of school.

“Did you know, the California Department of Corrections looks at who is absent in the third grade to figure out how many prison cells they are going to need when those children are adults?”  Judge Rhynes, an Alameda County Superior Court judge, asked her as the mother’s case was heard in Truancy Court one morning in early May.

“The correlation is that strong,” between missing school in the elementary years and winding up in jail, she said, between not learning third grade skills of reading and multiplication to falling so far behind in middle school that by high school the student drops out, the Judge continued. “I just convicted a 19-year old to 30 years to life. Do you think he had an education? Heck no.”

Two out of three kids who drop out of Oakland public schools come into contact with the criminal justice system, according to an Oakland Unified School District report. And the dropout rate is 37 percent among Oakland public high school students. In some of Oakland’s poorest neighborhoods, more than half of high school students do not graduate.

The phrase “school-to-prison pipeline” has emerged as a rallying cry in social justice circles. The phrase is shorthand, experts say, for mounting evidence that a poor K-12 education, especially one with a lot of missed classroom time, sets a child up for prison.

“I call it the lack of education to prison pipeline,” said Deputy District Attorney Teresa Drenick, who started the Truancy Court program in the Alameda County District Attorney’s office to try to reverse the high rates of chronic absenteeism in city schools.

But the pipeline isn’t all about truancy.

“There is a huge connection between people not having access to education and ending up in prison,” Jennifer Kim, policy advocate for the Books Not Bars campaign of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, said.

The curtailed education that leads kids to drop out by high school is caused by myriad things, including poverty, violence-plagued neighborhoods that traumatize kids and prevent them from focusing – or even getting – to school, use of suspensions for discipline and under-funded schools with crowded classrooms in this era of repeated state budget cuts to education.

But chief signposts that a child’s education is going to fail him or her are chronic absenteeism and frequent suspensions, according to the Urban Strategies Council of Oakland.

Urban Strategies found that in the Oakland Unified School District, half of African-American boys are not on track to graduate from school and key indicators of their trajectory are that 20 percent are chronically absent each year and 18 percent are suspended each year.

In Oakland middle schools, one third of African-American boys are suspended in a year. The risk of falling off the path towards graduation is highest among middle school boys, the data indicated, and suspension was the most common denominator for those at risk.

OUSD has taken on the challenge of turning around its high dropout rate and the problems related to it. Under the direction of Superintendent Tony Smith, the district launched the African American Male Achievement Initiative in 2010 and then last year, began a Restorative Justice pilot program to shift away from the use of suspensions for discipline in favor of using conflict resolution practices.  Thirdly, OUSD has been turning campuses into Full Service Community Schools so that it can address the health needs and social well-being of its students in addition to academic needs.

But Smith admits, “We have a lot of work to do” and not much money to do it with.

Oakland Unified has endured years of funding cuts from the state during the recession all while it still recovers from a history of insolvency. It had to cut $122 million from its budget in 2010-11 and another $30 million for the academic year just ending. All of this leaves scant money for new programs.

State government, the main financier of K-12 public education in California, has cut education funding by 14 percent or $7 billion in the last four years, leaving school districts around the state scrambling and eliminating all but the basics, according to California Budget Project statistics.

David Yusem, director of the restorative justice pilot program for OUSD, describes the challenge:

“Our schools are resource poor and operating in crisis mode. They don’t have enough time or money or resources to deal with a community of traumatized children.”

Rolling out restorative justice from the seven campuses where the pilot program it currently operating to all 101 campuses in the district “is going to take some time” and significant investment, he said. But California’s funding of education does not provide much for innovation.

California spends $8,818 to educate each child and teenager in California’s K-12 public schools, according to state Department of Education 2010-11 figures. That amount is less per student than what 47 other states spend and about $2,400 below the national average.

Meanwhile California spends $179,400 on each youth it incarcerates in the juvenile justice system in a year, according to the Legislative Analyst Office. So it spends 22 times more to incarcerate a youth than to educate a youth.

California is at a tipping point with how it treats its children and youth.

To cope with the $7 billion in lost funding, California public schools have cut teaching positions by 11 percent over the last four years – losing 32,000 teachers statewide and reduced counseling positions by 20 percent. Some high schools, including Skyline in Oakland, have no guidance counselors.

Few schools have personnel with time to find truant kids or provide extra counseling instead of suspending trouble-making kids.

“We sometimes make decisions not necessarily on what is best for kids, but what is convenient for us,” said Principal Elia Bustamante of the United for Success middle school in Oakland speaking at a press conference this spring about the overuse of suspensions as a discipline tool.

Through institutional soul searching brought on by the Restorative Justice pilot program, Bustamante said United for Success was able to reduce its suspensions by 72 percent this past year.

Average classroom sizes in California are now the biggest in the nation, with a 23-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio, according to state Education Department statistics. Many larger school districts have 30 students in a classroom.

But while it scrimped on education, California increased what it spends on prisons and corrections by 62 percent over the last decade. And data suggests that spending has a poor payback: Recidivism is 81 percent among youth sent to juvenile justice and 65 percent among adults sent to prison.

“Why are our priorities so skewed that we would not invest in our youth, but instead send them to a juvenile justice system that fails them 80 percent of the time,” asked Kim of the Ella Baker Center.

“If you have a business and it fails 80 percent of the time, you’re not going to stay in that business or keep doing the same thing,” Kim said. “You close it down or you do something different.”

Because of the exorbitant cost of juvenile justice, which peaked at $253,312 in 2008-09, and because of a court order to ease overcrowding, the state began reducing its juvenile justice population that year by ordering counties to keep more of their defendants.

But it pays a county $117,000 for each youth the county handles per year – or 14 times what it pays school districts to educate a youth.

The results of California’s yearly cuts to education are abysmal state average ratings on standardized tests and a high dropout rate. California public school students score below their peers nationwide on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests given in math and reading to fourth and eighth grade students.

Only 71 percent of California high school students graduate compared with 74 percent of high school students nationwide.

Michelle Alexander, the civil rights attorney whose newly released book The New Jim Crow has become what some have described as the bible for the civil rights issue of our time, says society paved the way for mass incarceration by gouging money out of schools, particularly inner city schools.

“Many offenders are tracked for prison at early ages, labeled as criminals in their teen years and then shuttled from their decrepit, under-funded inner city schools to brand-new, high-tech prisons,” she writes. “The communities and schools from which they came failed to prepare them for the workforce and once they have been labeled criminals, their job prospects are forever bleak.”


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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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Getting Out and Staying Out: Changing Your Mind About Doing Time (Part I)

Gamble Institute staffers

Gamble Institute staffers, by Micky Duxbury

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.”


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Barriers to Reentry Challenge Parolees Looking for Work, Stable Lives

Parolees at a job information meeting

Parolees at a job information meeting at the state Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation -photo by Barbara Grady

Some 30 people, mostly men, pack around a long table at the Private Industry Council in downtown Oakland.

This looks something like a community college class: A span of ages, attentive, dressed neatly, but informally. All are on probation or parole.

They are low-level offenders – those for whom prison Gov. Jerry Brown crafted prison realignment. They are here to find out what they need – and what they need to leave behind – to find work.

Olugbemiga Oluwole Sr. – “Olu” – enters the room, a stocky man in a charcoal-gray suit. Olu is a career counselor, but the demands of the job require he function more as a case manager. The barriers to re-entry – housing, work, literacy, support services, internal obstacles – come knotted together.

The room heats up as the morning wears on and the people here shift through flyers and instruction sheets. For two hours, “Olu” will woo, badger, prod them to think like entrepreneurs. Yes, they want jobs. But they have to be realistic. Times are tough.

Alameda County has put together a comprehensive re-entry program to help ex-offenders surmount common hurdles. Whether realignment – the process by which low-level offenders remain close to home in county jails rather than incarcerated in overcrowded state prisons – will funnel the necessary money to enact it is not a certainty at this point.

Some barriers to reentry for ex-offenders are obvious: housing is costly, employment hard to find. There are others.

Building a stable life can involve a painful internal odyssey and a tedious exterior odyssey to acquire everything from a lifetime of paperwork to literacy. Contradictory regulations can confound the most logical plans. And for some, reentry requires adjustment to a shifting social landscape that bears little resemblance to the world one left behind.

“How many need to expunge a record?” Hands go up (That task, it turns out, costs $150 and must be requested in the county where the crime was committed). “How many are looking for work?” All hands fly up. “How many are ready to work today?” Most hands fly up (They quickly find out they need to get a California ID and a Social Security card first). “How many don’t have a high school diploma?” Only two, and he’s not buying it.

They can get the ball rolling here at the Private Industry Council. Once enrolled, they can gain computer literacy, assemble a resume, access vocational training, life skills and support services like suitable clothes and transportation courtesy of the Workforce Investment Act.

Their questions reveal the tedium and endless stumbling blocks involved in becoming legal for adults who in many cases don’t have a copy of their birth certificate.

“What’s this, you have to wait for 90 days?” asks an aspiring community college students who wants to apply for student aid. Ah, yes. Those males born after 1959 have to register with the Selective Service. Another bus ride, another office, another line, another delay.

The group find out what the limits are by hitting one wall after another. One man was sent here by a vocational program to nail down financial aid for a $6,000 certificate program at Golden Gate Locksmithing. He finds out the maximum in training money is $2,500 and that he would be expected to raise the rest himself.

Truck driving school is out: The firms won’t insure an ex-offender for long hauls and local treks are not lucrative, to say the least.

A man who is sleeping in his brother’s warehouse temporarily is stumped by a request for a resume: “What if you’ve been locked up for 10 years?”

Olu polls the participants about their talents. One woman tends bar. A man is a musician, another a plumber, another an aviation mechanic.

“Look inside yourself,” Olu says. “How many of you are familiar with Mary Kay?” Amazingly, most hands go up. The story of the Texas entrepreneur with her fleet of pink Cadillacs is a familiar one.

He lights on a tattoo artist.

“I think you could start something going, bro,” he said. “With all these people getting tattoos? You just need to get your tools. How many can cut hair?”

A man interjects: “You can’t just do that. You’ve got to go to school, get an apprenticeship, get a license.”

Olu: “Come on, bro. Start with your family, your friends. You go to church, speak to a pastor. ‘This is what I can do. I need support.’” He advises the bartender, who has struck out making the rounds of neighborhood bar, to sign on with a catering company.

“May Kay, bro, Mary Kay.”

This agency is not entrusted with securing housing, but housing factors in hugely in whether these parolees and probationers will get and, more importantly, keep a job. Those who say they’ve been couch surfing complain of sleepless nights, stress and exhaustion.

The newly paroled will get a similar pep talk at the CDC Wednesday morning orientation, where representatives of helping agencies offer to help them shed the skins of their past lives.

Several programs including Allied Fellowship Services, have a housing component. VOA of the Bay Area has a 72-bed facility around the corner from the Private Industry Council and another in East Oakland with room for 48 beds. But most of such programs involve regular drug testing. That doesn’t appeal to some, including, understandably, those who are not battling substance abuse. And stays last for 90 to 365 days. The support may be invaluable, but at the end of the stint, the client is still facing a tight rental housing market.

Numbers matter. In addition to shelter, programs provide tutoring for those with literacy and learning problems, teach ex-offenders to use computers, help heal ruptured relationships with family. But there are 4,500 to 5,000 parolees in Alameda County – half that number in Oakland. Low-level offenders swell Santa Rita, already the nation’s fifth largest jail. Will realignment have moved enough money to the county to meet the need both when its residents are released?

“There will still be a stumbling block because they’re poor,” said Elizabeth Marlowe, cofounder and executive director of the Gamble Institute – a reintegration program that offers a myriad supports for parolees.

Ex-offenders rent rooms, share rooms, but “mention a shelter and you hear a universal ‘hell, no.’” Rather, ‘I’ll find a fat girlfriend.’ These guys absolutely want to work,” Marlowe says.

Matt Erickson is in the employment business; his nonprofit organization, AmericaWorks, has placed 400 parolees in jobs. But Erickson says housing tops the list of things parolees need to make it.

“If you don’t have housing everything else is difficult,” he says. “No. 2 is employment and No. 3 is food, clothing – you can’t get employment without those things.

“The guys who have success are those who had a support system. Those who have none have a much lower rate of success. And there are not a lot of resources for housing.”

Statewide, the recidivism rate is 70 percent. Working this program, getting a job and keeping a job decreases the odds to 6 percent.

“By getting a job you decrease all the other barriers,” Erickson says. But the hundreds of clients seeking services outnumber the slots available in programs like AmericaWorks.

“There are not a lot of options,” he says. “It’s an economically depressed area. There are not a lot of jobs in Oakland. We send a lot of our guys outside.”

There are rubs: The Richmond refinery does background checks. An ex-offender cannot get on board as an employee, but can subcontract.

There is some good news: The unemployment rate in Alameda County was 8.9 percent as of May 18, down from 11.8 percent a year ago. But 2,100 jobs dried up in Alameda and Contra Costa counties combined.

Numbers tell a story that parolees understand: Nationwide, unemployment overall stood at 8.1 percent – and 13 percent for black Americans, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Among whites, unemployment was 7.4 percent.

While black men make up 13 percent of the population, they comprise more than 40 percent of the prison population.

One thing is certain: “These guys absolutely want to work.” And his clients are making up to $30 an hour, Erickson says.

Legislative leg up

In Alameda County, ex-offenders have one less hurdle to surmount: A question that appears on applications for employment, housing, public benefits, admission to college,and other services: “Have you been convicted by a court?”

More than 30 cities and counties – including Oakland and Alameda County – have scrapped the question about conviction history from their initial state employment application. Oakland’s policy has reduced the number of jobs requiring background checks to jobs requiring unsupervised contact with finances, or with populations deemed vulnerable – children, the elderly, disabled people. If a job requires a background check, it takes place only after a conditional job offer has been made to the applicant.

A bill that has just cleared the Assembly would prohibit cities and counties from making any inquiry about conviction history on their employment applications until an applicant has been screened for minimum qualifications and found qualified – except for any job category associated with law enforcement.

The reach of the so-called “Ban the Box” campaign extends beyond employment to many areas that determine whether an ex-offender can survive in re-entry: public or low-cost housing, food stamps, welfare assistance or student loans.

Senate Bill 1060 would end the lifetime ban on benefits and services provided through the California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids, or CalWORKs, program for people who have a past drug-related felony conviction as long as they are participating in or have successfully completed an approved treatment program.

CalWORKs provides modest monthly grants and work-related services that support the basic needs of Californians with extremely low incomes. Despite the program’s positive impacts and its benefits for children and communities, current state law bars all parents who have a past drug-related felony conviction from participating.

As it stands, the system is rife with contradictory practices. For instance, one of the most common training programs in prisons and jails is in gardening. But an ex-offender is prohibited from obtaining a license as a master gardener.

And there is no minimizing the competitiveness of the job market today, even without barriers. At a fast food eatery, an ex-offender is vying for a job with college students who want to make their way into management.

‘They’ve kind of given up’

Some ex-offenders take themselves out of the game, said Matt Erickson: “’No, there’s no way I could get a job. I’ve done things that were too bad.'”

“We take them as they come because this is a population that gets easily frustrated,” Olu said. Many are strongly motivated to repair bonds with children and other family members. “Others get confused and they throw in the towel because they don’t know where to begin.”

For some, doing a year in jail “is part of the lifestyle,” Erickson said.

While the crimes may not be serious or violent, low-level offenders can be in and out of the system for 25 years,

“They’re not going to go ‘Oh, yay! I’m going to make changes.’ They will still do what they know how to do,” Marlowe said.

When William Grajeda got out of prison, he thought the world had gone crazy. People were walking down the street talking into invisible headsets. Drive-ins were a thing of the past. No one dared hitchhike. His neighborhood had become culturally diverse.

“I had to learn a whole new cultural society,” he said. “At first I wouldn’t go to the store.”

Many ex-offenders count on flipping an “on-off switch,” he said – flip that inmate switch off and fit right in. After all, he is anxious to see his family, to go home. But as much as he missed them, he feels out of sync with grandma and grandpa. And he finds he is still a man who eats jealously with his bowl to his mouth, reacts violently to perceived slights, asks permission to use the restroom.

Grajeda’s parents shared marijuana with him when he was 5. By the time he was a father, he was bringing his son along to collect money for drug deals, beating those who failed to come through.

He became a pastor while still in prison and now works with ex-offenders in the Gamble Institute.

“You see grown men, women cry because they’ve never had a relationship with their children,” Grajeda said. “Dad wants to be in his son’s life but it’s not up to him. It’s 100 percent up to him if you reconcile. The son is naturally resentful.”

Through nonviolent communication, basic skills courses and other supports, Gamble helps its clients overcome internal as well as external barriers.

“There’s a new parolee here,” Grajada said. “He is 45. He was at the Greyhound Bus Station with his mother when he was a baby. She asked somebody to hold him while she went to the bathroom. She never came back. That man’s got issues under issues under issues.”

There’s no way those issues won’t interfere with other interactions, whether in housing, work or school, he said.

“We’ve got to adjust our thinking and our ways, including learning how to connect with children, a representative of Allied Fellowship Services told shell shocked-looking new parolees at the CDC’s weekly orientation on a recent Wednesday. “You can succeed if you grow through what you go through. There is life after parole.”

‘A significant stumbling block’

Eighteen percent of the Gamble Institute’s clientele read at roughly the sixth grade level. As with other nonprofits – Centerforce, the CDC, the Private Industry Council, church-related programs – parolees can acquire basic skills.

“They’re sick and tired of being sick and tired,” said Angela Taylor, who teaches a CDC-sponsored class of 12. Students work at their own level. For some, that is basic literacy; others are formatting resumes and cover letters on the computer.

At this point, she knows when a student is covering for a learning disability or a lack of literacy. It’s “I forgot my reading glasses, would you mind telling me what this says?” Or a student will say he “just wasn’t good at school,” dropping out in the eighth grade. One student said, “I just wasn’t good at it.” He quit in the eighth grade.

“We do a lot of one-on-one,” Taylor said. “I want them to feel like this is a safe place to be. If your life doesn’t have a purpose things happen.”

Fifty-three percent of her students graduate – the highest rate in the state for programs like this one. More attention needs to be paid to the correlation between learning disabilities and crime, she said.

Prison realignment promises to succeed where prison has failed – involving an offender’s community in his transition, said Dan Simmons, Reentry Services Manager at Oakland Department of Human Services.

“Community-based mental health, employment, all that, pre- and post-release,” he said. “That is almost impossible (from a distance). “The CDCR has always had policies that facilitate people and family not staying in touch. People go broke talking to their families from prison on the telephone and there’s a cost to riding all over the state to visit their loved ones.”

Too often, experts design programs without “asking the guys,” Erickson said.

“The chance for realignment is this,” he said. “It’s up to each county to design its own plan. If a county has a good plan for dealing with its caseload, [it will work].”

That will require resources spreading to encompass county departments of probation, which oversee offenders upon release from county jails, where low-level offenders are now held.

“My largest concern with realignment,” Marlowe said, “is that we’re just going to be building more jails.”


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Reducing Recidivism: The Revolving Prison Door

Healthy Oakland staff and members

Healthy Oakland staff and members, photo by Micky Duxbury

David Shivers is a 34-year-old Oakland native who has been in and out of prison a half dozen times. His life of crime started when he was 13.

“We were homeless and my mother was doing drugs,” Shivers said in a recent interview.

David Shivers

After a 20-year run of repeated offenses, Oakland native David Shivers is finally on the right track.

“She had a Section 8 housing voucher, but not enough money to move in, so I decided I was going to make some money on the street.”

After serving four months in juvenile hall, Shivers had a series of foster placements, but by then he was angry, lost and overwhelmed.

“I was eventually placed in a group home, but I kept running away to get back to my mom,” he said. “No one at school even noticed that I was having a hard time. I just figured that doing crime was the only way I could survive.”

These experiences started Shivers on a 20-year run of repeated offenses.

Shivers’ experience of the revolving prison door is more the norm than the exception in California. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reports that 67 percent of California state parolees return to prison within the first year after release. Within the first three years after release, it goes up to 76 percent. Professionals in the field, from parole to probation to sheriff departments, want to reduce those numbers. But the question they all ask is “What is most effective in reducing recidivism? “

There are dozens of programs serving the formerly incarcerated in Alameda County – each with a somewhat different approach to addressing criminal behavior. New monies from realignment will allow the probation department to award contracts to selected programs, but which ones actually work? Over the last 20 years, there is a large body of research that point to fundamental principles about what reduces recidivism.

“We know what doesn’t work: military type boot camps or talk therapy,” writes Edward Latessa, head of the Division of Criminal Justice at the University of Cincinnati and a national expert in evidence based corrections. “We know that community-based behavioral programs that address anti-social attitudes and behaviors work far better than incarceration to lessen recidivism.”

According to Latessa, these basic principles should guide programs: “Focus treatment and intervention on the highest risk offenders; don’t place low risk offenders in intensive programs – it actually disrupts their positive social networks and adds negative ones; target ‘criminogenic factors’ that are highly related to criminal conduct such as anti-social peer associations, lack of self control, minimal problem solving capability, and lack of empathy.”

Most importantly, says Latessa, behavioral-based programs must teach the formerly incarcerated new skills and strategies, not just talk about them. For behavior to change, it has to be rehearsed and modeled.

Alameda County’s Probation Department is just beginning to develop systems to track and record, which of the programs they fund are most effective. According to Chief of Adult Services’ John Keene: “The Probation Department has not tracked recidivism rates, but a program to do that is in the works.”

Also in the works is a new assessment tool that will look at everything from anti-social thinking and peers, education, mental health, substance abuse, relationships, to job training needs.

“This will help the county focus on the areas that are most needed by the offenders and drive future funding opportunities and partnerships,” Keene said.

One of Oakland’s programs that has been shown to significantly reduce recidivism is Project Choice, which focuses on young adults ages 18-35 leaving San Quentin State Prison. Dan Simmons is the program officer for all Measure Y reentry programs, which includes Project Choice.

“We work with guys up to six months prior to release and up to six months post-release,” Simmons said. “It is more than assessment and case planning – it is relationship building and mentoring.”

An independent evaluation by Hatchuel Tabernik and Associates found that Project Choice significantly reduced recidivism. Over a 30-month period, the overall recidivism rate for adults enrolled in Project Choice was 52.2 percent compared to 69 percent for the state. The juvenile rate of recidivism was reduced even further: from 75 percent for the state to 41 percent for youth who participated in Project Choice. The program served 60 clients per year at a per client cost of $3,700. But since only 25 Project Choice clients were returned to prison, Project Choice saved approximately $1.1 million in court costs, incarceration and other expenses.

What does it cost communities to have such a high rate of re-incarceration? Plenty, according to Michael Shaw, director of the Office of Urban Male Health within the Public Health Department.

“The impact on Oakland of having so many men going in and out of prison is tremendous,” Shaw said. “You see a lot of violence in black families who have been impacted by incarceration. The high level of incarceration rate in parts of East and West Oakland is both a result of instability in the African-American community and it is also a cause of that very same instability.”

Shivers said that he experienced that instability firsthand while growing up in West Oakland.

“When crack hit, it was like a black cloud swept over everything. Everybody I looked up to was on the street, in prison, or dead,” he said. “I saw so much violence that it became a normal thing.” Having a positive male role model would have made a big difference in his life, he said. “I didn’t have one man in my life that encouraged me.”

Shaw said he believes that changing the role models that young men of color have is vital to interrupting the cycle of the revolving prison door.

“Rape, domestic violence, and drugs – all of these negative behaviors are learned,” Shaw said. “Most men in prison have grown up in a neighborhood where there are few healthy male role models. Their role models are drug pushers and criminals.”

Experts and formers prisoners agree that the support of family members is a critical factor in reducing recidivism. Shivers has been out of prison since last July after serving almost 53 months. He attributes his commitment to stay away from crime to one thing.

“I wouldn’t be here today if my wife hadn’t stayed by my side the whole time,” he said

Shivers has made a second home for himself within the re-entry community at Healthy Oakland – a full service program that offers everything from medical care, mental health and drug treatment, to benefits enrollment. Shivers first volunteered at the program and is now a paid employee.

When he began serving his last sentence, Shivers’ children were 10, 8, 7 and 5. Now they are 15, 13, 12 and 10.

“I need to do what is right for my kids,” Shivers said. “I like taking them to their games. I like getting up and looking at my wife. I like coming to work. I even like going to the bus stop – all the normal things in life. I don’t want to lose any of this again.”


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Alameda County Ahead of Curve with Realignment

CDC prisoners

CDC prisoners by glenn gould,http://www.flickr.com/photos/for_tea_too/1445130893/in/photostream/

In May of 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that the conditions in California prisons were so horrendous that they violated protections against cruel and unusual punishment and ordered California to reduce its prison population by 35,000-40,000 inmates by 2013.

The order came at a time when the state budget could no longer afford the third-largest prison system in the world and the pressure was on to pass the responsibility to counties at a far lower cost. Another compelling reason was that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has failed at doing what it said it would do: rehabilitate prisoners.

Enter the Public Safety Realignment Act of November 2011: Individuals who commit nonviolent, non-serious, non-sex crimes will be sent to county jails instead of state prison. They will be supervised by each county’s Probation Department instead of California Department of Parole and parole violators will no longer be returned to state prison.

Realignment is the biggest shift in the criminal justice system in the past 25 years and criminal justice advocates around the country are watching to see how it plays out. Victor Rubin is vice president for Research at Policy Link – a national research institute based in Oakland.

“Realignment presents a potential for re-thinking the entire system of criminal justice,” Rubin said. “When the state gives a progressive county like Alameda the freedom and flexibility it needs, major changes can take place.”

But these changes can only take place if the county is innovative in how it deals with the new influx of offenders.

“Don’t just rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic,” recommends a report by Dr. Barry Krisberg at the University of California, Berkeley’s, School of Law. The report recommends ending unnecessary incarceration of people awaiting trial, increasing the use of diversion, alternative sentencing and the use of GPS monitoring, along with developing more of a restorative justice approach to crime.

“We operated in the spirit of realignment before realignment by sending fewer people to prison and by creating a strong re-entry program,”  John Keene, deputy chief probation officer for Adult Services, said. Alameda County had an added planning advantage over other counties because of the work that was done by the Alameda County Re-Entry Network in 2007. Their strategic plan advocated for more housing and employment support – all goals that fall in line with the intention of realignment.

Will the money be enough and in the right direction?

“Alameda County is ahead of the game in terms of planning, but the question is if there is enough money going to the right places to make the difference?” asked Junious Williams, the executive director of Oakland’s Urban Strategies Institute that oversaw the development of the strategic plan. “The majority of the money is going to the sheriff’s department and we need more discussion on creating alternatives to holding people in county jail.”

The sheriff and probation departments both agree that the formula, which determined how much money each county got, was severely flawed as it was based mostly on each county’s average daily number of state prison inmates.

“The formula should have been based on population then the crime rate, not on the number of people we had been sending to prison,” Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern said. Undersheriff Richard Lucia agreed.

“In essence, the county was penalized for not sending people to state prison,” Lucia said.

An ACLU report on realignment entitled “California at a Crossroads,” stated that Alameda County received $9.2 million with a 1.6 million population and a crime rate of 2.8 percent, while San Bernadino County received $25.8 million for 2.2 million population and a crime rate of 2.2 percent – almost two and half times what Alameda received.

Making the switch from parole to probation

It’s not just problems with the money formula that make realignment especially challenging. Some former inmates will not get access to the services they had when they were under parole.

“People assumed that we would just slap probation on top of what already existed for parolees, but that has not been the case,” Keene said. “The Department of Corrections had an extensive network to get substance abuse treatment and transitional housing to parolees, but that has changed because the probation department does not have contracts with those programs.”

Raynetta Lewis is the program coordinator at Medford House – a residential treatment program for the formerly incarcerated that serves many Oakland residents. The highly structured program offers everything from 12-Step meetings, non-violent communication and “cognitive restructuring,” which examines the thinking that contributes to criminality.

Lewis has already seen the downside of realignment.

“All newly released parolees are under supervision with the probation department and we don’t have a contract to serve them,” Lewis said. “I get dozens of calls from desperate men who can’t come here because they are no longer under parole. I hope they get this straightened out or a lot of these men aren’t going to get the treatment they need.”

According to Carissa Pappas, the management analyst at the Alameda County Probation Department, there were 558 new cases released to the department since realignment took effect in November 2011 and it is estimated that there will be more than 1,000 released by October of this year. It is not known how many of those individuals needed substance abuse treatment or transitional housing that was not available to them because they are now under probation supervision instead of parole.

“We didn’t have sufficient time to turn this ship around,” Keene said. “When parole left, they took all the maps, all the instructions on how to run the ship, they didn’t tell us where the gas station was and they said ‘by the way, we were already headed in this direction, good luck figuring out how to get back.’ So now we have the parolees in lifeboats on the side trying to catch and up and figure out which way to go. We are just trying to slow down the ship with legislative rewrites to fix some of the gaps.”

What constitutes success?

“If realignment is successful,” Sheriff Ahern said, “the numbers of arrests and re-offenses will decrease.”

Ahern said he would like to expand some of Santa Rita County Jail’s training programs that provide certificates in areas such as cosmetology and restaurant preparation along with basic education so offenders have better chances of being successful.

Even though the sheriff’s department received the lion’s share of the funds for the county, Ahern sees challenges ahead.

“Extra inmates mean extra housing,” he admitted. “We might get some inmates with 10-15 year sentences and our system is not designed for that. More people will need access to the jail and we need extra staff to provide security to escort them in and out.”

Deputy Chief Keene said that the biggest challenge for the probation department will be to streamline services with one point person making sure former inmate’s needs are addressed.

“The department’s new assessment tool looks at everything from anti-social thinking, education, substance abuse, relationships, housing, to job experience,” he said. “We are going to track what services each client received in order to see what effect it has on recidivism.”

Keene said that the probation department would be taking a more holistic approach: “We will ask the offender: Who are your supports? What are the underlying reasons for your criminality? What has been the impact of your custody on minor children? We want to help them build relationships because we know that helps them stay out of jail.”

And helping people stay out of jail is one of the major goals of realignment. “But,” said Policy Links’ Rubin, “We need to remember that this is not just a question of adding more services – it is an economic opportunity and jobs issue.”

In their commentary, “Looking at Realignment Through The Lens of Equity,” Rubin and Angela Blackwell emphasize, “This population endures the worst educational outcomes, the highest unemployment rates and health issues that threaten well-being and life expectancy and diminish the prospects for overcoming the other disparities. The consequences of poverty and the legacy of racism include very high rates of incarceration.”

Editor’s Note: Since 1984, the state has added 21 prisons raising the total to 33. In that same period, according to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, the inmate population swelled from 24,000 to more than 160,000. According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, most of the growth occurred between 1987 and 1998 as a result of tougher sentencing laws and policies such as the Three Strikes law. This led to a prison construction boom that was unparalleled anywhere else in the country, with California becoming the third-largest prison system in the world. Even with 33 prisons, California found itself facing a massive problem of overcrowding. Gymnasiums were transformed into housing units with triple-decker bunk beds and with as many as 54 men sharing one toilet.

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

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