Barriers to reentry challenge parolees looking for work, stable lives

by Rebecca Rosen Lum
Oakland Local

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

The room looks something like a community college class: A span of ages, attentive, dressed neatly, but informally. But everyone in this class is either 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, and 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.

“You have to wait for 90 days?” asks an aspiring community college student 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 finds 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 for the time being 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 these 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, co-founder and executive director of the Gamble Institute – a reintegration program that offers a myriad supports for parolees.

Ex-offenders are game to rent rooms and 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, he said.

“By getting a job you decrease all the other barriers,” Erickson says. But again, 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, which means no security, and no benefits.

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’

“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.”

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.'”

While the crimes may not be serious or violent, low-level offenders can be in and out of the system for 25 years, said the Gamble Institute’s Elizabeth Marlowe.

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

And nothing shakes a parolee’s confidence like finding a world that barely resembles the one they left behind when they began serving time.

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 ethnically diverse.

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

Typically, an ex-offender counts on his ability to flip an “on-off switch,” Grajeda said – flip that inmate switch off and suddenly fit right in. After all, he is anxious to see his family, to go home. But as much as he missed grandma and grandpa, he feels out of sync. 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.  The son is naturally resentful. It’s 100 percent up to him if you reconcile.”

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

And they can be formidable. A new parolee, now 45, was a babe in arms when his mother asked a stranger to hold him while she went to the bathroom at the Greyhound Bus Station. She never came back.

“That man’s got issues under issues under issues,” Grajeda said, and there’s no way those issues won’t interfere with other interactions, whether in housing, work or school.

“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.

“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. “The CDCR has always had policies that facilitate people and family not staying in touch.”

Given the high rates they are charged, inmates go broke talking to their families on the telephone. And families pay a high cost visiting distant prisons where their loved one may have been moved to serve time.

“The chance for realignment is this,” Erickson 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].”

Published on Thursday, June 28, 2012
Last updated on 02:20PM, Thursday, June 28, 2012 

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