Coming Home

By Andrew Scot Bolsinger

You can read the original article at East Bay Express.


Former inmate-turned-entrepreneur Anthony Forrest has learned how to adapt to consumer preferences in the Bay Area. On a recent weekday in San Francisco, the Oakland resident stood outside the Jackson Square Safeway, wearing a 49ers jersey and an Oakland Raiders hat as he enthusiastically chatted up passersby. “I wanted to catch people’s attention,” Forrest said of his strategy for securing donations for Planting Justice, an Oakland-based organization that gave him a job when he got out of prison. “I just put the hat on to see how many people it attracted. … I know how to roll whatever they say, you know.”

Forrest, 52, is both an exception and an exemplar. As a felon who recently returned home after spending time at San Quentin State Prison, he is one of thousands of former inmates who now live throughout Oakland, the East Bay, and the state. He’s also part of a national shift that is reversing the trend of three decades of mass incarceration.

Each year California releases about 60,000 inmates from state prisons, not including those who are “re-paroled” after being sent back to prison for violating parole, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). As one of roughly 6,000 former prisoners who return to the East Bay each year, Forrest faced low odds of success. Statewide, 61 percent of inmates released in 2010 had re-offended and gone back to prison by 2013. Over the past two decades, the state’s recidivism rate has fluctuated between 60 and 80 percent.

But as one of the first eight graduates of an innovative reentry program called Pathways to Resilience, a collaboration between seven Oakland-based organizations, Forrest had a significant advantage over other former state inmates. And thanks to the program Planting Justice, Forrest had a job, making $17.50 an hour, when he got out of prison. Forrest praised the founders of Planting Justice, crediting them with his renewed determination to succeed. “They are all about help and change and that’s all there is to it,” he said. Recently, he launched a small business of his own, thereby further improving his chances for success and for having a positive impact on his community.

Typically, inmates released from prison encounter numerous roadblocks when it comes to locating housing, forming new relationships, breaking with past associations and activities, finding treatment for addiction, dealing with poverty, and attempting to land a job in a world in which many people view them as incompetents or worse. “When you are working with people coming out of jail or prison, there are a lot of obstacles, whether it be housing, a treatment issue, a job, whether it be a re-incarceration issue,” explained Debra Mendoza, an activist and former parole officer, during a recent Pathways to Resilience graduation ceremony in Oakland.

Pathways to Resilience is one of several model reentry programs in Oakland that have attracted attention from around the country over the past few years. The city has been at the forefront of creating innovative programs designed to help ex-inmates gain job skills, find employment and housing, and avoid being sent back to prison. But Oakland also has its own challenges. For starters, the city has not fully recovered from the Great Recession and still has a relatively high unemployment rate, so finding jobs for released prisoners is difficult.

Across the bay, San Francisco has become a leader in so-called pretrial diversion programs, which keep people out of prison, and so they don’t face the problems associated with returning to society. In a state in which 75 percent of those arrested are unable to post bail, San Francisco’s effort to release people awaiting trial from custody — the city monitors about 1,000 right now — is truly progressive, according to experts in the field.

“San Francisco is head and shoulders above the rest,” said Jessica Flintoft, community outreach liaison for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Pretrial diversion programs result in about 4,000 fewer inmates returning to San Francisco County than Alameda County each year. “Alameda County has hardly any pretrial [diversion programs],” Flintoft said. “So there are so many people in Alameda County sitting in jails. We wouldn’t have such a daunting task with reentry if we didn’t keep them incarcerated before they are convicted.”

San Francisco, however, is not without problems, including a rate of recidivism that is generally higher than the statewide average. According to a 2013 CDCR report, 78.3 percent of former inmates from San Francisco went back to prison within three years of release in 2010. By contrast, Alameda County’s recidivism rate is 59 percent.

In addition to a general lack of progressivism when it comes to reentry programs, San Francisco suffers from an extreme housing shortage. Moreover, the housing that is available is typically much too expensive for returning prisoners, who, as a result, sometimes end up homeless, camping out in city parks or under overpasses or sleeping in storefronts.

In short, there are still many barriers facing returning prisoners whether they end up in Oakland or across the bay. “We realize the system is broken,” Mendoza said. “And we need to change it.”

The US criminal justice system has recently begun to undergo a dramatic paradigm shift. The nation’s four-decade-long infatuation with tough-on-crime policies and long prison sentences has started to give way to growing concerns about prison overcrowding and its associated costs. Even some Republicans are starting to talk about the need for reform. Indeed, it’s a safe bet that criminal justice reform will be part of the 2016 national presidential platforms of both of the major political parties — regardless of who the eventual nominees are.

In February, President Barack Obama launched a campaign called “My Brother’s Keeper,” with the goal of keeping young men of color out of prison and on a path to success. US Attorney Eric Holder has instituted clemency policies and sentencing guidelines that will reduce the amount of time non-violent prisoners spend behind bars in the federal system. In addition, the Drugs Minus Two Bill, which would reduce prison sentences for people convicted in the federal court system, is currently under consideration by the US Sentencing Commission.

But it’s not just Democrats who are talking about the need for change. Earlier this year, a panel of Tea Party darlings, including US Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, Texas Governor Rick Perry, and anti-tax guru Grover Norquist, touted the necessity of criminal justice reform in the interest of shrinking the size of government and addressing the enormous costs associated with imprisoning so many people. Instead of worrying about being labeled “soft on crime,” Perry is now claiming that Texas is “smart on crime” and is closing prisons. “You want to talk about conservative values?” Perry said recently, according to reports. “Shut a prison down.”

In another sign of the changing times, Paul and US Senator Corey Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, announced new bipartisan legislation last week that focuses on improving prison reentry programs.

In California, for the first time in decades, the rate of incarceration is going down. It’s dropped from a high of 170,000 inmates in 2006 to roughly 135,000 last year, thanks to a panel of federal judges who ruled that the state’s prisons were woefully overcrowded. In April, California further ramped up the early release of prisoners, shaving days and weeks off sentences, a practice that is expected to expand. In the last three years, California has also released 1,400 inmates serving life sentences. As a result, local communities are dealing with the return of an increasing number of people who have been disconnected from society as a result of being incarcerated. “The attention and expectations are growing at the local level, county by county, to see what they can do [to achieve] better outcomes,” said Meredith Desautels, staff attorney for racial justice for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights (LCCR).

Members of LCCR contend that local communities should examine which reentry programs work best and then expand the successful ones. “We send people to prison all the time so there’s no shortage of data,” noted Candice Francis, communications director for LCCR.

Desautels also argued that laws governing returning inmates need to be streamlined and simplified. Currently, former inmates in California may have to deal with more than 1,000 laws that concern released prisoners, and many of these statutes are contradictory and confusing, which can stymie their efforts to re-integrate into society. For example, LCCR economic justice attorney Miya Saika Chen said companies are offered federal benefits if they hire ex-felons, but former inmates who have proven to be good employees are not allowed to work in federal jobs that require background checks. “It’s a fundamental contradiction,” she said. “It’s so complicated. It’s hard.”

And those laws aren’t the biggest obstacles facing inmates when they come back to the Bay Area, Desautels said. “Housing and employment for us are the critical pieces.”

According to the most recent data from the US Labor Department, the jobless rate in California is 7.8 percent, and it’s just 4.4 percent in San Francisco. Oakland’s unemployment rate, by contrast, is 8.9 percent, although it’s down from a peak of more than 17 percent in 2010.

One business that has been aggressive in hiring former inmates and lowering the jobless rate for ex-felons is Give Something Back Office Supplies, which has an outlet in Oakland. Company president Mike Hannigan said his company has gone after court grants awarded to businesses that hire former prisoners. The company also receives tax breaks for its progressive employment practices. “We have found that the resources that are available to … businesses [that] make the investment in these workers [is] almost a better deal at times than a worker who comes through a conventional way,” he said. “We’ve had three [grants] that amount to several hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s amazing to me how many resources are available to companies but they don’t take the time to go after them.”

In an effort to educate other business owners about the financial and societal benefits of hiring former inmates, LCCR has partnered with Oakland’s Department of Public Health. “I feel like there’s this energy right now, especially among small businesses that want to give back to the community,” said Chen. “They volunteer on the side and they are involved in different organizations. They want to hire people with records.”

Oakland and Alameda County have employed numerous innovative reentry programs in recent years, and among the newest is Pathways to Resilience, currently in its pilot stage. It’s a five-month training program for recently released inmates that helps them earn a certification in permaculture design. In February, sixteen former inmates started the program, and eight, including Forrest, completed it in June, and then graduated at a ceremony at Impact Hub Oakland. “This journey has been great, fantastic,” former inmate Kevin Tindall said as he accepted his diploma. “We’ve been through ups and downs and I’m gonna tell you right now, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

In Pathways to Resilience, former inmates also take part in weekly “circles” that serve as de facto group counseling sessions. They also complete a six-week social entrepreneurship class, “so they could learn not to just work for others but to find ways to work for themselves,” said co-founder Pandora Thomas.

Planting Justice, a small nonprofit that partners with Pathways to Resilience, begins working with inmates while they’re still inside San Quentin, teaching them garden care and other skills. The organization then offers jobs that start at $17.50 an hour to inmates when they get out of prison. According to spokesperson Wiley Rogers, some participants then quickly earn raises. “A big focus of ours is about wages,” Rogers said. “All our money goes to our people and the gardens we build.”

After coming out of prison in 2013, Forrest used his job with Planting Justice to rebuild his life. By the time he entered the Pathways to Resilience program, he was also busy running his own business, detailing cars and doing landscape maintenance, a skill he learned from Planting Justice. “The first night I went to class I got my car stolen,” Forrest said of the Pathways to Resilience program. “Right then I was so upset and wanted to quit — the end. But I laid down and rested and thought, ‘I need to go back to class.’ I’m glad I did. Hopefully, it’s an inspiration for those coming out of prison.”

Forrest credits Pathways to Resilience for teaching him another useful skill — permaculture — and for building his confidence so that he can succeed in his new business venture. His vision for his life has grown, he said, from just surviving outside of prison to now wanting to be someone who provides jobs for others. “I’m doing it now,” he said. “I’m creating my own business. My business is starting to take off. When I got out I just wanted a job, to work and be free. But now I got so much more than that. It makes me feel good to know that I’m needed today.”

While Oakland’s innovative programs at the end of the incarceration cycle may be the envy of the region, San Francisco’s innovation at the beginning has drawn high praise from activists working for criminal justice reform. “Policy came first in SF,” Desautels said. “Whereas, in Alameda County, reform may come in the opposite direction.”

Flintoft said a commitment from the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office to the parole and probation departments to divert people away from the prison system is the best solution to the many problems caused by reentry. But as successful as the city’s reentry programs have been, there is still some resistance to pretrial diversion in the San Francisco County Probation Department, particularly among probation officers who believe that suspects are better off behind bars.

Sam (whom the Express has agreed to not fully identify) said he has benefited from the city’s progressive programs. He said that before he got in trouble with the law, he had a great job and was making six figures. But he ignored his growing problem with alcohol until it caught up with him. “I’d black out,” he said, “and have no idea what I had done.”

After one of those blackouts, he woke up in San Francisco county jail, and discovered that he had been charged with assault. After he posted bail, he worked for nearly a year to resolve his case. In order to qualify for one of the pretrial diversion programs, he needed the approval of his employer. He assumed it would be fine, because his direct supervisor knew of his legal troubles. But he was wrong. “It went all the way up to the president of the company and then they fired me,” he said, recalling the day security led him out of the office in disgrace. “But everything happens for a reason.”

Eventually, he entered an eight-month substance abuse program at a San Francisco treatment house in lieu of four months in jail. He’s now sober and in a happy relationship with the woman who stuck by him throughout his ordeal, and has plans to start a new business when he’s done with his court-mandated treatment.

Flintoft said San Francisco is smart to have developed pretrial diversion. “The city has about 1,000 people a day on pretrial supervision, which allows people to be safely supervised within the community without sitting in jail,” she noted. Pretrial diversion, Flintoft explained, also saves the county and the state from having to spend money on incarceration, and it helps people to move past their criminal issues and return to productive society sooner.

Still, the lack of housing in San Francisco works to undercut pretrial diversion, particularly when people come out of residential treatment programs and can’t find a place to live. “Housing, housing, housing — it is so hard,” Flintoft said.

Local advocates of overhauling our criminal justice system contend that, together, Oakland’s reentry programs and San Francisco’s pretrial diversion are building a true model of reform, and that they offer the best hope of not only lowering the state’s recidivism rates but also reining in the costs associated with incarceration. “Combined, both counties have a dynamic opportunity to convince people that real re-integration … will restore our communities,” Desautels said.

But to ultimately succeed, these programs will require more buy-in from elected officials. “We need the commitment from the local government that they are ready to fund these programs and pilots that are proving successful,” Desautels added. After all, investment in such programs promises to benefit the local communities through reduced crime and a decreased need for more social services and, thus, higher taxes.

“California has the opportunity to show that we don’t need to send people to jail,” Desautels said. “People do better with community supervision and it costs a fraction of what a jail costs.”

Correction: The original version of this story misspelled the last name of former inmate Mark Tindall, a graduate of the Pathways to Resilience reentry program.