One in three Americans have interacted with the criminal justice system at some point in their lives. This one touchpoint can be life-changing, introducing dozens of new barriers that can follow an individual throughout their life, making it a challenge to get a job, rent a home or raise a child.
These barriers not only hold them back, but their children and the community, perpetuating intergenerational poverty. That’s where the Reentry Success Center (RSC) – a collaboration between Rubicon Programs and community partners – comes in.
The RSC is there for those reentering society after incarceration, as well as their families during – and after – their loved one is in prison or jail. While at the Center, staff, volunteers, community members and fellow returning residents work together to help people transition into a good job, put a deposit on an apartment, and reconnect with their friends and family.
“I was released from jail three weeks ago after a ten month sentence at West County,” says Michelle, a new member of the Reentry Success Center. “The Center was talked about a lot while there. I heard so many success stories, so I came here two days after my release.”
Michelle says she knew she needed a support network to get back on her feet. The Center sounded like the perfect fit.
“In jail, we don’t have to talk to each other. You are isolated. You push people away. But you have to work together to move forward in the community,” she says. “We come out uninformed about our rights. We don’t have the direction or structure to do what we need to yet.”
At the Center, she found the structure she was looking for; she soon signed-up for classes that have helped her move forward, including a Life Skills course, a Cognitive Skills class, and Trauma and Grief Therapy sessions. These opportunities have helped her acclimate to the workforce and manage some of the challenges in her personal life.
“My 9-year-old son tells me that I need to communicate better, so for now, I’m focusing on that. I’m also working to collect some of the skills that I need to thrive in my career.”
Another priority is learning how to navigate the job search process with a criminal record. “It’s hard to find a great job or get a career started,” she says. “There are many obstacles. Some employers look at me like a criminal. They put me in a box.”
Luckily, changes to California’s employment laws have made it a bit easier for her to have a fair chance. A.B. 1008, “Ban the Box” legislation signed in 2017 by Governor Jerry Brown, became law after a coalition of formerly incarcerated advocates came together to push for change.
Now, employers are no longer allowed to ask about an applicant’s criminal background until a conditional offer of employment is made, allowing people to show who they really are without preconceived notions and prejudices clouding an employer’s judgement.
“This allows people to sell themselves,” says Lawrence, the Reentry Center’s Volunteer Mentor Coordinator. The law has already helped some employers see the light. “Now, there are many so-called ‘felon-friendly’ employers out there.”
Getting a job can still be a challenge, but those challenges are often overcome with hard work and dedication. “People have no job history and no references, so we try to take the skills they’ve learned on the street and apply them to today’s job market.”
Lawrence recruits and manages volunteers and mentors who help Center members build new careers – and lives. He’s seen many of his friends, family and colleagues go in and out of the system, and knows from experience what they have to do to succeed.
“It’s been documented that what happens in the first 72 hours after release has the greatest impact on whether an individual recidivates,” he says. “That timeframe is critical: You either go to a shelter, go home to your family, or you fall back in with the ‘homies’ who got you into jail in the first place.”
That’s why housing and community support go hand-in-hand during the reentry process.
“We’re fortunate to have a relationship with the probation department. They often bring newly-released individuals to the Center so they can get the resources they need and avoid their old ways.”
Richmond residents also benefit from a fair-chance policy that makes it more difficult for landlords to discriminate against potential tenants with a criminal record. This increases access to housing, which in turn makes it easier to get and keep a job.
“When you first come home, you often stay at a shelter and get a temp job. But soon enough, you find out your shelter has residency cap – 30 days. How can potential employers contact you if you’re bouncing back-and-forth without a phone or mailing address?”
Having a stable home makes a world of difference. No one knows this better than Tommy, a participant who has completed the Center’s 8-week Alpha Program, a comprehensive curriculum that serves people who are at the highest risk of recidivating. “I’ve been living in shelters so that I can save my wages for a deposit, and now I’m in the process of looking for a permanent place to stay, a studio in Richmond,” he says.
Tommy says that the Alpha Program changed his life, helping make jobs and housing accessible. “I learned to reenter home life and work life. Then, I got a full-time job – just one month after Alpha.”
“It gave me a second chance at a first-class life,” he says.
After nearly a decade in incarceration, Tommy knew there had to be a better way. “Being told what to do, when to eat…letting someone take control of your life…it’s no way to live. I robbed myself of so many opportunities to advance and be happy. But now, I feel different. I look different. I talk different. I’m out of the unemployment line, and that feels great.”
“Everyone has struggles, but when you surround yourself with positivity, you can overcome those struggles,” he says. “I’m so grateful for the Center’s positive environment, all of these positive people, and all of this new information that has brought so many good things into my life.”
Tommy ties most of his success to the people he has kept around him. “I always had emotional support from my family,” he says. “But the Center had my back. They told me I don’t have to go into this alone, and they stayed by my side.”
“When you get out of jail, it can feel like you are a newborn baby. You’re naked. You have nothing. But you don’t have to see it that way. It’s only temporary. And you don’t have to fall back on your old ways, or with old, negative people.” You have to make a conscious choice.
“I’m an Eagle. And Eagles can fly. There’s a reason Eagles don’t hang out with Turkeys. Turkeys can’t fly. You have to keep people around you that give you strength.”
In other words, he draws energy – and strength – from the Center.
“I’m going to keep coming here until it closes down. And I hope that day never comes.”