Author: Francine Brevetti, Oakland Tribune
Every Wednesday 40 to 50 adults released from San Quentin within the previous week sit in a lecture hall on Edgewater Drive in East Oakland to sign up for services that are available for their rehabilitation.
More than 95 percent of these parolees are men and more than 95 percent are African-American.
The State of California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation holds weekly Parole and Community Team meetings that parolees must attend within a week of their release.
While anyone can see the importance of connecting ex-offenders with services such as therapy, anger management, housing, drug rehabilitation, job skills preparation and the like, parole officers see the same San Quentin inmates streaming through the PACT meeting doors again and again, a revolving door of failure.
Still the importance of the Parole and Community Team system is obvious to the corrections department.
While parolees must sign up for at least two of the services available to them, how many will actually take advantage of these services and job training offers is an open question.
Speakers at a recent assembly tried to impress their audience the seriousness of their situation.
William Newsom, community re-entry liaison officer for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, emphasized, “We have this in common — we are all dealing with danger on the streets of Oakland. Twenty people I have helped are gone, dead.”
Kevin Grant, Violence Prevention Network Coordinator for the city of Oakland’s Department of Human Services, appeals to his audience’s interest in remaining free.
“How many of you have been in a PACT meeting before?” asked Grant, an ex-offender.
Only one participant at that particular meeting in February had never attended a PACT meeting before, meaning all the others were recidivists.
“Where were you a month ago? Who is tired of doing time?” Grant continued.
This time everyone raises his or her hand.
“How many of you are not going back?” Grant challenged them.
All but two raise their hands.
“I’ve been home since 1989,” Grant said, underlining his common history with the audience and he stresses their obligation as fathers to turn their lives around.
Re-entry counselor and consultant Ron Owens reminded them that they are descendants of slaves, “the strong ones”, who survived the passage from Africa, slavery, reconstruction and civil injustice.
“We didn’t go through all that to volunteer to be slaves again,” Owens said.
There follows a parade of social service providers, either connected with government agencies, faith-based or job training organizations.
Gov. Schwarzenegger has placed more emphasis on rehabilitation within the Department of Corrections since he’s been in office, said Parole Unit Supervisor Fred Bridgewater.
“Since the Department of Corrections has been moving headlong into this rehabilitative phase, we have seen more contracts (with nonprofit service providers) for programs. This gives opportunities for private folks to develop programs. I have seen a substantial increase in this area,” Bridgewater said.
In an adjoining room sit two to three dozen service providers, each waiting to pitch their organization’s services. Vernell M. Crittendon Jr., executive director of Putting Education to Work, exhorts participants to pursue higher education; Percy Campbell is the Peacemaking Community Captain of Youth Uprising, a violence prevention initiative; Raynetta L. Lewis, program coordinator for the Seventh Step Foundation, offers residence for adult male parolees; Bobby Edwards of the East Oakland Recovery Center provides substance-abuse treatment services; Bishara Costandi of Outside Lane finds trucking jobs for the formerly incarcerated; and Furdae Williams is a corporate representative of America Works, a program funded by violence prevention bond Measure Y, that provides job preparation and jobs for parolees.
These are just a handful. They all have five minutes to encourage their audience to sign on their clipboards’ stack of applications.
Bridgewater recalled that in the late 1990s, the city of Oakland and the parole division decided to collaborate in bringing more services to this susceptible population.
According to Bridgewater, this was an innovation in the state. “We had never seen such a thing before,” he said.
Today, every state parole district runs a Parole and Community Team meeting.
With the rate of recidivism evident from the audience, one could question how much benefit the PACT meetings bring to this population.
But Bridgewater wonders what the prison population would be like without the PACT meetings. He, however, has no statistics describing the relationship between those who attend PACT meetings and those who go back to prison.
But he is sure that “we would see more people going back to prison. If the statistics are that 50 percent are going back then I think we are making some kind of impact. I would hate to see it if these program were not in place. Also, this is one-stop shopping for these folks. They are put in contact with the very people they need to be in contact with.”
Joseph, a parolee who didn’t want to use his family name, was recently released from San Quentin after a six-month stint. In his lifetime he has been incarcerated several times for grand theft auto, possession (of drugs) and possession for sales, and this certainly was not his first PACT meeting. He had in the past tried some programs to prepare him for life outside, but he wasn’t impressed.
After one earlier release he went to a weeklong orientation to prepare him for employment at the Oakland Private Industry Council.
“It was tough sitting through lectures four hours a day,” he said.
He didn’t follow through.
At this particular PACT meeting he signed up for group therapy, counseling and Outside Lane’s truck-driving training.
Two weeks later, Joseph had a trucking job and was delighted. He dismissed any need to engage in the other services he had signed up for.
“I was supposed to do those other services — group therapy and counseling — but once I got the job, that’s all I wanted. I’m just trying to concentrate on getting to work on time,” he said.