Each time Michelle French walks in or out of her Oakland apartment, she sees the words “i will” on the wall right by the front door. The words are there to remind her to do right, to make good decisions. It is a message she needs to hear frequently.
At 34, French has packed more mistakes into her three-plus decades than most people make in a lifetime. Since she was eighteen, she has cycled in and out of prison so many times that her five-year-old son Jamari has anxiety attacks whenever he sees police officers because he’s afraid they are going to take his mother away again. He has a right to worry. French has been hauled away in handcuffs again and again, arrested more than fifty times. Her rap sheet includes drug trafficking, burglary, weapons possession, and numerous parole violations.
Oakland is filled with people like Michelle French: people who’ve made terrible decisions for most of their lives. The city is home to approximately three thousand parolees — felons who’ve been released from state prison after serving out their sentences. Most have on average a sixth-grade education and are largely illiterate, possessing few or no job skills. Many leave prison as drug addicts. Most, like French, have tasted freedom at least once before, only to let it slip away. A whopping 80 percent of the parolees furloughed to Oakland wind up back behind bars. No surprise that Oakland boasts the highest violent crime rate among the nine largest cities in California.
But despite the overwhelming odds against her, Michelle French is feeling optimistic these days. She has graduated from a substance-abuse recovery program and has been given an apartment in a city-run housing project. She also has enrolled in college and is working toward becoming a certified drug-abuse counselor. Her internship with a substance-abuse recovery program is even about to turn into a paying job. In short, she has been so successful since her latest release from the California Institution for Women that she recently was taken off parole. At more than two years on the outside without a parole violation, it is the longest stretch she’s stayed out of custody since she was eighteen years old.
French is lucky to have been paroled to Oakland, a city that is pioneering some of the most innovative and successful approaches to parolee reentry in the state. Oakland’s parole paradigm is an old-school, big-government mission to address felons’ underlying needs by offering educational opportunities, vocational training, substance-abuse programs, job-hunting assistance, and housing. Parolees not only get help they wouldn’t find in most other California cities, they also receive stepped-up supervision and scrutiny by parole agents and police officers. It’s a carrot-and-stick model with a little religion tossed into the mix. Under a Bush administration initiative, several East Bay churches receive funds for faith-based parolee programs that reach out, train, and support released convicts. The idea is that churches can help sustain parolee progress without government funding once the intensive social-service funding ends.
For at least twenty years, the prevailing American model for prisoner reentry was that nothing works. But according to Jeremy Travis, one of the country’s preeminent experts in parole reform, social-science research and enterprising cities such as Oakland have shown that some things do work to help parolees turn their lives around, although even the best programs have limited success.
“There’s no silver bullet, no magic solution, but you can change the odds,” said Travis, a senior fellow at the Washington, DC-based Urban Institute. “And the beneficiaries are the public.”
After all, state and local governments have a financial interest in breaking the depressing cycle of recidivism. It costs California $33,000 a year to house an inmate in state prison, and $40,000 for a juvenile offender. Oakland’s outreach programs, on the other hand, cost an average of $8,000-$9,000 a year and generally end within a year or two after an inmate is released from prison.
Oakland’s model is an intriguing mix of traditional Democratic ideals and conservative Republican objectives. And, by all accounts, it is working. Oakland’s parolee reentry programs are now being copied across California. State correctional officials are following the city’s lead in figuring out how to best prepare inmates for life on the outside.
“In Oakland, we’ve seen a drop in our return to custody by 6 percent,” said Shirley Poe, a former East Bay parole administrator who was recently given the job of implementing parole reforms for the state Department of Corrections. “We’re telling people if you want to change your life we can help you, but you need to make that decision.”
Oakland, like many other California cities, has a profound interest in encouraging parolees to turn their lives around. According to Mayor Jerry Brown, who has been instrumental in developing the program, 50 percent of the city’s crimes are committed by parolees. “We had to reduce crime by having police on the streets and by getting people in an environment where they’re improving themselves,” Brown said in an interview. “A lot of these people have no other job skill than criminal activity. That’s what they they’re trained for and are good at.” But he admitted that it’s a daunting task, given the enormous obstacles parolees need to surmount. “You have to break many cycles,” he noted. “A lot of them want to be trained and some don’t.”
Brown occupies a fascinating place in the parole reintegration debate. As mayor of Oakland, he is trying to undo some of the damage he did to California’s penal system as the state’s governor. Almost thirty years ago, Brown signed a measure that abolished indeterminate sentencing, in which inmates were given broad prison terms. Under the old system, which had been in place for sixty years, prisoners were released when they could convince a parole board they were rehabilitated. But when Brown passed the Uniform Determinate Sentencing Act in 1976, fluid prison terms ended. Instead, the law required offenders to be sentenced to fixed terms for most crimes as a way of creating a uniform system of punishment. The law, which passed amid widespread discontent with California’s criminal justice system, also profoundly changed the role of the state’s prisons from rehabilitation to punishment. Most of the education and vocational training programs offered to inmates were scrapped.
Today, as unrehabilitated inmates flood the streets of Oakland, Brown sees the consequences of his reforms up close and acknowledges that the 1976 law was a mistake. He now believes the state’s prisons are “postgraduate schools of crime,” and that California’s penal system is a profound failure largely because little to no rehabilitation takes place inside. “It’s a treadmill; it’s a merry-go-round; it’s a scandal,” Brown told the Little Hoover Commission last year as it looked into California’s parole system.
Because research shows that returning convicts are most likely to reoffend in the first days, weeks, or months after they are released, Oakland requires returning convicts to attend a meeting within seven days of their release, at which they are told about social-service providers that can help them make the transition home. If a parolee fails to show up within his first week out, agents round him up and physically take him to the following week’s gathering.
Oakland also is working to help inmates prepare for release months before they are even paroled. The federally funded program, Project Choice, isn’t even up and running yet, but sixty inmates will be recruited to receive prerelease classes, counseling, work training, and assistance planning for life on the outside. The project will target prisoners between the ages of fourteen and thirty with violent criminal histories: those who, research shows, are most likely to reoffend and have a lifetime of criminal opportunities ahead of them. It’s a high-intensity intervention program aimed at those people who will cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars if the cycle is not interrupted.
Such early intervention is critical for parolees, criminal-justice experts agree. “We call it ‘seizing the moment of release,'” Travis said. “The recidivism data show that people are rearrested in the first months they are out. It’s a very disorienting time of great difficulty. We need to put our resources where the risk is. You seize the moment of release.”
Although there was a handful of programs for returning inmates in years past, most parolees knew nothing about such services. Before the 1999 adoption of the so-called Police and Corrections Team model, offenders simply received a pocketful of cash and a one-way bus ticket back to the community where they last lived. They usually got out, committed further crimes, and were sent back for violating parole.
“In the past they just let you out of prison, gave you $200, and said, ‘Good luck,'” recalled French, whose mother is a dispatcher for the Oakland Police Department. “You can get out of prison nowadays and see success stories and know you don’t have to go back to prison. Oakland is letting us know there are more choices than just committing crimes.”
Each Wednesday morning, between fifty and eighty parolees show up for a two-hour meeting at the Oakland parole office near the airport. The vast majority of those in attendance are African-American men, although the typical meeting also hosts some white and Latino males, along with a handful of mostly black women. Parolees tend to wear hand-me-down clothing obtained from charities, and many arrive by bus or on foot. A few sit like eager students, taking notes and nodding in agreement as speakers make their presentations. Many, however, seem thoroughly uninterested in being there. Some even fall asleep during the meeting and have to be awakened by parole agents.
The presentations begin with parole officials explaining what is expected of the offenders now that they are out. Then a host of social-service providers get up, outline their programs, and practically beg the parolees to enroll in vocational training, substance-abuse counseling, transitional housing, GED and literacy classes, or employment assistance. A few of the speakers are themselves former felons who’ve turned their lives around and now work for some of the social-services agencies that offer reentry programs for parolees. And as soon as one of them started to speak, even some of the most bored attendees perked up.
“I am an industrial-strength dope fiend, alcoholic, liar, thief, moral coward, social-predator convict and, otherwise, snake,” said Ron Owens in a booming voice, as he paced in front of the group. “I’m in redemption from that type of behavior due to my Lord, my savior, Jesus Christ. He directed my path to recovery.”
Owens told the group that now is the best time ever to be a felon because of the array of programs now available in Oakland.
“You got to understand this is a choice, a choice!” he yelled. “If you’re a professional consumer of correctional services, if you’re satisfied stripping before guards, dancing like a little ol’ stripper and then bending over and spreading your cheeks for another man, if that’s what you like, then this message is not for you!”
He encouraged his audience to continue acting like convicts out on the outside. “Be a convict out here!” he said. “A convict has respect for time. Isn’t that right? Convicts know what time they going to do everything. They wake up with that jingle every morning. You got to be a convict out there. You can’t wake up and not know what you’re going to do.”
Owens, 49, is something of a celebrity in the world of ex-cons. A coordinator for Second Chance Inc., which operates substance abuse recovery programs in five East Bay cities, he cycled in and out of jail and state prison for nearly ten years for armed robbery and other offenses. But in the early 1990s, during yet another go-round between the streets and custody, Owens decided to try a new way. He married a woman he met at church and started working with drug-addicted parolees. Today, he oversees Second Chance’s programs in three East Bay cities. Since his formal discharge from the correctional system nearly ten years ago, he has risen in the world of parole reentry programs in Oakland and today is a consultant to the city and a trusted Brown adviser. He has a big personality and is a sensational public speaker with a touch of Tony Robbins, a hint of Dr. Phil, and the rhythmic cadence of a charismatic Baptist preacher on a tear.
“If you want to buy houses, own cars, if you want reunification with your family again, if you want a bank account, if you want a TDA, which is tax-deferred annuity, you want to know what a 401(k) means, if you want some of this, then you go with me!” Owens said to the group of parolees, many of whom were jolted out of complete boredom into a kind of rapture. One man yelled out, “Amen!”
Owens’ philosophy is pretty straightforward. People won’t change their criminal ways, he believes, unless they can see for themselves a successful way out.
“A man needs food, water, and hope,” he said during a recent interview. “If a baby is not stroked and loved and nurtured and stimulated, the baby dies. It’s the same with men. If you shut them out of the system, if you put up roadblocks that are institutional and it’s systematic for them to fail, you deny them access, and then you bombard them with all the success in the world and don’t provide them with a means to get there, then they’ll quit participating in the system. There’s got to be some exchange. In exchange for your criminality, we’re going to give you an opportunity to work, the opportunity to pay your bills, and the opportunity to function as a grown male or female in society.”
Another ex-con who gets up and speaks each week is Kevin Grant, who spent seven years in Leavenworth Prison for drug trafficking and was paroled in 1989. Today, he does consulting work for numerous social-service providers, counsels offenders, and trains police forces on how to deal with parolees. As Owens had, Grant told the group they were lucky to have this kind of help available to them. “When I came home, the groups showed me how to open Tupperware,” he explained. “They didn’t talk about lifestyle addiction.”
After years of working with ex-cons, Grant candidly admits that he tries not to get personally invested in their success. He knows that for many of the parolees, it takes three or four returns to prison before they figure out how to manage on the outside. He has seen dozens of offenders succeed and finally move out of the cycle of crime and punishment, and he has witnessed many more fail. He calls the miserable cycle of watching his clients blow it and return to custody his “brokenhearted syndrome.”
“You see them trying, and that’s what I see,” he said in an interview. “I see them go down in the water and come up all watery and try again. Finally, they get a little stroke down and the undertow takes them back down under.”
Those people wash up in state prison and write Kevin Grant letters. On a recent weekday afternoon, Michelle French’s apartment in the shadow of a Highway 24 overpass buzzed with screaming kids. Two were hers and four were from neighboring apartments. Whitney Chappelle, French’s boyfriend and the father of her two kids, took a break from his job-hunting and played video games with their son, Jamari.
Chappelle has gotten used to this ritual in the year and a half since he was released from the Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga for a parole violation. Chappelle is a 38-year-old whom Owens might describe as a “professional consumer of correctional services.” He has done time at Folsom and other state prisons for auto theft and numerous parole violations.
A well-built black man who resembles the actor Laurence Fishburne, Chappelle lives with an aunt in Berkeley because Oakland housing officials rented French this $150-a-month apartment only because she was a single mother about to get off parole. But he drops by every day to watch the kids while she attends college and interns at the drug-abuse center.
Since he’s been out, Chappelle has completed his own substance-abuse treatment program and worked at some temporary jobs he found through Allied Fellowship. But his job search has been a humiliating experience.
“I’ve put in over a hundred applications, from McDonald’s to temp agencies,” he said. “I just keep going and keep trying. I tried the Internet. I get two or three calls a week, but once they ask that question about my record, I tell the truth and they say, ‘Well, our clients don’t want any thieves.'” Others have another answer for why they won’t hire a felon on parole. “They say, ‘Our policy is you can reapply in seven years from now,'” he said.
Chappelle is not your typical parolee. Although a Berkeley native, he also is a Republican. He stressed that he is not looking for any giveaways, just a chance to work. But the opportunity keeps eluding him.
It eluded French, too, until she decided to get into what Sara Bedford, Oakland’s policy and planning manager for the Department of Human Services, called one of the most popular careers for ex-convicts — drug-abuse counseling for parolees.
French would have liked to work with mentally troubled kids, but she was told by a counselor at Merritt College that no facility would ever hire an ex-convict to do that. She tried finding jobs through government-funded employment services, but gave up that idea after she’d gone on several interviews and finally was told by a transit agency manager to go somewhere else. French recalled that the man asked her, “‘Who sent you?’ And I said, ‘Miss Mary from the Felony Employment Program on 19th and Harrison,’ and he said, ‘Tell her we do not hire felons!'”
French was not surprised that he and several other interviewers responded to her that way. “I’d never hire me,” she said. “If you just look at my application, if I tell the truth, I look terrible.” So French chose a career in drug counseling because it was the only place, as far as she could tell, where having a criminal record is actually an advantage.
Employment has turned out to be one of the biggest challenges for the city’s parolee-outreach efforts. City officials and social-service agencies are working on creating relationships with employers willing to hire offenders. But it’s a tough sell in a place where the economy has been on a long downward slide and where, Bedford noted, employers “can hire somebody with a BA to unload their truck.” Although it’s modest, there’s a federal tax credit in place for firms that do hire ex-cons, and the feds also bond working parolees against theft. Still, people in the social-service reentry network say that if the job component cannot be worked out, all else will fail.
“You have to get at the root causes of crime, and that’s a lack of jobs,” said Reverend J. Alfred Smith of Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, a renowned East Oakland institution that has had success in its construction-trade training program and its support groups for felons.
Smith admits that he had great difficulty convincing some of his own parishioners that getting involved with the parolees was a good idea. “Of course, when we first started this here, there were church members who worried what the parolees were going to do to our building,” he said. “But they haven’t destroyed any property, haven’t stolen anything, haven’t beaten up any of the members, haven’t sexually molested any youths at the campus. They’ve just tried to get their lives back together again.”
The sweet-talking preacher has much disdain for churches that turn their backs on such people: “I think the conservative Christian church is more concerned with the sweet by-and-by than with the nasty here-and-now.”
Parolee Dennis Collins understands each and every hurdle he must now overcome. For him, there are roadblocks and obstacles at every turn. Having spent 34 of his fifty years behind bars, he’s a man whom almost anyone might assume is predestined to fail. Paroled most recently in January, he now lives in the Allied Fellowship sober house in a crime-filled Oakland neighborhood, with a July deadline for moving out.
On this run, Collins says he’s giving it all up, because he is tired after seven state prison convictions for various offenses including armed robbery and assault with a deadly weapon.
“I’ve made several bad choices,” said Collins, sitting at a table in the backyard of the Fellowship house where he shares a room with another parolee. “I’ve worked hard for 34 and a half years at being stupid, and I managed to accomplish that. My reward was a cell lockdown, solitary confinement in Pelican Bay for 22 and a half hours a day for four and a half years.”
Collins has a tough-guy air about him; he’s a man who must have earned the respect of fellow inmates at Pelican Bay. But he also is quite funny, and astonishingly articulate about the predicament he finds himself in.
“I’m taking it day by day, and Allied Fellowship is giving me the tools to be able to carry on that way, and I’m following their suggestions,” he said. “It took me fifty years to turn 21; however, I’m 21 now.”
Collins describes his prior life as a dizzying, miserable mess that he couldn’t get out of: “I would go to the jailhouse and then when I got out of the jailhouse, I went to the dope house. When I left the dope house, I went to the whorehouse. When I left the whorehouse, I went to my mother’s house, and after I left my mother’s house, I went to my friend’s house, and then I winded right back up in the jailhouse completing the circle. This trip here, I had to stop and go on to the Allied Fellowship House, and into the church houses, and the houses I’ve been missing my whole life that could have helped me.”
Housing, in fact, is another one of the great obstacles that Oakland faces. Without more transitional housing, many parolees will continue to end up living on the streets. “Felons are at a distinct disadvantage because they are not eligible for most federal housing support; they’re just ineligible,” the city’s Bedford said. “They can’t get food stamps. You can argue they’re not the most worthy and that the mom with her kids is more worthy, but they’re going to be out on the streets committing crime if you can’t find a way for them to be self-sustaining.”
Collins said he plans to enroll at Merritt College this summer and start working toward a career as a youth counselor for kids at risk. He challenges anyone to tell him he’s not the right man for the job.
“The things they’re doing — I’ve done over and over again,” he said. “I’m the best one to tell them it don’t work. I’m like the poster boy for that. Everything they’re teaching them in those schools, they’re actually talking about me.”
He has a warning for people who don’t want to give parolees such as himself a chance to succeed. “If you don’t give me the tools to actually go out and learn what you learned, then what is Dennis going to continue to do?” he asked, referring to himself, between drags on his cigarette. “He’s going to go back to what he’s comfortable with. If all my life I been into committing crimes and you don’t show me another way, then I’m going to do what I’m comfortable with.”
Then Dennis Collins headed back into the house, where a training session for learning to conduct yourself in an interview was under way. You root for him to succeed and try like hell to ignore the great odds he faces — just as surely as Collins himself must do every single day.