When the door opened at West County Detention Facility for Tamisha Walker, it was dark. After six months in jail, Walker was free. But she was alone. No one was there to pick her up. All she had was a bus ticket and a bag.
“You just get on a bus,” Walker said. “And it’s a long, lonely ride.”
Jeff Rutland knows the lonely freedom Walker spoke of. He’s reminded of it every time he sees a released inmate walk down MacDonald Avenue from the Richmond BART station in a gray sweatsuit with a paper bag. He once walked that same path.
“You see that look,” Rutland said. “I know the struggles and hardships they face.”
Which is why two years ago last month Rutland and Walker brought their experience to the just-started Safe Return Project to help people coming out of jail or prison.
“We are the voice at the table,” Rutland said. “Not only for the reentry community, but for the community at large.”
Rutland and Walker are success stories. Both are employed and motivated. Walker, a mother of two and engaged, is a full-time student with aspirations to get her Ph.D in psychology and work with broken families and young people of color. You’ll find Rutland riding his bicycle around town, gardening with Urban Tilth or sitting behind a computer in county meetings. To get here, though, they both had a long walk uphill.
Walker counts her blessings — two sons who keep her accountable, a place to live and a job. Alcohol played a big role in putting her behind bars; so she put herself into an alcohol recovery program. It took her six months to get her youngest son, Irra Bradley-Prayer, 5, back. Another six months passed before she got custody of her oldest son, Youmani Mapp, 15.
After serving a seven-year sentence in San Quentin for a strong-arm robbery that he says was motivated by a drug addiction, Rutland rode a Golden Gate Transit bus to the Richmond BART station. His belongings included the same gray sweatsuit, $120 in his pocket, and a brown paper bag stuffed with some letters and papers, and personal hygiene products.
“I couldn’t tell you where that paper bag is now, but it was the most important thing in the world leaving that prison,” he said.
Rutland spent that Friday night at the Richmond Rescue Mission. He had a weekend to spend before he met with his parole officer on Monday. So he wandered the streets of Richmond. He knew where he shouldn’t go — to the old friends and familiar places that would surely tempt him back to dirty habits. And the places he wanted to go — to see a movie, check into a clean hotel room — he didn’t have the money for.
“I stayed out of the way,” Rutland said. “The first three days, that was rough.”
So many people, Rutland continued, when they get out of prison, they don’t have options and they don’t know what to do. So they fall back.
“It was scary to try to do the right thing, but not know how to do it,” Rutland said. He looked for service providers in Richmond to help him with housing and job searching. But everything at that time catered to the homeless or the drug addicts, Rutland said, not someone coming home from jail and needing skills to get back on their feet. So Rutland ended up in Oakland at the Volunteers of America shelter. “I just hung on,” he said.
Today, two years since Rutland was released from prison, the services for prisoners coming home are better in Richmond, Rutland said. But they still have “a very long ways to go.”
Some of those gains, though, are attributable to Safe Return. The group pushed the city to eliminate a question on employment applications regarding a criminal record and conducted a revealing survey among those on parole or probation about what prisoners faced coming home. Safe Return members met individually with Richmond residents and leaders to hear their stories and concerns. And they’ve attended many meetings on the city and county level as advocates for the incarcerated.
“It makes better policy when people who have been directly affected by the issues are at the table,” said Eli Moore, a program director with the Pacific Institute, which started the Safe Return Project two years ago with Richard Boyed of Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization and Devone Boggan of the Office of Neighborhood Safety.
Before the Safe Return Project, when Contra Costa County and Richmond were discussing prisoners coming home and developing a strategic plan to better serve the incarcerated, the critical voice of someone who knew reentry firsthand was noticeably absent.
“The idea came from a fundamental recognition,” said Adam Kruggel, executive director of CCISCO. “We were unequipped to understand the challenges that people coming home face.”
After receiving a grant from the California Endowment, the group put out a job announcement specifically seeking those who had spent time in jail — a curious posting that caught the eyes of Rutland, Walker, and a handful of others. Rutland was just a month out of prison when he responded to the ad. He filled out the application because he was ready to make a change. But he surely didn’t imagine himself sitting in boardrooms two years later with the district attorney, the sheriff, and the chief of police talking about prison policy.
“I don’t think anybody knew what would happen,” he said. “But it moved forward.”
Clarence Ford was the youngest person at a September basement meeting at the Richmond Civic Center, but that didn’t stop him from speaking up. Officials were discussing the five stages of arrest, incarceration and reentry, and the 24-year-old wanted to make sure that an education component was included to help offenders understand the judicial process. He was speaking from personal experience.
“It’s like a foreign language,” he told the room.
Ford is one of the newest members on the Safe Return Project. He went to jail when he was 20 and got out a year ago. With the support of his mother, Ford is a full-time student. Going to jail, he said, gave him time to sort out his values and see who he wants to be. He joined the Safe Return team because he shares their goals, such as a one-stop center for people coming home to help with job training, housing, and other needs. But he also wants to make sure the younger voice is represented.
“If I’m not there, then things are going to continue to be the way they’ve always been,” Ford said.
Looking ahead, the Safe Return Project has big plans. Eventually, the group wants to become independent from its parent organizations, CCISCO and the Pacific Institute. Walker and Rutland said they would like to create a support group for formerly incarcerated people that will not only be a platform to support each other emotionally, but with networking and education. They also see the need for a service providers meeting, a round table where people coming home can leave with someone’s business card to call. And they want to expand their Ban the Box campaign to the county, and then the state, Walker said.
The initiatives the Safe Return Project commits to run on a philosophy of restorative justice. The group’s members, each of who has committed a serious crime, served their sentences and want to change. They hope to heal the community and give back. And at the same, help themselves.
“They’re coming back to their community and trying to make things right,” Kruggel said. “They’re very honest and forthcoming about the mistakes they’ve made in the past and are very committed to their communities to make things right. I think that’s the heart and soul of restorative justice.”