Step foot into the Reach Fellowship for Women in North Richmond, and Dr. Edwina Perez Santiago will greet you like an excited aunt hosting a holiday dinner party.
“Come on in baby,” she says to the women as they enter through the front door, a welcome accompanied by a warm smile and a handshake.
There are five women in attendance today, from different walks of life but here for the same reason: they want to get their lives back on track. Most of the women who attend “the fellowship” – as Perez Santiago and her colleague Belinda Thomas call it – are formerly incarcerated, and community resources like this one offer them a second chance through job readiness courses and healthcare advising as well as a place to shower, put on makeup, and find housing.
“They have a place that they can call their own,” Perez Santiago said. “We decorate it in a girly way, make them feel comfortable and make them feel wanted back into the community.”
Programs like the fellowship aren’t unique to Richmond, but they will soon be part of a unique step in Contra Costa County law enforcement’s new alternative incarceration plan.
In 2011 the Supreme Court ordered the state to reduce its prison population to 137 percent of maximum capacity, which meant moving 30,000 inmates by the June 2013 deadline.
The state’s response was realignment. The Legislature shifted responsibility for the state’s low-level offenders—non-violent and non-sex offenders—and parolees from state to county jurisdictions. In Contra Costa County, realignment led to a heated discussion between local law enforcement and community members about how to handle the droves of new inmates arriving at facilities like the West County Detention Center in Richmond.
Since the realignment law passed the Community Corrections Partnership, a county group that oversees realignment, with Contra Costa County’s Chief Probation Officer Philip Kader as its leader, has met monthly to determine how the county will handle the new inmates and resulting overcrowding. They’ve encouraged community involvement in that process, Kader said, and “this community has been fabulous in responding.”
The response, though, hasn’t always been positive. When Sheriff David Livingston suggested the solution might be building an additional 150 beds at the West County jail, local activists arrived by the busload—or in the case of Perez Santiago met with the Sheriff one-on-one—to fight his proposal, and after several intense meetings Livingston tabled his expansion proposal.
With that, the fate of the county’s overcrowded facilities was left hanging in the balance.
That is, until this month when the Board of Supervisors approved about $4 million to invest in community alternatives, funds that would assist the work of community groups like the Reach Fellowship that work to help with reentry and reducing recidivism.
The $4 million isn’t the entire solution; funds are still earmarked for the jail expansion, for example. But, it’s a critical step in helping to ease the realignment process, focusing on long-term success for the inmates while also dealing with the immediate need for more space.
“Over the last six months, we’ve been involving the community, the stakeholders, everyone in the county that we can, and we came up with what we believe is a reasonable plan to fill in the gaps of service delivery and enhance our ability to supervise and maintain public safety,” Kader said.
Long term, county officials like Kader hope the new plan will work to keep inmates from returning to jail by providing them with the resources needed to start over, but the immediate need to free up space could also mean greater turnout to programs like the Reach Fellowship.
The plan will be under tight control, Kader says, and the county will hire a person to oversee the practices of the community groups and collect data to ensure that services like permanent housing and meaningful job opportunities are provided. The money will also help to establish one-stop centers – a single location where inmates can get all the help they need.
“We’re trying to make this as client friendly as possible,” Kader said, “balancing that with our commitment to the community to provide the safest environment possible.”
It’s a vote of confidence, too, in the promise of programs like Edwina Perez-Santiago’s.
At the Reach Fellowship the five women gathered around a small conference table as Belinda Thomas gave out red folders containing a written assessment test. The results will help the staff at the Reach Fellowship determine what types of skills training each of the women might need before they enter the workforce.
In the building next door, Dr. Edwina Perez Santiago sits around a table of community members hoping to set up jobs for the women in training. It is a lot of planning, but for Perez Santiago the work is a necessity.
“It’s very important that we have agencies right in the middle of our community, that address these needs without sending them somewhere else,” Perez Santiago said.
Perez Santiago knows from her history of working with the formerly incarcerated that you can’t help everybody, but she says the best way to help recovery and reentry is through the community, not a cell.
“Some of them will need to go to back to jail, but some of them need to come home,” she said.