Ivory Mitchell remembers the moment when he had had enough of seeing the world from behind bars.
“I was 42 years old going back to prison for my 10th violation,” Mitchell said. “I was up on the fifth tier of west block [San Quentin State Prison] all alone. God put me there to cry out.” Mitchell had reached the point of being completely broken down. “I had to surrender my will,” he said.
Thirteen years later, Mitchell is now reentry manager for Men and Women of Purpose (MWP), an organization in Richmond that aims to help ex-convicts reintegrate with society.
MWP hosted an open house last Tuesday evening to honor community leaders who have helped it obtain funding and support. “What’s different, is now they’re getting paid,” said Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia, one of the MWP honorees, referring to the contract that the organization recently received to provide mentoring services to former prisoners.
This money was granted as part of AB109, the prison realignment program aimed at reducing California’s overcrowded prison population. Gioia said that $5 million, out of the $19 million AB109 funds awarded to the county, has been given to community organizations such as MWP. The remainder goes to the county law enforcement authorities.
“People around the state are watching. We are trying to show that investing in reentry is the best investment we can make to improve the success of this population, reduce recidivism, and make the community safer,” Gioia said.
Mayor Gayle McLaughlin stopped by early on to see the new offices. During the event, Chief of Police Chris Magnus, was honored, along with City Manager Bill Lindsay, author and activist Barbara Becnel and many other Richmond community leaders.
White and black star-shaped balloons dotted the room in which the event took place, and a long buffet table featured trays of chicken, ribs, taquitos, turkey wraps and pound cake.
MWP’s founder, Antoine Cloird, traded lighthearted banter with Councilmember Nat Bates. “He [Bates] will always show up for food,” said Cloird. Bates got a big laugh with his rejoinder; “Antoine is the number one beggar in this city.” As the presentations were made, guests clapped and laughed.
Many people spoke of Cloird’s tenacity on behalf of MWP. In the midst of the party, the serious work of helping ex-cons rebuild their lives was evidenced in the speeches. Kathryn Webster of the Contra Costa Alcohol and Drug advisory board had tears in her eyes are she spoke about the grass-roots community in Richmond.
Douglas McKoy, director of the reentry program talked about running his most recent class at West County Jail. Out of 57 males, only two were first-time offenders. “I told them, ‘You’re not good criminals.’” McKoy said his 30 years of experience, both with the criminal justice system and drug addiction, gives him a unique perspective to help other people. “People don’t believe they can do any different,” McKoy said.
“Change is possible,” Mitchell said. Cloird, Mitchell, and McKoy say they are the proof. “Your belief system is your guiding force,” Mitchell said.
Correction: In an earlier version of this story, County Supervisor John Gioia was mistakenly omitted from the list of elected officials who were honored at the Men and Women of Purpose Open House. This has been corrected.