Clarence Ford had a story to tell, and it was one that may resonate among those who have faced the depths of despair behind bars, yet feared the prospect of freedom when it suddenly arrived.
Previously incarcerated for first-degree robbery, Ford, now a student at the University of California at Berkeley, recalled being unable to land a job after his release. He was rejected countless times when he put the little check next to “felony conviction” on his job applications.
Then he found help from the Safe Return Project, a leadership program for former inmates adjusting to life outside prison walls and integrate themselves back into the community.
This led Ford to advocate for the establishment of the Reentry Success Center in Richmond. He spoke Tuesday at the center’s ribbon-cutting.
“I was a bit apprehensive about being released because I knew theoretically that once I was released I would come to face these barriers,” Ford said. “But I’m living proof of what happens when we invest in people and not jails. I don’t think I’m exceptional. I just know that if anyone was given the same chances, services and resources I was given, they can be successful too.”
The Reentry Success Center was the result of some five years of community advocacy and pressure from Contra Costa County, Richmond city authorities and local citizen organizations.
Core funding comes from a yearly state grant. The center provides the formerly incarcerated with computers and leads to advanced education, pre-employment training and placement assistance from guidance counselors. Clients also can access health services and programs that battle substance abuse.
In April 2011 the California Legislature and Governor Jerry Brown passed AB 109, transferring some offenders—those convicted of relatively minor offenses and without a history of violent or sex-related crimes— from state prisons to county jails. Such inmates could now be supervised at the local level after release, and counties individually decided how the program would be implemented.
Richmond chose to set up its own re-entry center. It officially opens on November 2.
Aside from the annual $433,000 grant from AB 109, another $93,000 will be dedicated to a nonprofit called Rubicon Programs, which will handle everyday operation of the center, and provide career training and counseling.
Backers said the new center brings a sense of community support to ease the kind of fears that Ford outlined. Edwina Perez-Santiago, founder of Richmond-based Reach Fellowship International, which works to help women return from life behind bars, lauded those who helped establish the new center, saying it “brings the unity out in the word ‘community.’”
“It’s not welfarish and institutional, not one of those places where you don’t want to come,” she said.
Rebecca Brown, chair of the center’s steering committee, remembered some earlier efforts by the county didn’t succeed as well as hoped. She said the difference now is adequate financing, the result of five years of advocacy and a state-approved budget.
“This building really represents the willingness of many stakeholders to say ‘yeah, let’s not do it the same old way because the same old way isn’t working,’” Brown said.
Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia and Richmond Mayor Tom Butt made comments emphasizing the importance of making re-entry a high priority in the community, and spreading the word beyond Contra Costa County.
“We have to work to prove that the center is successful so we can be advocates across this state to make sure that more money is put into the early side rather than just the enforcement side,” Gioia said.
Center Director Nicholas Alexander said services will be tailored for those who are not comfortable using technology and to people with concerns for their safety. The center intends to be a hub, working with other organizations to make it easier to connect people with the right resources.
“We’re working with partners to reach inside the jail to help people even before they are released, which does a lot to make the transition easier,” Alexander said.
Ford, the UC Berkeley student, wasn’t the only one with a story about how tough such a transition can be.
Ed Williams said he had served 30 years for a murder. When he got out in 2014, he confronted a dizzyingly fast-paced world of unfamiliar technology. He was 74 years old, Williams recalled, and had been taking college courses, trying to understand a younger generation.
He said he hopes his experience will help the new center operate better. After approaching younger family members and classmates in school, he came to the conclusion that more than one re-entry center may be needed in Richmond, partly to make sure younger people get the help they need, too.
“I noticed that everyone wants you to come home, jump into the race and take off; that ain’t gonna happen,” Williams said. “So stop trying to make that happen.”