Getting out, staying out
on November 9, 2010
Andres Abarra turns into the parking lot of the San Pablo mall, scraping the bottom of his sparkling white 1996 Corvette on the curb. He pulls over and examines the finish, relieved to find no damage.
“This car,” he tells me, “was $28,000. That was the last time I had big money.”
Going straight after getting out of prison, Abarra explains, is hard; he earned more dealing drugs than he ever will now.
“You go from having money to buy sports cars, eating at nice places, to having $200 in your pocket when you get out.” That’s the gate money the state doles out to each former inmate upon leaving San Quentin State Prison. Abarra counts himself lucky to have a family that supported him upon release; many do not have a place to go.
Freedom comes with urgent demands: find a place to live, get a job and clean up any bad habits acquired in or before jail—including dealing dope.
“See,” he says, “when you start making that fast money, it blinds you. You justify it in your mind that what you’re doing isn’t really bad.”
Andres Abarra, who is 57 and of Filipino and African-American ancestry, is an outgoing, church-going man. He quit using dope a long time ago, tries not to curse, and rarely drinks coffee. But today he orders a double, decaf, soy, white chocolate mocha.
Seven years ago Abarra was a dealer at the height of his game—heroin. He’d quit using, and he could give his grandmother hundred dollar bills to play bingo. He said people usually didn’t ask where the money came from.
On June 9, 2005 that all changed. The cops had been watching him, he’s sure, and that day they pulled him over. “I was on the way to a Giants game. They were playing the Cleveland Indians,” he says and smiles. “And that was all she wrote.”
He was 54 when he was released from a 20-month term in San Quentin state prison, what he hopes will be the last of many prison stays.
“That was a great day,” Abarra says, remembering. “I thought ‘Wow, I’m going home.’ It’s finally ending. Your mindset is like a little kid on Christmas Eve. The night before, you don’t want to go to sleep. Then you get the knock. ‘Abarra, you’re paroling. Get dressed, get your stuff. You fittin’ to be free.’”
His eyes return to the present. “This morning,” he tells me, “people are getting out of San Quentin and coming right back to Richmond. Seven days a week they release people. It’s a revolving door.”
This year, 231 people will be released from prison into Richmond, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
“One of the myths is that when people are arrested, convicted, and incarcerated that it gets rid of the problem,” says Eli Moore, director of the Safe Return Reintegration Research Project. “But most people come back after a couple of years, and 95 percent return to their old neighborhoods. So you’re really just pausing the problem.”
The Prisoner Reentry Project, funded by the California Endowment, is an endeavor of the Oakland-based nonprofit Pacific Institute that hires and surveys parolees who return to Contra Costa County, to identify what services they need to stay out of prison.
Sam Vaughn, an outreach worker in Richmond’s Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS), supports Pacific Institute’s approach. “Eli and them [at the Pacific Institute] could have done the research themselves,” says Vaughn, “but the best way for change to get done was for the people who need that change themselves to come up with conclusions and recommendations.”
Abarra is one of ten people who responded to the unusual job listing from Pacific Institute: “Applicant must have been incarcerated at one time.” Moore says it was so easy to find qualified applicants to conduct the surveys, it told him the stigma of a conviction can deprive capable workers of jobs, and employers of good workers.
Abarra has interviewed more than 100 ex-convicts in the very neighborhoods where he used to hustle. The research team has only preliminary findings, but employment emerges as critical. Parolees are often eliminated from the job pool after checking the box that asks: Have you ever been convicted of a felony? “One thing we’re trying to do is get that box removed,” Abarra says. “You punish me when you sent me to prison. Don’t continue to punish me by not employing me.”
There is no law preventing companies from discriminating based on prior felony conviction, even when the crime does not interfere with job requirements. Moore cited studies showing that more than 60 percent of employers said they wouldn’t hire someone with a criminal record, no matter the crime.
City policy geared toward employing formerly incarcerated residents, he says, would reduce recidivism. Last year, less than a third of inmates incarcerated from Contra Costa County were first time offenders. More than seven out of ten of parolees released to Richmond will re-offend and return to prison, according to the Office of the Governor’s website.
A May 2009 Pacific Institute report on economic and environmental justice in Contra Costa County highlights a well-established link between unemployment and crime. The report notes that San Francisco and Alameda County have eliminated the criminal history check-box on their application forms; that question comes later in the hiring process, increasing the chances for a qualified returning resident to enter the workforce.
Distribution of Parolees In Contra Costa County, June 2005
The Pacific Institute report found that Richmond’s dense parolee population has scant options for jobs or housing. While cities like Oakland, San Francisco, and Salinas have transitional housing for returning residents, Richmond lacks such a facility, and the Institute’s researchers agree that a multi-service center for parolees would fill a huge gap.
As for state and federal assistance, parolees are largely ineligible for welfare benefits. Current law in California says people with a drug-selling conviction don’t qualify for food stamps. General assistance of $336 a month for a single person is available for three months.
Abarra says the situation sets ex-convicts up for failure. “As a citizen I feel safer knowing there’s resources for dudes coming back,” Abarra says. “Until we address that as a community at large… guy been in prison, ain’t got nothing to lose, he’s gonna rob.”
Upon release, parolees are required to meet with a team of local police and state parole agents known as the Parole and Community Team (PACT). The meeting is the first introduction of available services for parolees.
According to the Pacific Institute’s 2009 study, the head of Richmond’s Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS) confirmed that ONS officers who attended PACT meetings typically found that “fewer than half of the planned service providers were present.” In addition, ONS found the Community Resource Handbook given to parolees “had outdated, incorrect information.”
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation updated the handbook at the request of ONS. “PACT has really stepped up their game,” says Sam Vaughn, of ONS. “But we really need to create a network where folks don’t fall through cracks.” Vaughn thinks making contact with prisoners well before their release is the best tack.
And Abarra thinks a job is the number one necessity. He pulls out a completed questionnaire that asked parolees what they wanted more of from the PACT meeting. “Almost every answer on this one pointed to job training,” he says. “You have to have an employable skill!”
Abarra says he’s found his calling with this type of work. “I want to be a community activist,” he says. “I like going into the hood. I came out of that, and I want to see it change.”
Looking out onto San Pablo Dam Road, he watches a woman crossing the street in a slow diagonal, mumbling to herself as she rustles the hedge around the Starbuck’s patio, as if looking for a lost object.
Abarra talks about mental health services—they are an area of concern for parolees, he says, who’ve not been treated for mental illnesses or drug addiction in prison and are then released into what seems like a wilderness.
The woman walks over to the table next to us, puts down her plastic bag and a piece of trash she found in the bush, and drifts back into the traffic, her gaze floating in all directions.
“That sister,” says Abarra, “is like a person getting out of prison. You lookin’ to get somewhere, but you just don’t know where that is.”
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