By Rahsaan Thomas
Lifers can overcome all the obstacles to succeeding on parole if they empower themselves, former prisoner Joe Paul advised a San Quentin audience.
“If you can walk off a life sentence, you can get a job,” said Paul, program manager at Jericho Vocational Service Center, which is part of the Shield for Families Program.
The dynamic speaker walked into San Quentin’s Protestant Chapel June 29 dressed sharply in a gray pinstriped suit, red tie with white polka dots and shiny black leather slip-on shoes.
He said he served four years on a voluntary manslaughter sentence. Now he’s on a reentry and rehabilitation committee out of California Attorney General Kamala Harris’ Los Angeles office called Back on Track.
“I’m looking at success and what success has done is bring one of ours back to show us what it looks like in a suit,” said prisoner Antony Waldrip.
Paul came in to speak to TRUST (Teaching Responsibility Utilizing Sociological Training) and Project LA members about the resources he can help parolees utilize.
With him was Regina Banks, a staff services manager for California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Division of Rehabilitation Programs, Employment Development Unit.
“Realignment has meant that we have more long-term, harder-to-place inmates in society that are coming out and need services,” said Banks. “CDCR has been trying. They started 13 reentry hubs and beefed up community reentry programs based on new needs. Every time a yard changes over, it affects all 35 institutions. Things may be slow, but in the last three years, things have been moving more so.”
Around 50 members of Project LA and TRUST heard Paul talked about how his program is a counterpart to Project LA. It helps parolees succeed by educating them to the services available and preparing them for reentry. The curriculum starts with 90 days inside prison with Project LA and continues with another 90 days with Jericho Vocational Services Center in Compton.
“You don’t have to fit the program; the program will fit you. Project LA is about wrapping your head around what is takes to come back home to South LA,” said Paul.
Project LA fills the gap in Los Angeles County for reentry services like job preparation, 12-week vocational training programs, transitional housing and job opportunities.
Paul further talked about the self-efficacy an ex-con needs to be hired.
“Pigeons flock to eat the bread crumbs off the ground. They have no power in causing that resource or keeping it,” said Paul.
When an inmate expressed doubt over whether he could be hired because of old age, being a felon and losing the right to work in certain fields, Paul said, “That’s a pigeon mentality. Federal law says you can’t discriminate over age. They have business necessity reasons, but they can’t discriminate. The older you are, the more experience you bring to the table.”
“You can’t tell them, ‘I’m too old.’ Tell them, ‘I know what I know,’” added Banks.
“An employer cares about how you can make him money. Iron Man was right at CMC West prison. Do you think Hollywood cares when he is making them millions? What can you bring to the table?” said Paul.
“You bring more to the table than people in the street could ever imagine. You go see the board, and they say come back in five years,” said Paul. “Most people in society can’t take getting a parking ticket. Ain’t nobody on the streets dealing with this kind of stuff, and you mean to tell me you can’t get a job?”
He recommends filing for positions that bar felons.
“Criminal records have become a civil rights issue. I have gotten five lifers their (union) cards. If you want to do something, apply. They are going to turn you down; then we go for an individual assessment,” said Paul.
Banks was questioned about CDCR’s failure to provide services for non-violent, non-serious, non-sexual offenders, who leave state prison under Realignment on probation instead of parole.
“CDCR funds programs for those on parole through the 1502 process,” said Banks. “But we do know a lot of people are going to be on probation; we partner with others to handle that. We are working on more coordinated efforts. That’s why we work with Shields, but CDCR isn’t funding them,” said Banks.
Shields for Families is a 25-year-old not–for–profit that serves South-Central LA, Compton and Watts. It started in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s to deal with the crack epidemic and evolved to mass incarceration and reentry, according to Paul.
For parolees “We do fund a transitional house where employment is your first need. Take advantage of the programs and services that they offer, because they do work,” she continued.
“If you don’t get out of here and do something with your lives, what is the point?” asked Paul. “I’m hiring people who have done long terms in prison to show the world what we can do.”