By Kevin D. Sawyer
A group of San Quentin prisoners got a preview of job opportunities when they are released, thanks to an Employment Readiness Seminar.
Thirty-six inmates and 33 outside guests attended the December event, the latest of four job seminars held in the past two years.
“We prepare men for jobs,” said Diana Williams to an audience of employers, inmates, trade union representatives, former inmates, law enforcement, top officials from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), and other organizations. “We facilitate relationships.”
The weeks-long seminars teach inmates how to present themselves on paper by communicating with letters of introduction and resumes. They also learn interview techniques.
“We just hired someone who got out of San Quentin,” said Donna of Rubicon Bakery. She said she wants to make connections. “We love the (seminars) program. We really want to help.”
Every Dog Has Its Daycare attended the event for a third time. The owner said a San Quentin parolee was recently hired. “He started this week, and he’s doing well.” She said a woman who is in prison in Chowchilla will parole soon and wants an interview. She also has other inmates who are interested in employment, including another San Quentin inmate.
Williams co-founded the job program with inmate Nobel Butler as a way to connect inmates with potential employers, one-on-one. Their first step was to teach the men how to communicate administratively and in person through interviewing.
“I thought I was a pretty sharp guy when it came to resumes,” said inmate Norfleet Stewart, 67. “I found out I didn’t know anything. I came to this class not expecting anything. To gain this wealth of knowledge is invaluable.” He said he learned how to speak, how to humble himself and how to be interviewed.
The prison’s Protestant Chapel was transformed into a makeshift job fair as inmates and employers discussed employment opportunities and the chance to make better lives for themselves and their communities.
“I feel like this is a pathway and opportunity overlooked,” said Tannis C. Reinhertz, department chair at City College of San Francisco. “This is a way to enrich the community.”
“I’m very impressed. I think it’s a good opportunity for them to test their skills,” said Connie Gibson, deputy director of facility operations for California prisons. “To see the programs prepare you for release is awesome.”
Inmate Ronnie Williams, 51, said, “I think it’s a perfect opportunity for guys like myself to get ahead. I think I’ve done enough work internally. One thing that completed it is this employment readiness seminar.”
Derreck Johnson is the owner of Home of Chicken and Waffles with three locations in the Bay Area. He has attended all four job fairs and hires formerly incarcerated citizens.
“I’m from West Oakland. I don’t judge people, as long as they have the capacity to work. Some of the most loyal and trusted employees come from this system,” said Johnson. “Society in general doesn’t give them a chance. So, when they find someone who does, they hold on to the opportunity.”
Inmate Adriel Ramirez, 39, has been incarcerated for 20 years. Before prison he worked two part-time jobs. Hired on the spot as a teenager, he said he filled out his W-2 forms and started working.
“I’ve never done a resume before,” said Ramirez. “This is my first experience having to interview. I’m enjoying it so far.”
The Cala Restaurant opened a little more than a year ago. Its general manager, Emma Rosenbush, said they’ve had a second-chance employment practice since day one. She used to volunteer at Patten University in San Quentin and the Prison Law Office where she monitored prison issues. Rosenbush said preparing inmates increases their sense of self-worth. “If we take that away from them, how do we expect them to succeed?”
“We work with a lot of folks with criminal backgrounds,” said Bekka from JVS Healthcare Academy. This was her first time attending a job event. “It’s really exciting,” she said. “It’s a good opportunity for people.” She said she worked formerly in a prison for women in the state of Washington.
“I like doing this,” said Kevin McCraken of Social Imprints. He said he was in and out of the criminal justice system for many years when he was younger, but has been clean and sober for 18 years. “I think you guys are really well-prepared. I would be very happy to offer any of you a job.”
Inmate Ollie Miller, 39, incarcerated for 20 years, said, “I believe it’s a real helpful program. It gives us a lot of opportunity. With this help, it’s a strong possibility people won’t come back to prison.”
Inmate Kevin Fuqua, 50, added, “I’ve never had an interview. It gives me an advantage because of my age.”
David Basil, 64, works for Community Housing Partnership. He was locked up 32 years and paroled from San Quentin in 2014. He now works to find housing for the homeless, indigent and those afflicted with different forms of addiction. “I oversee 35 employees,” said Basil.
Warden Ron Davis told the group most people don’t know this side of San Quentin. “This is a (typical) Thursday in San Quentin,” he said, referring to the many programs for inmates.
Diana Williams said California prison recidivism has gone from 65 percent to 45 percent, thanks to increased rehab and job programs. “We’re all unique. It’s not about who we are but what we do.”
When the interviews ended, the inmates applauded the employers.
The men attended a graduation ceremony two weeks later. They received job listings of “felon friendly” employers, certificates and a laudatory chronology document for their central file.
Formerly incarcerated Tito J. Guerrero attended the graduation with Basile.
Guerrero paroled from Solano in 2009 after serving 12 years. He talked about the routines of prisons.
“When you’re in prison, someone else writes your script,” Guerrero said. “But that is a lie. You write your own script. So, what are you going to write to get to the ending that you desire?
“Give yourself achievable goals and small victories. I started off at $8.75 as a Goodwill truck driver. Now, I make a hell of a lot more than that. If you come out, knowing that you want to work hard, it will show. Don’t tell people what you want to do – show them.”
Rodeo Van Bladel, 40, due for release soon, said, “This program helps keep me aware of the steps I need to take to find a job when I get out. It opens doors and opportunities. It allowed me to speak and lets me know that everybody doesn’t have a biased opinion about people who are in prison.”
–Juan Haines and Rahsaan Thomas
contributed to this story