By Miguel Quezada
Collette Carroll is the kind of San Quentin volunteer who sees a serious need and fills it. The need was to prepare prisoners for their release into the outside world.
After eight years volunteering in the prison, she founded the organization that became known as the California Reentry Institute (CRI). It led to her being recognized and honored as a leader in reentry services for the incarcerated in California.
However, pre-release was not enough for Carroll. “It’s not good enough to just prepare someone for freedom; they need assistance and resources to put into practice what they have learned,” she stated.
In 2013, Carroll opened the social enterprise 2nd Chance Boutique, with the intent to make CRI self-sufficient. In 2014 CRI opened its own re-entry home, Roland’s House, named after her late husband. She describes the home as a safe place where the men in her program can receive the specialized services to ensure their successful future.
CRI was created when she realized the work she was doing was just scratching the surface. The program developed into a comprehensive 18-to- 24 month curriculum.
The men learn extensive insight into the causative factors of their crime and the impact on victims and focus heavily on emotional development. They are immersed in an orientation to the latest technology, professional career-building and basic economics. For many participants who have been in prison for several decades, society has changed drastically.
Carroll first started visiting San Quentin in 1994 with her late husband, Roland Peck, a volunteer of 25 years, to attend banquets in the chapel.
“It was through my husband and the chapel that I was able to meet and admire the men in blue,” Carroll said in reflection.
One of her first acts as a volunteer was to sing Christmas carols in the cellblocks to the incarcerated men. It was a tradition she continued with her husband until his passing.
In 2015, she was honored as a CNN Hero for her pre- and post-release work in San Quentin. The recognition is granted to individuals who make extraordinary contributions to humanitarian aid and improve their communities.
In that same year, the California Assembly awarded Carroll with an Assembly Resolution. In March 2016, she was honored as the Assembly’s 2016 Women of the Year.
Carroll commented that “awards, or any honors, are difficult to accept. It’s not who I am — it’s not about me — it never has been about me but I realize the spotlight allows me to give a voice to those that are doing the hard work, to be a voice for the people changing their lives on the inside. That’s my heart.”
“She is extremely dedicated,” said Community Partnership Manager Steve Emrick. “I’ve had the great pleasure of working with Collette over the years and building a relationship of trust. Importantly, Collette can be trusted by the men because she will always show up. It would take a natural disaster to stop her from meeting with the men.”
“We try to help people understand the causative factors of why they did what they did. We try to help them understand the pain and harm they caused their victims and the ripple effect of their actions,” Carroll commented.
The program helps inmates “to have empathy for the people they harmed and to believe that change can help — that they aren’t what they did — and to give them the skills to have a new life,” said Carroll.
She described her legacy like this: “If someone wants to change, they deserve the opportunity and assistance to try.”