Several Bay Area employers visited San Quentin State Prison in June to interview inmates at a first-of-its-kind job fair hosted by the inmate group TRUST (Teaching Responsibility Utilizing Sociological Training).
Employers came from Caltrans, Anders & Anders, Every Dog Has Its Day Care, Home of Chicken & Waffles, Aaron Metals and Planting Justice.
“I started it because I was in the middle of going to the Board” (of Parole Hearings), said Butler. He wanted to know how to get a job because he has been incarcerated since age 19. “Men in prison have no way of finding out how to get a job,” he added.
“It was very helpful,” said William Anderson, 51. “I was very nervous when I first sat in front of an employer because I thought he’d ask personal questions.”
The inaugural class session focused on teaching inmates to get to know themselves, work values, identify career options, transferable skills, strengths and various forms of administrative communication.
“I really liked the groups in the seminars,” said Robert Butler III, 56. “For me, this is a course that leads to success. I built a notebook for reference in the future.”
The second class taught the men how to present themselves on paper. They also learn how to write different types of resumes, create cover letters and master applications and Job Information Seeking and Training (JIST) cards.
An employer, Planting Justice, spoke with the men about building urban gardens. It’s a nonprofit, grass roots, holistic re-entry organization based in Oakland. Its program teaches ex-felons empowerment through farming food.
“Planting Justice also participates in a rehabilitation program called Pathways to Resilience, which brings organizations together to provide services for people coming out of prison,” the East Bay Express reported in April.
The men prepared by doing mock interviews, learning to write follow-up letters and prepare turnaround packets containing documentation on what they have accomplished in prison. “The person you were when you committed the crime is not the person you are today,” a class handout says.
Also attending the job fair were career development professionals from Centerforce, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) parole agents and Bob Wright, owner of the marketing company Firebrick.
Wright told the men to “find something that you’re really good at doing and do it well.”
“Our agency will pay your union dues,” said Glenn Bell, an employment services specialist with Private Industry Council. He said PIC will also help the men get tools and other items once they are released on parole.
“We will guide you to a professional case manager,” said Donald Hom, parole agent with the CDCR. He also provided material on programs available through the parole office.
CDCR parole agent Roy Welcholz told the men that he believed they will do well on parole, but he said the inmates he is most concerned with are the ones who were not at the job fair. He urged the men to reach out to other inmates and convince them to take the seminar.
“Your initial interview with your parole officer is like a job interview,” said Tyrone “T-Bone” Allen, 56, an inmate who co-facilitated the TRUST seminars. He said the pilot project went well enough to create a demand for it.
“We make it a routine to hire people who have been incarcerated,” said Jesykah Forkash, one of the owners of Aaron Metals. She said when her company trains the formerly incarcerated, it wants them to remain with the company. “We want them to go from being a lifer in prison to being lifers with us.”
Myeast McCauley, an office chief with Caltrans, demonstrated a level of professionalism many inmates are likely to emulate. His demeanor was calm, and he seemed genuinely connected to each inmate’s urgency to find employment.
Working in tandem with McCauley was Debra Smith, from Caltrans external affairs. The men, many who have never been on a job interview, appeared to be very comfortable in her presence.
“I liked the employers coming in,” said Markelle Taylor Sr., 42. He said the class taught him about the support employers in the community are giving to reduce recidivism. He said that he has never had a problem finding employment, but he did not understand it from the perspective of a convicted felon. “The refresher on interviewing was good.”
In the final weeks leading up to the job fair, the men formed small groups to review and critique resumes, applications and JIST cards. They also learned how and where to look for employment with ex-offender-friendly businesses.
One of those businesses is Derrick Johnson’s Home of Chicken & Waffles restaurant. According to a July 2012 blog posted by JailstoJobs, Johnson “hires ex-offenders with the help of the City of Oakland’s Measure Y program.” It provides $20 million a year to fund programs such as violence prevention, which includes young adult reentry services.
“Hearing these guys’ stories made me want to help them transform their lives,” Johnson is quoted in the blog. “We all make mistakes. Some of us get caught with our mistakes. Some of us don’t.”
According to a January report by the National Employment Law Project, “Reflecting the growing political consensus behind ‘smart on crime’ reforms, elected officials from across the ideological spectrum have embraced ‘fair chance’ hiring policies.”
Assemblyman Sandré Swanson, D-Alameda, selected Johnson in 2009 as an honoree in his district. He praised Johnson’s practice of hiring and training local workers, including many at-risk youth. Johnson has also been honored by the California Small Business Association.
In 2013, the Post News Group reported, “One of the initiatives Johnson wants to implement is the ‘Hire one, Teach one, Love one’ program for ex-offenders,” which he now implements at his restaurants.
Chung Kao, 54, said the highlight of his training was doing his inventory interest assessment. “It told me more accurately about myself than I could do about my own interests. That stuff is very accurate if you follow it step by step.”
“I like working with people who are really trying to change their lives,” said Williams. “I’m inspired by the commitment the men had doing all the work.” She said jobs are the number one factor to prevent recidivism. In regard to the employers that came to the prison, she said, “It gave me a lot of hope.”
In an email sent to Williams after the job fair, one employer wrote: “Thank you for the opportunity to meet the members of TRUST – they are an impressive group of men. All of the men I spoke with were poised, articulate, and genuine, characteristics that are lacking in the majority of the individuals I interview as part of my regular day. Please pass on to them my admiration. I would gladly take part in other job readiness events in the future. Please keep me in mind.”
Williams said TRUST hopes to have another seminar ready by October.
“The federal government has been encouraging employers to be more forgiving,” according to a June Pew Charitable Trusts article.
Williams has been a volunteer sponsor with TRUST for 10 months. She also volunteers with California Re-entry Institute and VOEG Inside Prison Project and is a former director of development for fundraising. She has an M.A. in counseling psychology and is a Certified Professional Co-active Coach.