The secret to success inside or outside of prison is to take advantage of every opportunity you are given, a former prisoner told the San Quentin News Journalism Guild.
That was the advice from Forrest Jones, a former Guild student on his first return to San Quentin since his parole in 2018.
Jones, a Black man with dark skin, soft and curly hair and glasses, walked into the room with a strong confident stature and a welcoming presence.
“I am so honored to be back here for the first time— as a free man—to talk to you guys,” Jones said at the Aug. 12 visit. “Please understand that everything that I’ve accomplished thus far has been through hard work, persistence, and a dogged effort to take advantage of every opportunity I was given throughout my time at San Quentin, which allowed me to gain my freedom.”
He was sentenced in 1995 under California’s draconian Three Strikes Law, for theft of a $400 video cassette recorder. Jones served 24 years of a 25 years-to-life sentence.
Jones, 58, was raised in Hanford, California. His involvement with the criminal justice system started at the age of 16. Like many teenagers and young adults growing up in the early ’80s, he became drug-addicted, leading to a life of crime—stealing whatever he could to feed his addiction.
Juvenile Hall, drug rehabs and county jail stints soon followed. Between 1985 and 1995 three burglary convictions resulted in his being “struck out.”
After 10 years of hard time and deep soul searching, Jones said he began to realize that he needed to take control of his life if he ever wanted to regain his freedom.
During the eight years he resided at SQ, he focused on educating himself and others about prison law/reform.
Among the stories he wrote for the San Quentin News was one entitled “The Striking Report.” Published in 2012, it focused on California’s Three Strikes Law—at a time when the law was on the ballot to be reformed. (See The Journal of Prisoners on Prisons, vol. 23, no.2 (2014)).
In January 2018, Jones was paroled from The Q. He now lives across the bay in Alameda. Since his release, his grind and work ethic has been nonstop.
For employment, Jones began working for Caltrans through a temp agency called Center for Employment Opportunity. He earned $100 a day cleaning highways. After about three years, he purchased three cars and recently secured his own apartment.
Currently he is employed with Five Keys Schools and Programs. Founded by the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department in 2003, Five Keys— which serves formerly incarcerated individuals and people currently or formerly experiencing homelessness—hires people directly into their transition employment positions.
The visitor said that he is an “Ambassador” at the company’s Oakland site. His primary responsibilities are to the company’s homeless clients. He compares his duties to that of a correctional officer and/or a counselor.
He said he helps them with day-to-day things such as finding employment or enrolling in self-help programs. “I also have a key to the hotel rooms they are given. I make sure they are in or out of the room at the required times,” he said.
“You know, it’s funny. I now have a new respect for the struggles prison staff go through with some of the guys on the inside. I mean, when you are dealing with people who have lost their way, they can be very difficult at times. But all in all, I love what I do because having been in similar situations, I have a broader perspective of what they’re going through. I can relate, so it helps me help them get through it, ya know?”
Jones said he faced many obstacles when he was first released from prison. He told an amusing story about how he couldn’t figure out how the self-checkout line at the grocery store worked because when he went in, they didn’t exist.
“I’m standing there looking crazy, waiting for a cashier to show up and check me out, when the lady behind me had to explain to me the whole process. I was so embarrassed,” he said.
Jones is now an undergraduate student at Cal State, East Bay, where he’s working toward a major in sociology.
Additionally, he is part of a program at Cal State, East Bay, called Project Rebound. It provides students services organized around two principles: peer support and holistic advising. It provides financial aid, career and goal planning, legal/social services, and guidance on balancing academic and personal life.
Jones said his role at Project Rebound is to develop, access, recruit and retain programs that make the transition process easier for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people who plan to attend Cal State, East Bay.
“Please understand that this (journalism) class is a great opportunity that you’ve been given. Make it count. Never give up on your goals or your mission to get out of here, because as you can see, I’m proof that you can regain your freedom and succeed,” he said.