Two experts on offender reentry programs recently came to San Quentin to talk about opportunities available to parolees released in the Bay Area. Evelyn Vigil and Dora Ford, who are both ordained ministers, said there are plenty of prospects, but many more are needed.
Ford talked about the Taylor Street Services Center, a 65-bed reentry facility at 111 Taylor St. in San Francisco. Vigil spoke about her connections with reentry facilities in Santa Clara County.
In order to get into the Taylor Street program, a person must be referred by the parole office, Ford explained. Rather than trying to get there on your own, “It’s possible for someone with parole services to meet you at the prison gate,” she said. Once at Taylor Street, “You can go to school or look for work. You can stay there for three months, and then get it extended.” Room and board and classes are free.
“We work with people who want to get
out of gang life. The pressures to be a
man in our society today are greater
than they were 50 years ago”
Ford, who served as the director of Taylor Street Services Center for 20 years, said the inmates can learn about their strengths and weaknesses and how to move forward in life. “You can learn jobs skills, resume writing. Some of the best agencies are nearby in the Tenderloin area,” she said.
Ford compared the Taylor Street Center to Delancey Street or Walden House. The facility has televisions in all the rooms. There is a recreation room and programs such as meditation, Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, religious services and GED classes. There are also job-training classes in construction and plumbing.
To start over as an ex-felon, “You have to be prepared to work harder than you ever did in your life,” Ford said. “The first weeks you’re there, you don’t have to do anything except plan your future.”
Ford describes the Taylor Street Center as a clean and sober living environment where residents learn how to deal with anger and learn to understand their history and risk factors.
“If you come from a family with abuse problems, it is a factor that you’d have to consider,” Ford said. “Having a clean and sober living environment is helpful.”
Both women agree that the need is great and more could be done to help parolees get a fresh start. Ford said, “Facilities like this need more resources allocated to them. And the food can be better,” she said, laughing.
“It’s difficult to find a job with a prison record. The cost of living is high,” added Vigil. “Re-establishing relationships isn’t easy. We underestimate how hard it is to be out of prison. It comes down to being flexible and knowing how to deal with frustration.”
Vigil said that her reentry service experience began while working at California Medical Facility at Vacaville. There she worked with release planning as a chaplain. Currently, Vigil works in the Santa Clara County Jail as facility chaplain.
Vigil’s job is to coordinate bilingual services for all faiths at the jail. She said that yoga, creative writing, relaxing classes and forgiveness classes are offered in the jail, even in the maximum-security services areas.
Vigil said the one-on-one services provided to serious offenders are “what we do best.” A Stanford professor teaches the forgiveness classes.
“We are getting more and more level fours,” Vigil said, referring to the more serious offenders. She observes that younger detainees are being arrested for more serious offenses. Moreover, offenders are being held in jail for longer periods.
“One guy has been in for seven years fighting his case,” she said. “That’s a long time to be in county jail with a lot of active gang members.”
“Our services are effectively getting through to some of the gang members,” Vigil said. “I remember once while going to a grocery store, this guy says ‘Hey, church lady, I’d like you to meet my wife or kid.’ And, he says, ‘I’m working and taking care of my family.’ I say, ‘Thank God.’ It’s powerful to see the success.
“We work with people who want to get out of gang life. The pressures to be a man in our society today are greater than they were 50 years ago. Before you just went into the military, but today, there’re so many choices.”
Vigil pointed out that there are reentry services throughout Santa Clara County.
“The idea is that the inmates come out of jail with a community,” Vigil said.
There are many faith-based services available that provide clothes, transportation and health kits to newly released offenders. “It’s hands-on services,” Vigil said. “Churches pick up people when they’re released. We need to get other churches involved to help with the housing problems. A [Santa Clara] homeless encampment called ‘the jungle’ is the largest in the country. But, there’s no place for them to be housed. The county is working hard to try to find housing.”
Vigil said the high real estate cost in the Bay Area makes it hard for people reentering after incarceration. “People who have records have problems finding housing based on all these issues,” she said. “A lot of newly released people don’t want to go to the homeless shelters because there are a lot of bad influences in those places.”
According to Vigil, one of the better places that take in ex-cons is Goodwill Industries on 7th Street in San Jose. Goodwill has a parolee job-training program that lasts a year. However, the program has a long waiting list. “A lot of the guys coming out of prison aren’t used to working,” Vigil noted. “But in all areas, Goodwill has great programs that teach jobs skills.”
The Salvation Army facility is another training option but it also is hard to get into, Vigil said. “If you can follow the rules, you can stay there for a year. It’s a ‘one-stop shop’ from transportation to health care.”