A group of inmates who will be looking for employment opportunities once they parole got a head start at San Quentin’s third Employment Readiness Seminar (ERS).
A panel of 18 women and men from the outside representing employers, trade unions, apprenticeship programs and other organizations attended the event held in May.
“I really believe what we’re here for is to connect as human beings,” Diana Williams told the audience. She co-founded and helped organize the seminar with inmate Nobel Butler, a member of the group TRUST (Teaching Responsibility Utilizing Sociological Training).
Williams talked about the types of challenges inmates deal with in prison, such as no access to typewriters or computers to write résumés, and a recent weeklong lockdown.
The seminar allowed inmates to have one-on-one interviews with potential employers. Some were mock interviews while others were serious, but all were conversational.
“It’s going to be like speed dating, so you’re going to get like 10 minutes,” Butler told the guests and inmates. “The purpose is to network.”
Weeks leading up to the seminar, the men learned how to present themselves on paper with letters of introduction, résumés and turnaround packets. They also learned interviewing techniques.
“We did different kinds of résumés,” said inmate Phillip Landis, 42, who has been incarcerated 14 years. “It helps to make connections. I haven’t been in the job force for a while.”
The ERS went beyond writing. It taught the men how to identify their strengths and weaknesses, transferable skills and work values.
“We try to take guys who are in prison, who have been a liability to their community, and turn them around,” said Butler.
ERS guests came from the painters and glaziers union (District Council 16), Success Center, Goodwill Industries, Anders & Anders, Labor Ready, Every Dog Has Its Daycare, Home of Chicken and Waffles, Golden Gate Restaurant Association, Rubicon Bakery, Alliance for Change and California Re-entry Institute.
Lenny Wilkins of District Council 16 told the men, “It’s never too late to start your career.”
“We don’t do background checks,” one employer from the temporary agency Labor Ready said.
“One thing we have to offer is we can be part of your network,” said Richard Scott from Goodwill Industries. “Your first job out doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be your last job out.”
Goodwill Industries’ Tito Guerrero said he started working there after paroling seven years ago. “The most rewarding part of the job is about the people you help,” he said.
Terry Anders, an ex-offender, said, “I had a special population in mind (when he founded Anders & Anders) because that’s who I was. The unions gave me that opportunity. It saved my life— literally.”
“We give you access to 26 construction trades,” another Anders & Anders representative said. “You earn as you learn. These aren’t jobs, they’re careers.”
Home of Chicken and Waffles’ owner said, “Eighty percent of my staff is on parole or probation.”
“It was useful because it covers everything,” said inmate Sonny Nguyen. “Most of us have been away for a long time.”
Associate Warden Jeff Lawson said, “It’s really a great thing for me to see. It’s a bridge that’s been missing.” As a parole officer, he frequently told parolees, “You’re better off flipping burgers for minimum wage because all I can offer you is $19 dollars a month (in prison) if you mess up.”
The following week, ERS inmates attended a graduation ceremony to receive certificates of completion.
Parolee Troy Williams spoke to the graduates. “I don’t know how to overemphasize how much you have to offer,” he said. “There are a lot of opportunities if you just take them.”
The men expressed what it felt like to be seen as human beings. “They didn’t look at us like a plague,” said inmate Russell Bowden, 51, who has been incarcerated 30 years.
“You all did yourselves really proud,” Diana Williams told the men. “We’re trying to make it richer every time.” She then read comments e-mailed to her.
“Thank you for putting on another fantastic, motivational and inspiring event,” a business representative wrote from District Council 16.
“Each person I interviewed presented well, marketable skills, and expressed sincere desire to make a change…” wrote Michael from Goodwill.
“I wish more people from the outside could be part of the ERS, because meeting these men would have a very positive impact on the way the ‘outside world’ views incarcerated individuals,” wrote Every Dog Has Its Daycare.
“This (ERS) was an idea I had, but you (Diana Williams) turned it into a reality,” said Butler.
“What warms my heart is to see the smiles on your faces,” said Williams, who volunteers at San Quentin in the California Re-entry Institute and TRUST. She holds an M.A. in counseling psychology and is a Certified Professional Co-active Coach.