Prison to Employment Connection (PEC) is one of the most valuable programs at San Quentin for men looking to the future. Twenty-two inmates graduated from the program’s seventh session in May.
The week before graduation, the men did face-to-face interviews with employers looking to hire qualified formerly incarcerated citizens.
More than 40 participants enrolled in the program in February to learn interview skills, résumé writing and other forms of communication. In doing so, they were able to determine what career path was right for them upon release from prison.
“I was really excited to interview with some of the employers that I didn’t think I would want” (to work for), said inmate Robert Polzin, 42. He’s been incarcerated two years. He said he thought he’d be a welder but now he thinks he’d be a better supervisor.
Diana Williams, PEC’s executive director, led the employers and guests into the prison’s Protestant chapel, where the inmates formed a single-file line to greet them, shaking hands with friendly smiles. She reminded the men of what they’ve accomplished over the past 15 weeks.
“You are so ready,” she said.
Many of the employers agreed.
“I’ve had some of the best interviews in here today than on the outside,” Maggie McVeigh of McCall’s Catering said. “I once had a lady show up to interview in a bathrobe.”
The employer day also offered re-entry information and services for the men. Pastor Ronnie Muniz is formerly incarcerated. He served time in San Quentin in 1989 and paroled in 1995. He now works at two churches that provide re-entry services. He helps the formerly incarcerated reconstruct their lives.
“I want you (guys) to have something to go back to,” he said. “I know the struggle.”
Muniz said his churches work with anyone incarcerated or at-risk.
Because of the graduation ceremony, PEC typically receives the most attention after the 16-week program ends. What is not known, however, is the amount of hard work and dedication that takes place by all stakeholders in the weeks leading up to graduation day.
During the last week of February, Williams, and volunteers Bre Davis and Gabrielle Nicolet joined inmate participants in San Quentin’s interfaith chapel on a Thursday evening for orientation. Dozens of men housed throughout the prison signed up to attend the program. Not all were eligible to attend because their release dates were too far away. For those who were accepted, completing the course was no small undertaking.
The 40 men who filled the prison’s chapel were completing forms to help them determine what was a good career path to choose. Some had never considered what they were interested in doing for work, hobby or recreation. The forms afforded the men an opportunity to carefully evaluate their work values, strengths and career options.
Williams explained that one of the forms had “interest codes” on it. Once the class completed the forms, inmate and PEC volunteer Angel Falcone discussed interest inventory results with the class. Then the class separated into seven groups upon completing the forms.
Inmates read what they’d written about themselves. One inmate said that his score revealed that he likes order, is persistent and calm. It also said he is stable, controlled and dependable.
“Intuitive” is how group A was described. They tend to come up with new ideas; they can be interested in performing and visual arts, museums, and they like small intimate groups.
Eddie Herena, 35, was in group I. He learned about his personality traits. He’s good at math and science. He enjoys reading and scientific activity. As it turns out, Herena volunteers as a math tutor in the prison’s education department.
For the better part of two hours, it was the first time many inmates explored career options by looking at four things in which they were interested. These types of exercises continued through the duration of the class.
In mid-March inmate Aaron Tillis, 34, said he wanted to learn how to format a résumé.
“I’ve been in prison since I was 20 years old,” he said. “This is like a stepping stone.”
Tillis said he doesn’t want to go back to the streets and do what’s easy. He explained that he has transferable skills and people skills.
“I’m looking forward to getting everything (PEC) has to offer so I can be beneficial to my family,” he added.
According to a 2018 report by the RAND Corporation, “The rate of criminal punishment in the United States has had far-reaching economic consequences, in large part because people with criminal records are marginalized within the labor market.”
There are, however, ways to work around barriers to entry into the labor force for ex-felons.
The RAND report says because of the adverse economic inferences, local, state and federal officials have created policies to persuade employers to hire ex-felons, with different degrees of success. “Ban the Box” is one of those policies. The criminal-background information portion of the process is delayed where recruitment is concerned. Employers may also consider the federal Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC). Certificates of rehabilitation that restore rights to ex-felons, and programs supported by the Department of Labor Reintegration of Ex-Offenders grants also reduce the adverse impact of a felony conviction.
“But all these programs to incentivize the hiring of ex-offenders have important limitations to improving ex-offender employment,” the RAND report said.
According to Williams, 168 inmates have graduated from the PEC program since it began in 2015. Of those graduates, 70 have paroled from prison.
Robert Fry graduated from PEC. He paroled from San Quentin in April 2014 after serving 25 years. “This prison was my home for 14 years,” he said. But he comes in to help the men he left behind and has spoken at several graduations. Recently, he advised the men to take some time to “breathe” when they parole and said a good strategy to find employment is the ABC method: Any job, Better job, Career.
“I’ve never had a real career on the street,” he said. “This is preparing me for the workforce out there.”
Smith came to California from Atlanta, Georgia, on a basketball scholarship to play at California State University Northridge (Division 1). His size and sturdy physique speak to his abilities. When the division changed he transferred to San Francisco State University, Division 2. He said he may want to coach basketball, and the PEC curriculum is teaching him about the workforce.
“I want to be a voice for the incarcerated, to show that rehabilitation is real and it’s happening,” he said.
“I expect that I will learn what kind of job I’ll be able to do,” said inmate David Boyle, 55. His group learned about their transferable skills. He used to be a driver, seeing patients as a nurse. “They don’t let you do that with a felony.” Because he still knows the region, he may drive in another profession. “I want to see what I can turn myself into.” This was his first time in prison. He’s been locked up since 2017 and paroled in June. “This kind of gives you hope.”
An added benefit to PEC training was outside help from companies in the local community. Williams said this was the first time this had taken place.
Clif Bar of Emeryville, has a strong social service department. Several of its employees came in as volunteers to help the men. Christina Gee is the company’s recruiting manager. She explained why she offered her service. “I read Bryan Stevenson’s book (Just Mercy).” She said we are all humans and deserve equal treatment, adding that if we don’t help people they can’t improve. She said her passion is helping with interviews and résumés to benefit people.
Another human resources operation team donated time as well. Melanie volunteered to help the men with their résumés. She works for a tech company that develops tracking software.
Six weeks into the program, in April, at the end of one class, Falcone explained why some employers won’t hire ex-felons. The discussion turned into a Q & A session during which one inmate said he didn’t want to work for any employer who looked at him as a criminal.
“If I were a business owner, I’d hire an ex-felon,” Smith said.
“If you have to hide that from an employer, maybe that’s not the place for you,” Davis said.
Another inmate facilitator said, “It’s your choice if you want to share that information.” He added that “if you were in prison, people want to hear you’ve changed.”
Yet one inmate participant said if you don’t disclose the information about being an ex-felon “it’s like being incarcerated all over again.”
Later in the evening, the men turned in two class writing assignments: a “This Is My Job” essay and a “Tell Me About Yourself” essay.
The RAND report said, “Several theories have been proposed to explain the mechanisms driving the strong and consistent negative relationship between incarceration and labor market outcomes. On the one hand, having a criminal record is associated with lower productivity and reliability.”
The following week at PEC, the men did five simulated interviews that lasted about 20 minutes each. They discussed negative aspects of their backgrounds and what they have done to address their criminal past. The conversations ranged across several topics: therapy, self-help groups, college, vocational trades and remorse.
The purpose of these exercises was to teach each student to be open and honest with employers. Learning straightforward communication is a lesson on breaking down barriers with the outside community.
Holly Streblow from Clif Bar’s Human Resources department worked with the men doing mock interviews to prepare them to meet employers. She said interviewing can defeat some people. She volunteers because she wants to contribute to something good.
Why do it in a prison? “There’s a lot in the world that’s not going right,” Streblow said. She said it can be overwhelming. “I could sit home and be frustrated by all the social problems or come here and work with people who will return to society and be better people.”
Streblow had hopes of later attending the job fair as a volunteer to support it. “I’d like to hear how it goes, because you learn a lot in preparing but you learn a lot in reflecting,” she said. “I’ve been moved and honored.” She studied sociology in college and said she has an interest in how people work together because she also gets to learn and benefit.
Clif Bar makes nutritional health food. “We’re a value-driven company,” Streblow said. “We care about the impact we make on the community, planet, people, business and brands.”
After each class ended for the men, PEC volunteers discussed what worked in class and exchanged ideas on what they could all do better.
“There was really good energy in the room tonight,” Williams said. “They were really prepared so it was hard to stick to the time.” The group considered extending the interview time by several minutes. “They always want more time.”
Predicting which employers will attend the event was a major topic of discussion. So was the confidence boost the training gives to the men. Because of long periods of incarceration, isolating them from society, some men have to learn how to interact with women. Others have problems such as forgetting to mention their commitment offense.
The volunteers anticipated how in the next class the men should bring up their crime. Tell them to have the “turn around talk,” one volunteer said, suggesting the men start by saying, “Here’s what I can offer you,” which is a turn-around packet that contains information about accomplishments in prison. The volunteers said the talks shouldn’t sound like they were read from a textbook.
Several years ago, the PEW Charitable Trusts published a report by the National Employment Law Project that said there are an estimated 70 million people trying to navigate their way back into society with a criminal record. “Some states, concerned with the high costs of keeping people locked up, are re-evaluating and removing some of the roadblocks that ex-offenders face when they are released,” PEW reported. “The goal: to increase the chances they’ll succeed in society and lessen the chances they’ll return to prison.”
According PEW, the American Bar Association reported there are over 45,000 laws that restrict people who have criminal convictions on their record. They range from “about 300 in Vermont to over 1,800 in California,” it was reported. These are “collateral consequences” that typically bar people with certain convictions from occupations that require state licenses. Voting rights and access to public housing are also restrictions that make it difficult to reenter society, the report said.
“Many states are now re-examining the consequences of the laws and taking other steps to reduce the collateral damage of having a criminal record,” PEW reported. “In some states, judges are allowed to remove some collateral consequences during sentencing by reducing or removing a bar to licensing, housing or other roadblocks offenders would face when they get out of prison.”
As the PEC volunteers and inmate facilitators discussed turn-around packets the conversation turned to a similar topic of inmates preparing to appear before the Board of Parole Hearings. This was because much like demonstrating to a potential employer why they are the right choice for a job, inmates must also convince the Board they are suitable for parole.
One inmate said it is the same as saying, “I want to be a valued member of your team.” The Board views the larger society as a team while employers view their organization as a team. Two inmates received denials of three and five years from the Board the day before class. They weren’t discouraged and still showed up to attend the PEC program through completion.
Williams thanked the volunteers for coming in to help. “I think this is going to make a huge difference in how they (inmates) interview,” she said.
“It gives us incarcerated guys a chance to build relationships,” said inmate volunteer Dwight Kennedy. “A lot of these guys trust you and your skills.” He also thanked the volunteers on behalf of all the other men in the program, adding “We know we’re not our crime.”
“Almost one in three adults in the United States has a criminal record that will show up on a routine criminal background check,” The National Employment Law Project (NELP) reported. “This creates a serious barrier to employment for millions of workers, especially in communities of color hardest hit by decades of over-criminalization.”
The NELP says it supports policies that create jobs to “enforce hard-won workplace rights, and help unemployed workers regain their economic footing.” Its Second Chance Labor Project promotes “employment rights of people with criminal records.” As such, it makes efforts to ensure that criminal background checks are accurate and fair to reduce preventable obstacles to employment.
During one class in April, Williams wasn’t able to attend, but that didn’t stop her volunteers. The scheduled presentation done by Falcone provided the men with information on jobs and financial preparation. Point by point, on a white board, he discussed employment, what to beware of, choosing a position, bank accounts, taxes, social security, retirement and starting a business.
Falcone, a former accountant, also discussed retirement, pensions, 401(k) plans, IRAs, Roth IRAs and certificates of deposit. One of the volunteers asked him about mutual funds. “Sorry, that’s not my specialty,” Falcone said. When the class ended the volunteers and inmate facilitators also discussed that two-hour session among themselves.
Williams returned the following week and the class discussed turnaround packets. She also explained the Ban the Box law and how it gives ex-felons control by being able to bring up their incarceration when they feel comfortable. “It empowers you,” she said.
Williams reminded the men to stress four points about their incarceration:
Be honest about their criminal record
Be accountable for what they’ve done
Emphasize they’re not the same person today
Discuss what they will do for the company
A few men practiced mock interviews with Williams. One didn’t do so well. He needed more work. Instead of continuing to work on his skills, he dropped out of PEC shortly before graduation. Attrition was a big problem this session.
Streblow’s point about interviews defeating some people was discussed, but most of the men’s interviews were polished.
The homework for the next class meeting was for the men to have their turnaround packets ready and 10 copies of their résumés. Class ended a little early, but some men were asked to stay to do work on their assignments and turnaround packets. Others remained to get feedback and advice from other inmate facilitators. They were determined to meet employers and make it to graduation in spite of the fact that they are convicted felons.
By early May, about 25 men were attending the class to do mock interviews with Falcone, Davis and Nicolet.
“I wasn’t expecting to meet the human resources department of Clif Bar,” Polzin said. “You really have to have a skill set to speak well and have some common ground with employers. It’s an avenue to expand my network of people.” He has as a current job offer but said, “It never hurts to have more.”
Zach Moore, 37, has been incarcerated for 21 years. He doesn’t have much work experience other than a part-time job washing dishes for about three months when he was free.
“I’ve never had a job interview,” he said. “My expectation is to get job (interview) experience.”
Moore has an AA degree from Palo Verde Junior College. He’s also an alcohol and drug studies specialist with certification as a counselor and supervisor. “What gave me the employable skills is The Last Mile’s Code 7370,” he said. At Ironwood State Prison he was accepted in the Code 7370 program. After the first phase of the program he was transferred to San Quentin to complete it. He said PEC is a foot in the door, a stepping stone.
“The groups here [at San Quentin] are real, the volunteers are real,” Moore said. “I see the fruits of their labor every day. It definitely shows success.” In the next five years, “I want to be an ambassador for everyone in prison that’s doing the right thing. Guys who are putting in the work should have an opportunity.”
In mid-May the men in West Block went on quarantine for nine days. It’s another side of prison the outside world does not see. The men face challenges incomparable to many beyond the walls of San Quentin. But with PEC they have one goal in mind: to use what they’ve learned when meeting employers.
According to the RAND report, an estimated 25 percent of the American population has a criminal conviction on their record. This means, they’ve been arrested for at least one misdemeanor or felony at some point in their lives.
“Regarding more severe offenses, 19.8 million people have at least one felony criminal conviction,” RAND reported. “By the end of 2015, the total adult correctional supervision population—including those incarcerated in local jails, state prisons, or federal prisons and those on community supervision (probation or parole)—was nearly 6.8 million.”
“There are two sets of economic discrimination theories to explain why firms choose not to hire ex-offenders even when they possess the necessary skills for a job,” RAND reported. First, “employers worry that their clients or employees associate ex-offender status with being a high-risk worker.” Second, “employers cannot be certain about the productivity levels of prospective workers.”
Employer day arrived and some men were nervous, but after 15 weeks of training they were “so ready,” as Williams said.
“I’ve been in prison 37 years,” said Seth ‘Venus’ Roundtree, who identifies as a woman. “I haven’t seen anything like this. It helped because I can speak in front of people with no problem.” She said visitors were anxious to come in and didn’t feel intimidated. “These people who come from the streets treat us like we’re human beings.”
Bart Pantoja, a business representative with the District Council 16 Apprentice Program of Northern California, made his first appearance at PEC. His organization has attended several of these employment seminars. He said the event is great and has purpose. “We try to recruit because our industry needs more workers.” The organization offers “union apprenticeships in drywall finishing, floor covering, glazing, highway striping and commercial & industrial painting,” its brochure states.
For inmates interested in self-employment, the nonprofit Meda offered its Mission Economic Development Agency’s information packet on starting a business, in addition to its Work Force Development Program.
There were more than a few guests who heard about the program and came to observe. Malcolm Gissen was one of them. This was his fourth visit to San Quentin. “I’m so impressed by the people that are here, that’s why I keep coming back,” Gissen said.
“I’ve devoted my life to social action,” said Gissen, who works with people coming out of prison and with the homeless. He teaches them about finances. He supports the program. “This (PEC) gives everyone hope.”
Tom Lacey was another guest. This was his first time attending the PEC event. He normally comes into San Quentin for the basketball games because his son plays on a team that competes with the inmate team. He said the purpose of his attendance was to understand what he can do to “marshal more resources” for PEC, which is a nonprofit.
The federal government has been inspiring companies to forgive ex-felons. According to PEW, a 2012 U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guideline was issued to employers stating they should avoid a blanket ban on employing people with criminal records, because they could violate laws prohibiting racial discrimination. “Instead, employers should consider how old the conviction is and whether the crime would be substantially related to the job duties,” the report said.
After meeting the employers, some inmates acknowledged the value of what they were taught.
“I think I made some great connections,” Smith said. “I met some good people. They really care about us and want to give us a second chance.” He said Pastor Muniz told him that he has a job and a place for him to live through the church when he paroles.
“I’m grateful, because I’ve never taken the time to have a formal interview,” said inmate Aaron Tillis, 34. He said he was nervous but now he feels confident. He will parole in April 2020.
“I’m impressed that Diana (Williams) has it dialed in,” said Christina Gee, who works in human resources at Clif Bar. “We’re here to observe and be supportive. Clif Bar is supportive of employees giving their time to something they’re passionate about.”
Due to attrition more than half of the original attendees drop out. Jayro Magana, 21, was not one of them. Williams said he was the only one in the Youth Offender Program who made it to graduation. “I think you’re going to go out there and do great,” she said to Magana.
“PEC showed me there really are people out there that want to give me a second chance,” said Herena. He was found suitable for parole in February. He credits Williams, Davis and Nicolet for making it possible and thanked them for the opportunity to be a part of the program.
Before the graduation, Williams read interview assessments from employers and listened to feedback from the men before passing out certificates and a list of employers that hire ex-felons. She said, according to the employers’ assessments, 100 percent of the graduates interviewed the same or better than people in outside society; another 87 percent did better than those outside.
“They (employers) seemed to go out of their way to make us feel comfortable,” said inmate Maurice Brown.
Inmate Christopher Scull said, “I had a good time and it was a great opportunity. I’ve been out of practice but I never forgot it,” referring to his ability to interview and communicate with people in free society.
“I love this program,” Nicolet said. “This is the highlight of my week. I’m sad that it’s over until August.” She’s a former probation officer for juveniles in the state of Illinois. For the past few years she has helped facilitate PEC with activities such as grant writing.
Davis said, “It gets better and better. This has become one of the things I look forward to after a busy day at work. We learn from them (inmates) as much as they learn from us.” Davis has been volunteering with PEC for two and a half years, on and off. She previously worked with the California Re-entry Program. She holds a B.A. in sociology from California State University East Bay. She also has experience working in re-entry with men and women on probation in Alameda county.
Williams has been volunteering at San Quentin for four and a half years with California Re-entry Institute and TRUST (Teaching Responsibility Utilizing Sociological Training). She holds an M.A. in Counseling Psychology and is a Certified Professional Co-active Coach.