Prison to Employment Connection (PEC) at San Quentin graduated 44 men from its ninth session in June. The week before graduation, more than 40 business, career and education professionals attended Employer Day at the prison to do one-on-one interviews with the men.
PEC’s 15-week program prepares men to be “job ready” before paroling. According to statistics from Diana Williams, PEC executive director, 210 men have graduated from the program since 2015. Of that number, 96 have paroled and only one has returned to custody.
“We’re all here this after- noon to connect with each other,” said Williams, who discussed how recidivism rates run between 31% and 71%. For those who find employment after prison, the numbers are 3% to 8%. PEC outdoes those figures with its 1.41 % recidivism rate.
“At the beginning of the program, we promised you that we’d meet you halfway,” Williams said to the graduates. “I expect each of you to come see us when you get out because we’re here to help you.”
Inmate Norman Willhoite, 57, is serving a second prison term. He served 28 years the first time. With no clear direction when he was released, he went back to what he knew. He said the employers coming in give inmates an opportunity that wasn’t here 10 years ago. “It (PEC) gave me back self-confidence.”
“It’s a good program,” said inmate Jesse Buruca, 27. “I feel they (PEC) do provide the information you need to be able to prepare to be job ready.” He learned how to conduct himself at a job inter- view, “to be comfortable and be yourself.”
Inmate Jaryd Newton, 31, said he recommends all in- mates take the class. “They’ve dedicated their hard work and time, and I can’t be more ap- preciative,” he said. “You guys (guests) didn’t look at us as inmates.”
West Oakland Job Resource Center interviewed inmate Hamisi X. Spears, 46, and discussed employment opportunities. The center provides apprentice training programs, job referrals and other services. “I really en- joyed this class,” said Spears. “It prepares you for the future. And it gives you the skills to help you get a job.”
“I learned there are more job opportunities than I thought for the formerly incarcerated,” said inmate Lemuel Brown, 57, who has been incarcerated for two years. “If you have to be here (in prison), don’t make it a total waste. I don’t see any other way to make an opportunity.”
Michael Erickson of SF Made attended PEC’s employer day for the first time. “This is incredible,” he said. “I’m absolutely blown away by this, I’m really glad I came up today.” His organization prepares people to interview who are involved with manufacturing, and holds careers in manufacturing workshops.
Mark Kidd, 35, an inmate who volunteers for PEC, participated in the program about two years ago. “When I went through the program, I saw how beneficial it was for us in- mates to parole with a job.” He returned to volunteer because he saw how much it helped him. He said looking at many younger inmates wasting time doing nothing, compared to those he’s helped, “is really a good feeling to give back.” He said PEC was genuine about helping the men. “I wanted to become one of those guys” (who help people).
“I think I have something to offer,” said inmate Robert Pol- zin, 43. He’s a PEC volunteer who graduated from the program in 2017. “It’s just been a great opportunity to offer my experience,” he said. “It seems like the job world is a little more liberal than it used to be.”
Jennifer Rudd from City College of San Francisco said she’s happy to represent its culinary arts basic train- ing and management, baking and pastry, and culinary and service skills training certificate programs. It was her third PEC appearance. “As usual, I’m super impressed with the preparation of the men,” she said.
Lisa Trustin, a first-time PEC volunteer, attended the workshops, employer day and graduation. “It has all the right elements to help someone get a job,” she said. She has a career counseling background, with 15 years as a career counselor. She learned about the program while volunteering with California Reentry Institute.
“I like helping the under- dog,” said PEC volunteer Gabrielle Nicolet. It was her fifth session. “This is the most inspiring place I’ve been.” For three and a half years, she’s volunteered at San Quentin. She said people always talk about helping others, but they’re generally not referring to incarcerated people be- cause so many people dislike prisoners, but no one needs help more than the incarcerated. “I like helping people who need it.”
Over the years, Nicolet has worked in different areas of the criminal justice system. She currently works as a defense paralegal. She received training from the University of the Pacific and is currently pursuing law school.
Other organizations that attended Employer Day were the Workforce Development Board of Contra Costa County, the District Council 16 Apprentice Program of Northern California, Saved By Grace, Positive Resource Center, Goodwill Industries, and CEO Works.
Oakland’s Private Industry Council was there to assist the men with reentry programs. Part of its stated mission is to “support the journey toward equitable sustainable employment.”
Before the men received their certificates at graduation, they offered comments and feedback to the PEC staff and inmate volunteers:
“I always thought I wasn’t employable.”
“I learned proper etiquette when talking to employers.”
“You’ve pushed me and helped me through this process.”
“Sometimes I gotta swallow my pride.”
“It takes a lot of courage to ask for help,” said Robert Frye, who often speaks at PEC graduations, to encourage the men. “It’s always bittersweet to see new and old faces,” he said. He paroled from San Quentin about five years ago after serving 25 years in prison. “I’m no better than you,” he told the men. “I just got lucky and got out.”
Frye did a quick question- and-answer session fielding inquiries such as how long did it take him to feel like a citizen? How’d you feel about technology? He said he felt normal in about six months, especially when he started paying bills. Because he was allowed to use computers in prison, he “adapted well” outside.
The men applauded Frye after listening to his inspirational speech and stories of his accomplishments after he paroled.
“Good luck is when preparation meets opportunity,” said Angel Falcone, an inmate PEC facilitator. “When you do the best you can, people won’t forget that and will help you.” He advised the men to think about the future, get a Roth IRA, to not depend on Social Security, and get medical insurance.
Clif Bar of Emeryville, Calif., worked with PEC again this session. Its human resources and other departments helped the men with resume writing and interview skills.
“It kind of humanizes the (prison) experience,” said Kim who works in HR at Clif Bar. “It really is about building partnerships.”
Alicia who works in marketing at Clif Bar didn’t know what to expect coming inside a prison. “It was really cool to see the growth and confidence built,” she said. “It’s very moving.”
Salesforce recruiter and volunteer resume writer, Laura Pedersen, heard about PEC through someone who comes in to play basketball with the inmates at San Quentin. “I like people to have hope,” she said. “I think it’s awesome.”
Williams said of the nine PEC sessions, this was only the second time that 100% of the men interviewed the same or better than people outside of prison. “You were better than the class that came before you.”
Williams provided inter- view statistics ranging from 1 as poor, 2 below average, 3 average, 4 above average, and 5 excellent. She said there were no scores of one or two. The men received the following ratings from employers:
3 = 19%
4 = 39%
5 = 42%
The height of the last four months came when each graduates’ name was called. One by one, they walked to the stage area, shook hands with the volunteers, and were handed certificates and packets of useful employment information that will help them transition back to society and enter the work force. Everyone applauded to support each other. At the end, Williams yelled, “Job.”
The graduates all responded with “Ready!” as part of PEC’s customary mantra.