A record number of inmates at San Quentin State Prison completed the Prison to Employment Connection’s (PEC) eighth session and graduated in November.
About 40 inmates finished the program. This gave them the opportunity to assess their employment interests, learn resume-writing and how to conduct themselves during an interview.
At employer day, the men spent two hours using what they learned on how to present themselves to more than 30 employers, career placement experts and trade unions.
“It’s a great program,” said inmate Forrest Jones, 56. “It gives a person like me a chance to get employment.” Jones was found suitable for release by the Board of Parole Hearings in June.
“I feel it’s a wonderful experience and it reaffirms my belief in humanity that these employers are willing to give us a second chance,” said inmate Edwin Hutchinson, 58.
James Boster from District Council 16, Apprentice Program of Northern California, said he is formerly incarcerated and understands what the men are going through. He also attends career and job fairs on the outside, “to give people a better future.”
“By coming to programs like this, I’m able to give back,” said Boster. “People that come from struggle are more humble. I’d like to give all these inmates a big congrats for their accomplishments, and to the volunteers. I respect what they do.”
“I have to admit, I volunteer for selfish reasons,” said Susan Broman-Smith. “The transformation that I get to see (in the men), to watch the confidence in themselves.” She also volunteers at California Reentry where she met PEC Executive Director Diana Williams.
“I come here because I want the inmates to understand people want to see them succeed,” said Malcolm Gisien. He’s a wealth manager and financial adviser. “We value everybody.”
Mishcha Kubancik has attended several PEC sessions. She is owner of Every Dog Has Its Daycare. Each time she attends employer day, she emphasizes that her employees “have to love animals.” She hired a 35-year-old man who paroled from prison. He’s been employed with her for about six months. “Every day he comes in smiling,” she said. “He loves his job.”
Lee Conley, 59, has been incarcerated since 1996. He said he is comfortable talking with employers and enjoys their feedback. “It’s good practice on resumes and interviews.”
“This is what PEC is all about. It’s about connecting with people”
Joyce Guy represented Job Resource Center, a construction, union and apprenticeship program in West Oakland. “My most successful individuals have been formerly incarcerated who served more than five years,” said Guy. “Their discipline is different. They remind me of people who’ve been in the military.”
“I’ve never really been gainfully employed,” said inmate Erin O’Connor. “Everything I’ve done (in prison) for the last decade has led me to this point.” He was recently found suitable for parole after serving more than two decades in prison.
At the end of the interviews, there was a Q&A session between inmates and employers. The inmates thanked Williams, the volunteers and all of the employers for coming in and offered random comments:
“It’s been a total boost to my confidence.”
“You keep us believing in ourselves.”
“The feedback I got was incredible.”
“You guys really made us feel like family.”
Inmate and PEC facilitator Dwight Kennedy told the guests, “This is what PEC is all about. It’s about connecting with people.”
Afterward, the men gave the employers and PEC volunteers a standing ovation.
“It’s exactly why we do what we do,” said Williams.
PEC volunteer Gabrielle Nicolet commented, “I believe that everyone deserves a chance — a chance to prove they’re not their mistakes; that they’re worthy and human. I show up every week because I want them to know that.”
The men all shook hands with the guests and thanked them again for attending as they exited the chapel.
Two weeks later a formal graduation ceremony was held in the chapel. There, Williams greeted the men. “Hi everyone,” she said.
Then she shouted: “Job!” The inmates yelled back: “Ready!” The exchange was repeated several times in military cadence: “Job!” and “Ready!”
Later, Williams asked the men for feedback.
One inmate responded, “It may not seem like I have low self-esteem, but I do.” He explained that because of that, he did not strive for good jobs. He noted the Prison to Employment Connection helped him to be able to articulate his values and experience.
The men discussed presenting themselves to different employers and how they learned to tailor their interviews to different people. Many said they had to learn that.
“It’s been a long time since I had a job and it’s good to know I still have it,” one inmate said about his interviewing skills.
Another inmate said the prison system needs to understand that Williams and the volunteers who run PEC “are needed here…I was nervous but it (employer day) brought back my skills.” He said he was a truck driver for 18 years, without an accident. “You guys brought out in me what I had in me all the time.”
Another inmate said “I’ve done some spectacular things in my life. One moment in time doesn’t define me.”
“The reasons I do this is because I get inspired by all of you,” said Williams. She added that she likes to see the change in the men over the 16 weeks.
Williams said PEC will start tracking men on the outside. This is because organizations that support it want information and data on PEC participants’ employment success on parole.
According to Williams, there were 248 interviews done on employer day. The men received copies of their interview assessments from the employers.
The rating system was 5 excellent, 4 above average, 3 average, 2 below average, 1 poor.
Numbers show 35 percent of the men had a score of five; 44 percent received a score of four; 18 percent received three; and three percent scored a two. No one received a one. The numbers showed 97 percent of the men who interviewed did as well or better than people on the outside.
Robert Frye, 50, is formerly incarcerated. He served 25 years on a term of 26-to-life, the last 14 years at San Quentin where he paroled from nearly five years ago. He attended the PEC graduation to give the men encouragement and tips for success upon their reentry to society. “You gotta keep your options open,” he said.
The ninth Prison to Employment Connection session is scheduled to begin in February 2019. Sign-up sheets will be posted in the San Quentin housing units.