Employers, reentry, and other job placement professionals convened at Prison 2 Employment Connection’s first post-COVID Employer Day at San Quentin State Prison in March. There, inmates met with potential employers prior to reentry. Graduates took the stage the following week to receive their certificates of completion.
This PEC session marked the end of an era. Diana Williams, PEC’s co-founder and former executive director, has stepped down after more than a decade of service to the incarcerated community.
“I want to share a brief account of how the heart of a volunteer can change the lives of hundreds of people,” said Angel Alvarez during a speech at the graduation ceremony. Williams, he said, “made it her mission to find a way to start a program to support those who were close to release on parole, and to address the ongoing issue of recidivism. She embarked on a path to create a program like nothing that had ever been done before.”
Alvarez became emotional as he talked about Williams’ idea to go far beyond providing reentry addresses, telephone numbers, and referrals in a one-day workshop. He said, “She wanted to do more. And she did — for hundreds of people.” He highlighted how Williams “recruited second chance employers willing to come in to conduct interviews, in person, with participants. The result, he said, was “like no other program in the history of rehabilitation.”
That model, while new, is a powerful one. PEC graduates who parole boast a recidivism rate of only 1%, according to PEC donor and advisor Tom Lacey.
PEC participant Daniel Le, 34, said he was surprised to find a program like PEC at a prison. He currently works as a clerk in the prison’s Catholic Chapel, and is about three years into his incarceration. The experience was “amazing,” he said, and he was optimistic about his interviews with employers.
And Mario Gonzalez, 52, said that programs such as PEC are the reason he came to San Quentin. PEC allowed him an opportunity to step outside of himself, to become more confident, and to continue with the changes he is making in his life. “This particular program teaches you to have enthusiasm,” he said.
One organization that attended Employer Day was Checkr, which does background checks. “I think it’s great,” said Denise Hemke, who has been with the company for one year. It was her first time working with a PEC-type program, and she said she was impressed with participants’ communication skills and “good growth in mindset.”
Kerry from Farming Hope, which calls itself a “garden-to-table” job-training program and offers part-time transitional employment in kitchen, barista, and garden work, was similarly impressed.
“I can tell each of you have been working hard in preparing,” she said.
Other attendees included Citi Bank, Salesforce, Tesla, Reentry Services Center, Santa Rosa Junior College, Goodwill, Hospitality House, Clean Slate (Alameda County Public Defender), Oakland Private Industry Council, and SF Made.
Still, change can be difficult. At Employer Day, Williams seemed sad that her time with PEC was ending after helping to change the trajectory of lives for hundreds at San Quentin. She has been the backbone of the program since its inception. But, “it’s just time for me to hand it off,” she said, calling the experience “the most fulfilling thing I’ve done in my life.”
Kevin McCracken, who has replaced Williams as PEC’s executive director, recalled that it has not been an easy time for PEC. The COVID-19 era was “brutal,” he said. “It cut the program short.” The day before Employer Day marked three years that San Quentin went on a 416-day modified program, due to the pandemic. Somehow PEC was able to endure and survive: 37 students started and about 30 completed the program this year.
As part of the fight to keep the program alive, Alvarez, who has been a PEC facilitator since the program’s inception, recently recruited two new facilitators from The Last Mile’s program, Code.7370, where he works.
“A lot of men and women who are paroling will have to deal with the stigma of incarceration,” said John Levin, 58, one of those new facilitators. “We have a unique opportunity to present — to use the programs as positive assessment of our growth — to be able to talk about our history without shame.”