Prison to Employment Connection (PEC) reached a milestone at San Quentin, completing its 10th session and graduating 44 men, who learned how to present themselves to future employers.
One of the highlights of the program was Employer Day in November, where 196 interviews took place with inmates inside the prison’s Protestant chapel. They were conducted with potential companies that hire the formerly incarcerated. A subsequent graduation ceremony was held two weeks later for the Session 10-44 graduates.
Keeping with tradition, Diana Williams, PEC executive director, spoke to the audience comprised of inmates, guests and PEC volunteers. She said the rate of recidivism in California is more than 60%. “That means 26 of the men in this room would come back to prison within three years of their release.” She offered employment as one of the key solutions to reduce recidivism.
According to Williams, recidivism is cut in half when those who are formerly incarcerated find employment. For those who have jobs upon release from prison, recidivism is 3.3% to 8 %, she said.
“To date, 253 men have graduated from PEC,” said Williams. “Of those, 153 have paroled and only one has returned to prison,” leaving her program with a 1% recidivism rate.
“This is a blessing to me, something I’ve been needing my whole life,” said Edmund Johnson, 47. He’s been incarcerated 24 years. “I think the program is excellent. It’s teaching me to use my transferable skills. It’s teaching me how to talk to employers.”
Williams explained how during months of preparation the men learned personal and work related interests. They studied work values, resume writing, interview skills, their incarceration history, and used it all to create “packages of success.” She said they also worked on learning how to reframe rejection.
“It’s designed to connect the men to themselves,” Williams told the audience of employers and career specialists. “Men in this program experience a renewed hope.”
She said 68 men started the class in August. Two weeks later, the Session 10-44 graduates attended a ceremony in the Catholic chapel, where they received certificates and other paperwork that will allow them to find employment upon their release from prison.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Michael Belton, 58. “I signed up, and I wasn’t sure, but I said ‘what do I have to lose?’ I actually gained something from it.”
He said PEC taught him to be open about his criminal history.
Gary Falxman came in from Realty One and the Oakland Rotary Club. He had toured the prison previously and said he learned about the programs in prison, and it made an impression on him. “I’m back here to help others find what they’re passionate about,” he said.
Checker is a San Francisco-based company working to modernize the background check process.
“Our mission is to promote fair chance hiring,” Rebecca Rabison said. “We do that by trying to provide more employment opportunities for people with conviction histories.”
“Socializing” the idea of second chances, Orrian Willis works for the City of San Francisco’s Office of Economic and Work Force Development. It funds 45 job training programs, 13 of which focus on technical training. It was his third time attending Employer Day. “In our labor market, the demand is starting to recognize the talent” (of the formerly incarcerated)”.
Willis asked, “If people do their time why are we still punishing them when they get out?” Adding, to give them employment, “I think it’s our fiscal responsibility.”
“I was nervous and excited, not to mention I almost fell off the chair for giving me such an opportunity of a lifetime,” said Edwin Chavez, 44. He said he’s never had a job interview in his life. He’s been incarcerated for 25 years.
“I love it,” said Steve Garrett, 34, who’s been incarcerated for 18 months. “I think it’s a great program. The opportunity and skills that they’re giving us is what we need to stay out of prison.”
Elizabeth Toups, of the Jewish Vocational Service, had visited the prison previously during a graduation ceremony. “I was so impressed with what everyone was doing here,” she said.
The San Francisco-based organization works with people from all backgrounds to help them get jobs.
“Sometimes that involves connecting them to training, “she said.
When the interviews were completed, the guests reconvened to seats on the stage in the chapel. Williams commented that this 10th PEC session had the largest group of supporters attend Employer Day. Twelve of them stood up and received a warm applause from the men.
Jay Minteer was one of those supporters. He said another supporter, Tom Lacey, introduced him to PEC. He said it’s a worthy cause to make sure people don’t come back. It was his first time inside of a prison.
“I was impressed when I walked in and shook everyone’s hands,” said Minteer. “It works when you shake someone’s hand and look someone in the eye.”
“Thank you for believing in these men and this program,” said Williams. She introduced and thanked the inmate PEC volunteers who’ve also gone through the program and come back to help others. “As outside volunteers, we can only do so much for the program.”
Williams explained how the program was started before introducing Nobel Butler, who came up with the idea to provide inmates a head start on employment before parole. When he was incarcerated, he wanted to know how to get a job and to present employment prospects to the parole board.
“I just really wanted to come back and say things that other people (said to) me, so I really wanted to give back. This is my opportunity,” said Butler. He paroled and said he’s been gainfully employed ever since. The audience applauded his success. “My purpose here today is to give you guys hope. I think maybe I did something half right.”
“I realize life is an interview,” Williams, a PEC graduate now on parole, told her. She acknowledged and thanked PEC volunteers Lisa Trustin and Gabrielle Nicolet.
This was Trustin’s second session. “It’s not different because we experienced the same transformation the men make connecting with their own hope,” she said.
“It’s always different,” said Nicolet. “There are different challenges, like lockdowns, that present challenges. The prison population is different than it was a year ago.”
She said the core of why she volunteers is because prisoners need help. It was her sixth session.
As the guests sat on the stage, they received feedback from many of the inmates.
“I want to thank you for your friendly demeanor,” said Richard Richardson. “This program is everything I thought it would be. You guys treated me like a human.”
The employers and guests also shared their comments with the men.
One said, “This is the second time I’ve come, and each time there’s a new excitement.”
Another said, “You all should be teaching people how to interview.”
Their remarks kept coming.
“I’ve looked at a lot of resumes, and I can’t tell you how much I’d like to see more of these,” said another guest.
At the graduation ceremony, Williams asked, “How many of you would have taken this class if you weren’t getting RAC (Rehabilitation Achievement Credits) credits?” About 90% of the men raised their hands. Then she read the interview results of the PEC graduates and said they did as well or better than people on the outside. The percentages from low to high:
5 Excellent 42%
4 Above average 39%
3 Average 19%
2 Below 0%
1 Poor 0%
Derry Brown said someone suggested he take the program. He went through the class and has now become a facilitator for the program’s 11th session. He said he’d never completed a resume or had many jobs and that his youth was swallowed up with incarceration.
“I didn’t have any of these skills,” he said. “So for me to go through this process was inspiring.”
In addition to Williams, Angel Falcone has been a volunteer for all 10 sessions. He told the men, “Every job is your business school” and advised them to do the best they can on every job.
“Everything we learn, we’re going to need,” said Dwight Kennedy, who volunteers for the program. “Take what you’ve learned and apply it to your life.”