‘When My Brother Comes’ – New Regulations Could Discourage Prison Visits

First Person, Tou Vang | The kNOw

Ed. Note: A new set of California regulations aimed at ferreting out contraband in state prisons threatens to discourage visits to family or friends behind bars. The regulations – which require visitors of all ages to submit to a canine and/or strip search – will become permanent this year barring a reversal by the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Criminal justice advocates fear the regulations could deter visits they say are central to lowering recidivism rates. Fresno native Tou Vang, 40, spent 20 years locked up and says routine visits from his brother helped him “feel part of society,” easing the transition to life outside. 

I’ve been in prison since I was 18. In the 20 years I was in the pen, I marked my time through visits from my brother. He made it a goal to see me once a year. Either in the spring or the winter, or when he was free he came to see me.

I know he had stuff to do with his family on the weekends, so I appreciated him taking the time to see me. But he did tell me how it’s kind of hard for him to visit.

He would drive two or three hours to my place. I was moved around to five different places during my stint but all of them were within a two-to-three hour drive from his home.

Once at the prison, he had to go through the name check, [guards] would pat him down, then he came to the visitor area. He said there’s usually a line of 50 to 80 people in the morning so it is a slow process.

I know he came to visit me a few times when we were in lock down. One time a prisoner escaped. Yeah that really does happen. So after coming out to the prison he had to turn around and go back home. Another time some knuckleheads got into a big fight during the week so they locked down our block. He had to go back home that time also.

When he came he brought bags full of quarters. We’d visit the vending machines in the visitor area and get pop and all sorts of microwaved foods. I’m sure you’ve heard that the food inside the pen sucks. No taste at all. So yeah, I look forward to eating food that people on the outside eat when my brother comes.

Football season was the best. We’d have our drinks and our food. I usually got some hot wings and a hot pocket and we’d watch the Raiders together. I know my brother is a Cowboy fan, but they always showed Raider games so it was all good. We ate, watched the games, then ate some more, and then the visit would end.

When it wasn’t football season we’d get our food and play Scrabble and he’d bring photos of his family. We’d talk about our relatives and cousins we grew up with and what they are doing with their lives. None of them came to see me. Not because they didn’t want to but because they all moved away. Most of them lived on the other side of the country.

My brother is the only one in our family who visited. My dad and another brother couldn’t come because they have records and so failed the background check. With my dad it would be a lot of awkward silence anyway. We never talked much.

My brother’s visits allowed me to feel connected to the outside. I know lots of guys get visits every month and a few every weekend. I know there are guys who don’t get any visits. It’s a lonely and pathetic place to be when people just forget you and you’re left to rot away without anyone caring. I’m glad I got to see my brother. It really helped me feel a part of society.

 

Grand Opening of Transitional Home for Women After Incarceration

By Ann Bassette

A new facility in North Richmond will offer women coming home from incarceration a stable living environment, a chance to begin rebuilding their life and for some the opportunity to reunite with their children.

The Naomi House, located on Fred Jackson Way in North Richmond, is a two unit duplex which will operate as part of a one year transitional housing program for up to six recently incarcerated women and their children.

A ribbon cutting ceremony themed “Home for the Holidays,” held on Dec 17, marked the opening of Naomi house and a fresh start for two of its first occupants.

Originally from Tennessee, Aesha Johnson grew up in Oakland and is one of the first women to move into Naomi House. On the day of the ceremony Johnson was all smiles as she boasted, “this is my room” while standing inside one of the empty bedrooms in the house.

Johnson, 36, was recently released from jail after spending ten days locked up for her role in a burglary.

“I was actually trying to handle business and the way of doing that was to do something that I didn’t really want to do, which was drive my car while people steal things from the store,” Johnson said, “and I got caught.”

Johnson said her four children were taken away from her by Family and Child Protective Services. While locked up with a heavy heart she met one half of the founding team of Naomi House, Dr. Edwina Perez-Santiago.

Together with Belinda Thomas, Perez-Santiago founded Reach Fellowship International, a local non-profit that provides job-training services, housing referral/placement, family-reunification services and life-coaching to formally incarcerated women. Naomi House is an extension of those programs and was built in partnership with a number of different public agencies. The house belonged to the Contra Costa County Housing Authority and was boarded up for years before Reach took it over and remodeled it with a low-interest, $242,250 loan from the county, secured with help from Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia’s office and the Community Housing Development Corporation.

Perez-Santiago, formerly incarcerated herself, said the vision for Reach was to ensure that women would get the services they needed in a safe environment where they can also connect with and support other women.

“It’s taught inside the county jail,” Perez-Santiago said of the program. “We are saying women matter and that we want to work with you to make sure that you live a productive life, and that’s what this project is about.”

For Johnson, who met Perez-Santiago while in jail, the message Perez-Santiago gave about opportunities after incarceration was nothing compared to Perez-Santiago herself.

“When I first me her, I got this kind of vibe from her, you know, and it made me really feel like I knew her and that I could trust her,” Johnson said. “So I kind of went along with that vibe. That led me to here and I know it is going to lead me to bigger and better places.”

“If I get me together all the way then there’s nothing stopping me from taking care of my kids like I need to,” she added. “I’ll be on my feet, they’ll help me get a job, maybe even counseling. I just feel like I’m getting everything I need here.”

Being a part of a community is something Perez-Santiago believes is essential to women like Johnson, who are entering society from incarceration. And it’s part of why Naomi House is located within North Richmond.

“Rather than putting them somewhere out in some kind of forest, we wanted to find a place in a community, where a school is coming, where the supervisor has high expectations of how this community is going to change and how it’s going to look,” Perez-Santiago said. “We have women of all cultures, age, different ethnic backgrounds but they’re in the same boat, and they want to have a better life.”

Courtney Moore, 26 from Vallejo, will also be living in the house. She was recently incarcerated for eight months for identity theft, but she said she’s “planning to change my life.”

“Housing has been hard to find because I really didn’t know where to look when I first got out,” Moore said. “I want to be more self-sufficient. Living with my parents I kind of get enabled, and I haven’t lived with them for a long time. So this chance now to do this on my own, clean and sober, is a new chance for me.”

Moore has been dealing with the realities of life after incarceration, most notably finding a job and, eventually, a career.

“Having a felony on the record it’s pretty hard to find a job,” she said. “I’m still learning about myself. I don’t really know what I want to do yet, but I know that I want to go back to school. I think now I’m trying to figure out what I want to do as far as what I want to do in life; a career.”

Perez-Santiago’s hope is that Naomi’s House will give Moore, and the women who come in like her, the space and time to figure things out and move forward in life.

From Felony to Misdemeanor

News Report, Nancy Deville

Kimberly Gamboa is doing her best to readjust to life after incarceration. She is enrolled in reentry programs, meets with her parole officer regularly and spends countless hours looking for employment.

But, since her release in April, she’s only landed temporary jobs. Gamboa says two felony child abuse convictions are the barrier between her and a good paying, full time job.

In 2014, she served a six-month sentence in West County Jail and now has a four-year felony probation. Her charges are considered “wobblers,” which means it could be reduced to a misdemeanor but only after she’s completed her probation, she said. But Gamboa is hoping the recent voter approved Proposition 47 might give her the break she needs. She’s not sure if her case qualifies, but will look to the Contra Costa County Public Defender’s Office for help.

Also known as the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, Prop 47 reclassifies some non-serious and non-violent drug or property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. Crimes covered by the measure include drug possession and the following offenses when less than $950 is involved: shoplifting, check and credit fraud, forgery, theft and possession of stolen goods. Those with histories of violence or sex offenses will be ineligible for the lighter sentences.

Prop 47 will redirect hundreds of millions of dollars to K-12 schools, crime victim assistance, community health services and rehabilitation programs. The proposition passed by 65.8 percent in Contra Costa County.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation estimates roughly 4,770 inmates are eligible to petition for resentencing. The law is also retroactive and qualifying prior felony convictions can be reduced to misdemeanors regardless of how long ago the person was convicted.

Supporters of the initiative believe the legislation will bring financial benefits to the state and be a game changer for the countless inmates either serving time or those like Gamboa who are trying to re-acclimate to society.

“My convictions just keep me in a place that I can’t do the things I need to do,” Gamboa said. “When I do fill out applications and they do a background check, I’m automatically dismissed. I do temporary work but right now I don’t have an assignment. So it hinders me from being financially stable.”

The Contra Costa County Public Defender’s Office is working to ensure the inmates are resentenced or released as quickly as possible. Judges heard the first batches of cases the Friday immediately following the election passage of the proposition in November and thirty-eight people were granted release.

“The voters showed they were ready to bring about long needed criminal justice reform, that they are ready to reduce incarceration and shift that money to improving public safety,” said Ellen McDonnell, a Contra Costa County public defender. “For those with low level non-violent felony convictions, we believe Prop 47 relief will reduce the barriers many have faced to finding employment, housing, and access to various types of government programs.”

Since the initiative went into effect, dozens of felony cases have been reduced to misdemeanors and close to a hundred people have been set free in Contra Costa County, McDonnell said. The maximum jail time for most misdemeanors is one year in county jail, and if an inmate has already served more time, they should be released. People have three years to file a petition for prior convictions.

“By overturning some of these lower level offences it can open many doors for people to have opportunities that would not normally exist,” said Tamisha Walker of The Safe Return Project, a local organization that offers support to newly released inmates.

“In Richmond, this will create an opportunity for some to get things off their record, but for most it won’t wipe their slate clean, overall they still would have some felonies,” she said. “My number one job right now is to connect with those coming home through Prop 47 and help them figure out the best way to integrate to be successful.”

Despite the obstacles, Gamboa isn’t giving up.

“People don’t understand how tough it is because they are not in this predicament,” she said. “But to know that my felonies could be dropped to misdemeanors will sure make things better.”

Those with questions about a Prop 47 case can contact Ellen McDonnell, Contra Costa County Deputy Public Defender, at 925-335-8075 or prop47@pd.cccounty.us.

Local Program Lets Grads Leave Their Past Behind

By Malcolm Marshall

“Lets give a round of applause to these courageous young men and women who took an opportunity to take a stance to make difference in their lives,” said Dewanda Joseph, mistress of ceremonies at the graduation ceremony for 19 students of the Collective Impact Institute.

The students, ranging in age from teenagers to middle aged adults, had just completed a 10-week long course designed to foster leadership among men, women and youth who’ve been directly impacted by the criminal justice system.

The Collective Impact Institute aims to invest in the transformation of people in Richmond by exposing participants to the basics of violence prevention, personal transformation strategies, community organizing and civic engagement strategies.

A reading of scripture and a word of prayer followed the applause for the graduates.
“Today is a new today,” Joseph said, reminding the students that using lessons learned in the course will lead them away from more time in prison. “I thinks that’s something to rejoice about today,” she said.

Missionary Baptist Church in Richmond was filled with the proud graduates on October 9. It was a chance to celebrate second chances and progress made.

“This is not just about individuals reclaiming their lives, lead instructor Andre Aikins said. “This is about us reclaiming our city and living in community the way it is supposed to be.”

IMG_6037Aikins said the graduates would impact not just their lives but also the lives of everyone they touch. “Their children, their friends, their family and eventually the entire community,” he said. “We are one people. We are one.”

One by one, Aikins called each graduate to the stage and awarded them with certificates in violence prevention from Alive & Free: Omega Boys Club, to heart felt applause from the audience. Graduates also received a two hundred dollar stipend provided by CCISCO and Safe Return Project. All of the programs are partners in the project, along with The Ripple Effects, an organization that helps people coming from prison back into society; American Friends Service Committee (SF), a group that works to heal the formerly incarcerated through restorative justice and the Redemption Center, a group that works to promote social economic development.

Aikins said that part of what he hopes each graduate gets from the program is a different outlook on him or herself.

“The first thing that anyone has to do in order to recover is to acknowledge and forgive oneself and move on from that point,” he said. “It’s doesn’t matter what anybody else sees. It matters what you see about yourselves.”

He said that it’s common for people to hear the words “formerly incarcerated” or “reentry,” and immediately attach a negative stigma to it. “What’s lost is the human element,” he said.

Sandra Buford, one of the graduates, says she knows all too well the stigma, after serving 21 years in prison. “Man said I would never see daylight,” she said, “but God said, ‘Yes.’”

“I worked hard to get to this day,” she continued. “It’s special, and a good feeling to be able to stand here today.”

Beaming in front of the crowd that included family members and other suppoters, Buford spoke passionately about her personal journey and her experience with the Institute.

“Going through this 10-week course was kinda rough,” she recalled. “We dealt with a lot of serious issues. My new journey is to work with women. The city of Richmond has a lot of support for men but we don’t have none women,” she said.

She said she wants to share what she’s learned from her experience, and her new outlook, with young girls.

“I want to reach out to these young girls that’s fighting, that’s lost,” Buford said. “I get it today. I understand how I got to that, so I got to give it back.”

Another graduate, Johnny Valdepena was also incarcerated and doesn’t want to see more youth go down that path. “I’ve been a part of the Safe Return Project before so this was kind like a refresher but it gave me some more tools to keep advancing in this work and reaching out to the community.”
Valdepena said he’s done other, similar trainings but the institute was still useful for him—and personal.

“Some of the writing assignments were very powerful,” he said, adding that it provided him with a new way to look at things, key amongst them: “Learning how to stop the anger from really evolving.”

Former Prisoner Finds Solitude, Joy, Working at Community Garden

Profile, Edgardo Cervano-Soto

Brandon Clark, 25, loves being outdoors and meeting people, which makes his job managing the Edible Forest Garden on the Richmond Greenway an ideal fit.

“This is the perfect location to have [a community garden] because of all the traffic that comes in and out of this place,” says Clark. “When you put [together] gardening, the outdoors, and communicating with other people – well, that’s a plus for me.”

Clark can appreciate these things more than most because it wasn’t too long ago that he was cut off from both nature and his community, entirely.

00 IMG_0209_EClark spent his childhood years living with his father – his parents had divorced — and two brothers. His grandmother also lived nearby. The family home was located near the corner of 12th Street and Ohio, but it also sat at the intersection of deep-seated and sometimes violent neighborhood rivalries.

Clark was not immune to the drama, and by the time he entered middle school, he was already running with the wrong crowd. “I used to bully people, take their things, get into fights and miss school. It was out of control,” he recalls.

When Clark was 12, his father decided to relocate the family to Bellflower, Los Angeles. A large suburb, Bellflower was an opportunity for Clark to hit the reset button. “My father took me out of Richmond for a reason,” says Clark. “He saw the potential in me.”

The move paid off. In Bellflower, Clark finished middle school and went on to high school, where he joined ROTC and played some football.

Yet, he would not remain in Los Angeles. Clark eventually decided to strike out on his own, and he returned to the Bay Area. He hooked up with JobCorps, a work skills program in San Francisco, where he began to master gardening and carpentry, things he used to do back home in the yards of his extended family members. Clark was making progress, but it all came to an abrupt halt in 2009, when he was sentenced to prison at the age of 20 for committing a robbery.

Prison was a two-year journey that shook Clark to his core. After spending a year in jail in San Ramon, he was transferred to San Quentin State Prison for 6 months, which Clark describes as the worst place he’s ever been. The sanitary conditions, isolation and inmate hierarchies challenged Clark to adjust quickly.

“At San Quentin they had us locked in a cell 23 hours a day. We had 30 minutes to eat. If you didn’t finish, you brought your food back to your cell,” he says.

His final six months were spent at Pelican Bay, another state prison with a notorious reputation. But Clark describes his personal experience there as being far better. He was grateful to hold various jobs at the prison, including in the administration office, even though, he says, he received no compensation for the work. During his time there he was also able to earn a GED, enroll in anger management classes and even take a business class.

At 5:55 a.m. on October 23rd, 2010, Clark was released and given $200 to fund his re-entry to free society. His mother, who was then living in Antioch, picked him up. Clark remembers craving a cheeseburger, and getting motion sickness during the long windy car ride back down the coast to the Bay Area.

In the weeks following his release, Clark found it hard to shake certain routines he’d learned in prison. He woke up at 6:30 each morning, worked out, had breakfast and returned to his bedroom. At 10 a.m., he would “begin” his day, as was the case in prison. In his bedroom, Clark always folded his clothes, tucked away his belongings into neat spaces, and kept his room in impeccable order.

“My youngest brother told me, ‘Bro, you’re out of there. Relax!’ But in my mind I was still [in prison],” says Clark.

There was one new routine that Clark soon became accustomed to in his new life on the outside – filling out job applications. Clark was released on parole in Antioch, and like all parolees he had requirements to meet: he was given three months to find a job, and failure would constitute a violation of his parole, potentially returning him to prison. He applied to jobs everyday, grimacing every time he had to check the felony conviction box on applications. He noticed when potential employers would scan his application only to pause at the checked box. With no interest from employers and facing the very real prospect of going back to prison, the routine became stressful.

00 IMG_0222_EClark’s big break came when a cousin gave him a tip about a job opportunity at a local Richmond non-profit organization, Urban Tilth, that was looking to fill an apprentice position at one of their gardening sites. Already being familiar with Richmond and having picked up gardening and carpentry skills from JobsCorp, Clark knew he could do the job if given a chance. He immediately went to Richmond and applied for the job, and in a matter of weeks he was interviewed, hired and began his training. His first project was working on the flower boxes and planting trees at the Edible Forest Garden.

He narrowly avoided the parole violation, and was officially released from parole on November 23rd, 2012.  “That’s a chapter of my life that is closed now,” says Clark. “I’m never returning back.”

Clark now has a different course – he plans to return to school and earn an Associate’s Degree with a focus on business. He currently lives in Richmond with his grandmother, for whom he also does garden work. Under his watchful eye, the Edible Forest Garden has grown into an oasis, appreciated by unsuspecting by visitors, an interactive space where one can hear and share stories.

During our interview at the garden, a young man from the neighborhood approaches Clark, asking him for suggestions on trees and plants for his yard. The conversation moves across the street, and ends with the two shaking hands. Clark returns to the Edible Forest Garden, walks up to me smiling and says, “He used to be in the military. [Now] he’s going to volunteer and help out around the Edible Forest. That’s what I like best here. You can be here, and engage.”

Former Prisoner Grows Hope, Trees, for Richmond

News Report, Edgardo Cervano-Soto

Near the gazebo on the Richmond Greenway at Harbour Way, small trees bagged in plastic were spread out on a bed of wood chips. Families and Richmond residents huddled together, examining the trees by type: cherry, nectarine, peach. The apple trees were long gone – they’d been snapped up by the early birds.

The Tree, Seed & Veggie Giveaway on April 5 was the fifth time that Self Sustaining Communities, a Richmond nonprofit that promotes locally grown food, has distributed hundreds of fruit, nut, and olive trees to Richmond families and other local gardeners. To date, SSC has distributed over 11,000 trees in Richmond, says Linda Schneider, the organization’s founder and executive director.

She founded SSC in 2009. The organization focuses on working with residents of low-income, high-crime neighborhoods to create sustainable systems, like rainwater harvest systems. SSC has opened three gardens in Atchison Village and the Iron Triangle. In each project, SSC engages residents of the neighborhood, including youth, elders, and the formerly incarcerated. “This is our part of helping the community be green and involved in community transformation,” Schneider says.

Families and tree lovers alike came for the vegetable and flower starts, hundreds of seed packets, and the main attraction – trees of multiple varieties.

Alfonzo Jones, 18, was one of the volunteers; it was his first time at a tree giveaway. “It’s great – it’s bigger than what I expected,” he said. “I’ve learned more about trees today than [ever] before.”

Jones and the volunteer team at the giveaway are part of a new organization, TRUPP, or The Remember Us People Project, which supports the re-entry efforts of recently released offenders. TRUPP works to transition formerly incarcerated people who are on probation or parole back into society by providing a place to stay upon release, as well as aid in finding jobs.

Barry Dugar is the founding director of TRUPP; he was inspired by friendships he developed while in prison. “I myself spent six years in prison,” he says. “The men inside would tell me, ‘You’re lucky, Barry. You have a place to stay [when you’re released], but we don’t.’” The conversations he had with his friends about going home and being on parole inspired Dugar to create a transition program.

00 00 IMG_0150_E

Alfonzo Jones and Barry Dugar of TRUPP work together to ease the re-entry process for the formerly incarcerated in Richmond

TRUPP currently operates three transition houses and an employment support program. Since it started seven months ago, the organization has helped four former inmates successfully obtain jobs. Most parolees have only three months to find a job; failure to find one can qualify as a parole violation. Word about TRUPP has spread among Dugar’s former prison mates. “I have guys who knew me in prison that are calling for a place to stay, because they’ve heard of TRUPP inside the prison walls,” says Dugar.

The transition houses go farther than just providing a place to stay. Dugar says he focuses on care: “I try to instill in them that yes, we’ve made mistakes. Yet, we are human and we have the ability to care. We can care for others and do something.”

Jones describes Dugar as his mentor. “Barry took me under his wing and I am sort of his protégé,” says Jones. “I am helping in the transitional housing because he has a lot of older people who need help in cleaning up and getting their medicine. I do a lot of odd jobs around the house to help them feel good about themselves.”

For Dugar and Jones, working with formerly incarcerated people is a way of being involved in their whole community. Organizations like TRUPP and SSC are important in the project of building sustainable communities that can thrive.

 

Staying Off Probation, and Teaching Others How

Profile, Pendarvis Harshaw

In 2008, Reinaldi Gilder promised himself that he would never go back to jail. Since his release in December of that year, he’s not only managed to keep his word, he has also shown others that they can do the same.

“Being on probation [is] kind of like being Black in the 1800’s,” Gilder said as he stood in the main hallway on the second floor of the Alameda County Probation Department building in downtown Oakland.

As sunlight beamed through the window into the hallway, Gilder squinted and summed up the desperation felt by so many on probation: “There’s no way to come up out of that.”

Gilder had been on a dangerous path. He was arrested in 2007 for armed robbery and sentenced to one year at Alameda County’s Glenn E. Dyer Jail. Prior to being released, Gilder says he sat in that jail cell and made a decision that would alter his life’s path. “I decided to go to school, because I know people that go to school don’t go to jail that often, ” he said. After being released in the winter of 2008, Gilder was given five years of probation.


He promptly enrolled in community college courses in Berkeley and Alameda, through the Peralta Community College system. He struggled academically – he failed some classes — but kept at it. Fours years later, in the winter of 2012, Gilder had earned a certificate in prevention strategies from Alameda College, where he’s currently pursuing an associate degree in general education.


During his time as a student, Gilder immersed himself in campus life, through joining various organizations and clubs, and attending events and forums. One day he attended a film screening on campus — the movie was an independent feature film, “Equinox,” a coming of age tale of a young man who finds the true definition of manhood. At the screening Gilder met the director, Baayan Bakari, and the two exchanged contact information. Later that school year, Gilder organized his own screening of the movie, and Bakari attended.

Bakari, a former youth group facilitator at Oakland’s Mentoring Center, was quickly impressed with Gilder’s commitment to bettering his own life, and the lives of others. “He’s doing the work,” Bakari exclaimed during an interview in his Berkeley office. “I wish (Gilder) could hold a thousand screenings.”

Gilder, now 28, regularly volunteers on behalf of Alameda’s Probation Rehabilitation Opportunity Program Service (PROPS), a program that assists young men on probation and offers them a chance to terminate their probation early.

Speaking to half a dozen young men in the group last spring, Gilder drew on his own experience: “You’ve got a short window to do things in a certain way, and this will allow you to move on with the rest of your life.” The young men, all on probation for various offenses, from violation of probation to gun and drug possession cases, listened.


It was just one of the many workshops Gilder leads. They take place monthly, and the number of young men in the group fluctuates from anywhere between three and fifteen, depending on the time of year. Gilder facilitates the discussions, and draws on his experiences to give the participants a tangible example of what it takes to get off of probation early. He also organizes tours of college campuses and hosts screenings of worthwhile films — such as “Equinox” — with the PROPS group.


“When you see young people like Gilder get off probation early and come back, it’s a blessing,” said David Cummings, Gilder’s former probation officer, who now supervises his work in the PROPS program.
“If you believe that you won’t go back to jail, and actually take certain steps to do so,” said Gilder after finishing one of his PROP workshops, “I think it’s possible for anyone to get off of probation.”

Sealing Youth Offender Records Brings ‘Chance at a New Life’

Commentary, David Cunningham, New America Media

Ed. Note: In June, youth advocates testified before a hearing of the Senate Public Safety Committee in Sacramento in support of AB 1006, which would require court and probation officers to inform youth offenders of how to seal their records upun turning 18. The bill is currently awaiting approval by the Senate Appropriations Committee. The author, David Cunningham, 23, is a youth contributor to New America Media (NAM) and a member of the California Council on Youth Relations, a NAM project that brings youth voices to policy discussions in the state capitol.

SAN FRANCISCO — Joy riding, staying out past curfew, drinking in public — to me it was all just harmless fun. But to civil society it was breaking the law, and I paid the price. After 13 months of serving time in juvenile hall, paying off restitution fees, and doing community service, I thought I was in the clear. I soon found out that wasn’t the case.

I was tired of dealing with the system. I was ready to change my life. I tried applying for part time jobs at Subway, Radio Shack, McDonalds, Jack in the Box, Century 21, and a few other places. But after 30 days of checking the “I have a criminal record” box on job applications, I still hadn’t been called back for any job interviews. I was ready to give up.

I realized that even though I’d legally paid my debt to society, my criminal record condemned me to a life of continuing to pay for the mistakes of my youth, over and over again.

And then a friend told me I could seal my juvenile criminal record. I barely believed him, because no probation officer or judge ever told me I could have a fresh start. I reached out to a community organization in San Francisco to see if he was right, and it turns out he was. A caseworker helped me submit my paperwork to get my records sealed.

Being given a clean slate felt great. I ended up landing a few jobs. I worked for the Department of Public Works and Brothers Against Guns, an organization that works to reduce violence. Having those jobs taught me the importance of taking advantage of good opportunities, and just cherishing what you have. I’m grateful to that case manager and to other community-based organizations that look out for kids in trouble.

But many youth aren’t lucky enough to find the support of local community-based organizations. And many more aren’t even aware of their rights or the services that are available to help them.

Young people coming out of juvenile detention into today’s job market need more than just a pat on the back and a friendly “good luck finding help.” Every youth should have the opportunity to go into a job interview feeling like they have a fair chance, like I eventually did.

When I found out that there is a state bill, AB 1006, that would require probation officers and courts to provide information to juvenile offenders about how to seal their criminal record, I went to Sacramento to show my support.

The California Senate Public Safety Committee is one of two key committees where all the crime bills are voted on. When state assembly member Mariko Yamada, the author of AB 1006, motioned for me to join her up at the podium, I went up and testified to the room full of people dressed in business attire why I believed young offenders should be informed about their right to start over with a clean slate by sealing their juvenile records.

I shared with them things I’d learned from my own personal experience: that feeling defeated, before you even apply for a job, is what can cause a person to go crazy. It’s enough for some youth to lose all hope of finding a job, and they will resort back to what they know best — a life of crime to pay the bills.

I was fortunate enough to have a support group and a mentor to guide me in the right direction. But we can’t assume that all of California’s youth will be helped by community organizations. We need probation officers in every county to give youthful offenders the information they need to seal their records so they can find work.

When I finished my testimony, I asked the politicians to vote in favor of AB 1006. Some seemed to not care — when I spoke, it seemed like they wanted to be somewhere else, and they voted “no” when the time came, without hesitation. Others, however, expressed some concern for the issue being raised, and ultimately the bill did receive enough “yes” votes to pass the Senate Public Safety Committee.

But state politicians still have two chances to vote the bill down, and I’m going to do whatever I can to make sure they know how important this issue is. Because sealing juvenile records not only means getting a fair shot at employment, it means giving young people like myself a chance at a new life.

A Richmond Mother and Son Navigate Life After Prison, Together

News Feature • Anna Challet

This article was updated by Pulse editors on June 7, 2013 after it was discovered that the criminal charges reported in the original article were incorrect. The author of this article was unaware of the actual charges at the time of publication.

LaVon Carter was still a teenager when he committed the crimes that would result in his being sentenced to five years in federal prison. Today, he’s reunited with his family – including his mother, who has also returned home from her own recent time served.

They both say that family is what sustained them throughout their re-entry process.

“If you don’t have anybody, you’re going back [to prison] pretty soon,” says Carter, a Richmond native, now 25. “You might make it for a few days or a few years, but if you don’t have a support system, you’re going back.”

While there are former prisoners returning home to their neighborhoods in the Bay Area every day, few can say they were co-defendants with one of their parents. In Carter’s case, that’s exactly what happened.

Carter’s mother, LaVern Vaughn, 41, came to Richmond with her parents and siblings in 1976. “It was kind of hard growing up here. There was a lot of violence. A lot of my friends were victims of homicide,” she says. “From my perspective though, it was nothing compared to the violence that escalated while [my son] was growing up.”

Carter was born when she was 16.

“It was just regular life to me,” says Carter. “For people from my background, it’s just normal … A lot of violence, drugs, prostitution. Everything that goes on in every ghetto across America.”

Vaughn says that the time leading up to her and her son’s arrests was marked by “some horrible choices … I had been involved in a lot of illegal things from a young age that I was exposed to by other people.” She and Carter would ultimately be co-defendants in a case involving prostitution.

In 2008, they were both sentenced to terms in federal prison – Vaughn to two years, and Carter to five. Carter was taken to an institution in Southern California, despite the existence of federal facilities close to the Bay Area, which was hard on the family. Because Vaughn was released before Carter, she was able to visit him during the last few years of his incarceration. But she had to rent a car and spend a night in a hotel, which was difficult to afford. She points out that most families of the incarcerated aren’t able to regularly make such a long trip, which can alienate them from the one who’s in prison, making rehabilitation that much more difficult.

“The simplest thing … that would mean a lot to people – instead of sending them eight or twelve hours away, keeping them at an institution that’s close to home,” she says.

Her son agrees that being closer to the Bay Area would have made a difference. “Sitting in jail, these people love you but they aren’t able to come visit, and it leaves a salty taste in your mouth,” he says. “A young black male, eighteen years old, doesn’t understand that. Then what? Back to the street taking stuff from people, or breaking the law while you’re inside the institution.”

According to Vaughn and Carter, neither institution did anything to prepare them for what they would experience after their release. Counseling was not available and no one told them what resources might or might not be available to them.

“They had a release date planned. They give you a ride to the bus station … That’s it,” says Carter.

Both immediately tried to apply for food stamps and General Assistance. They discovered that because of the nature of their crimes, they would not qualify for food stamps, and the earliest available appointment to apply for General Assistance was three months away.

“They gave me a list of food pantries. If you don’t have a family that’s what you can expect,” says Vaughn. “I can’t say that I would have been okay if I hadn’t had [my family]. I was really overwhelmed because I didn’t know what I was going to do. I knew I could go with my family and they were going to be there.”

Vaughn pieced together odd jobs until she found work with the Safe Return Project, an initiative led by formerly incarcerated Richmond residents. In the context of California’s prison realignment under Governor Brown, which seeks to reduce prison overcrowding and recidivism, the project aims to improve the re-entry process for current and former inmates through a countywide plan for prisoner reintegration. Safe Return is in the process of developing a “one-stop” place where former inmates can go to find all of the resources that are available to them.

“We need to create a situation where fathers can come home and be fathers to their children, instead of these fatherless and motherless children running amok,” Vaughn says.

Carter, who had spent the first few years of his adulthood as an inmate, was released on May 4, 2012. Determined to support himself, he was working at a construction job by May 21.

“Dates like that are easy for us to remember,” says his mother. “After you’ve sat in prison and felt like you were rotting, dates become very important and you don’t forget them.”

“Your release date is like another birthday,” says Carter. After his release, Vaughn helped him set up a meeting with the local union coordinator. The coordinator gave him a list of numbers to call.

“I woke up every day at six, calling, calling, calling … Even if someone told me they weren’t accepting applications I’d show up in full work gear,” he says. Just over two weeks after his release date, he began work.

“If you come home and you have people depending on you, [you’re] lucky … When you’re in prison, you say to yourself, ‘I’m never coming back.’ But you’re sitting there with people who have been in and out their whole lives,” he says. “I just stay focused. If I didn’t have a family I’d be back in the streets.”

Likewise, Vaughn credits her son with giving her the motivation she needed to change her life.

“It was important to me for my son to come home and see me doing something different than what he saw me doing when we left,” she says. “It was important to me for him to understand the value of our relationship and the relationship that he had with the rest of my family … So he would know that right, wrong, or anything in between, I’m always going to be here.”