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Problems With Prisoner Reentry

On Friday, January 5, 2013, I attended a meeting with six other people at the Board of Supervisors office in Stockton. The meeting stemmed from efforts others are making with me to help people with criminal, or at-risk backgrounds transition into law-abiding, contributing citizens. Before I memorialize the meeting, this lengthy post will provide background on a number of the principal people who have been involved in the event of this project. Then I’ll explain among the explanation why I feel it is smart for corporate citizens to work together with municipalities for this purpose. Finally, I’ll explain for readers my perception of our Friday meeting and I’ll explain why I walked away feeling so frustrated.

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Reentry Project Development
This proposed reentry project began with a conversation I had with Lee Nobmann. Lee Nobmann is the founder of Golden State Lumber. He’s also a close friend, mentor, and employer of mine. Through Golden State Lumber and subsidiary businesses that Lee owns, he is considered one of California’s largest private employers, with several hundred people on his payroll.

Golden State Lumber dominates lumber sales within the state of California, controlling more than 40 percent of Northern California’s market share. It operates lumberyards in several Bay area locations, including a state-of-the-art, 70-acre plant in Stockton. In the course of the height of the housing boom, Golden State Lumber’s Stockton yard alone employed more than 250 people. Jobs that I’ve observed in Stockton include the next: lumber handler, forklift driver, sawmill operator, assembly line workers, truck driver, diesel mechanics, train drivers, dispatchers, retail sales, outside lumber sales, logistics, and all kinds of clerical or administrative workers. Few companies in Stockton employ a more diverse group of people than Golden State Lumber.

I’ve a singular job at Golden State Lumber, providing personal coaching services to Lee Nobmann. Each morning, seven days per week, we spend more than two hours together. He compensates me well for the privilege of discussing business ideas with him while we exercise alongside each other. According to Lee, our discussions each morning bring him more clarity and drive his purpose, which is why we meet day by day. In the course of the five months that we’ve worked together, our morning discussions have led Lee to bring deals together that have cumulative valuations measured within the tens of millions of dollars.

During one of our morning discussions, Lee asked why so few people emerged from prison with the kind of skillset that may make them attractive to employers. That question led to a long discussion about the complexities of imprisonment, however it fed into an even longer discussion about challenges offenders faced once they emerged from prison. One problem, I explained, was that folks with felony records have a tough time making it past the human resources department at many large employers, including Golden State Lumber and its subsidiary companies.

The more we spoke, the more engaged Lee became. He knew that I had developed The Straight-A Guide, a values-based, goal-oriented program that showed others tips on how to pursue the identical type of strategies I used to overcome the challenges of a quarter century in prison, all of the while preparing for a law-abiding, contributing life. In fact, it was Lee’s mentorship that inspired me to write The Straight-A Guide, and that i used it as a tool to point out other prisoners how they may pursue a self-directed path to organize for fulfillment upon release. With help from Justin Paperny and the Michael G. Santos Foundation, we spread that message to more than 100 people throughout America’s prison system. Those participants are working to document their commitment to develop the types of values and skills that employers appreciate. One participant, Tracy Taylor, wrote about how his work through the Straight-A Guide inspired him to change his life while he climbed through a multi-decade sentence.

Lee asked whether I could modify the Straight-A Guide to train people who’ve been released from prison. He wanted to know whether the values-based, goal-oriented Straight-A Guide learning system could help offenders understand and develop the kind of labor ethic that he expected from those who his company employed.

“Of course,” I explained. “The Straight-A Guide is solely a teaching mechanism. It helps me show others find out how to make principled, deliberate decisions, and the way those decisions result in success as the person defines it. It’s part of my how-do-you-define success course, and I take advantage of The Straight-A Guide to coach anyone, from CEOs to prisoners.”

Lee told me that if I could train people who’ve been released from prison on the principles of the Straight-A Guide, he would change the company employment policy in his company and open employment opportunities for people who graduated from this system.

After speaking with Lee, I contacted Justin Paperny. Justin serves because the executive director of The Michael G. Santos Foundation(MGSF). Over the course of its existence, I’ve collaborated with Justin to raise financial resources that might allow the MGSF to spread the Straight-A Guide program to prisoners without any charge to them. Grants I wrote have generated greater than $270,000 in funding for MGSF from The California Wellness Foundation (TCWF) and other sources.

I asked Justin to talk with Julio Marcial, his contact at TCWF to inquire whether that philanthropy would have an interest in funding a project to supply Straight-A Guide job training for people with at-risk or criminal backgrounds. Julio was enthusiastic concerning the prospect. As a director of TCWF, he has a genuine passion for transforming the lives of at-risk youth, and he immediately recognized the worth of obtaining support from Lee Nobmann, considered one of California’s largest private employers.

Further discussions with Lee led us to settle on Stockton as the precise city to launch this program. Stockton had a big problem with at-risk youth and plenty of felons lived locally. The town had recently filed for bankruptcy, and it needed some type of program that may open employment opportunities. Lee agreed to run a test program, saying that if I could generate resources to provide Straight-A Guide training, he would make an investment to expand the workforce in Stockton and employ those who graduated for the Straight-A Guide courses we taught. Julio and Justin then visited the Stockton yard last December. Upon touring the ability, they both became enthusiastic about developing this project further.

In an effort to share the vision with government leaders, I reached out to Councilman-elect Michael Tubbs. He is a dynamic young leader who recently won an election with greater than 60 percent of the vote for city council. From some research I did on Michael Tubbs, I expected that if I could persuade him to become a champion of our project, we could go a great distance toward receiving buy in from other municipal leaders in town of Stockton and the county of San Joaquin. Michael had grown up as an at-risk youth in Stockton, but he overcame enormous challenges to earn a full scholarship to Stanford University, graduating in 2012 with both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. He was the type of leader who would understand the worth we were proposing.

On the day after Christmas, I drove over to fulfill Councilman Tubbs on the Golden State Lumber plant in Stockton. The manager took us on a tour of the impressive facility, showing the numerous job opportunities we could create there. Councilman Tubbs immediately recognized that it can be a beautiful opportunity if we could pull this together, and he agreed to speak along with his counterparts in government to inquire whether we could receive funding to pay for the training.

The public-Private Reentry Collaboration Effort
The time seemed right to begin this collaborative effort to initiate a public-private reentry project. In any case, in early 2011 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower-court ruling that required the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to scale back its prison population by tens of thousands, and it ordered the state to make those reductions within two years, by the spring of 2013.

In response to that Supreme Court ruling, Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 109, legislation that became often known as “Realignment.” According to an intensive report that Stanford University’s Law School published, the aim of AB 109 was to shift more than $5 billion in state resources to local communities for the aim of reducing the California prison system, providing job-training and reentry services that might help more offenders emerge as law-abiding citizens. Each county was presupposed to deploy AB 109 funds to implement new and innovative programs specifically designed to lower incarceration and recidivism rates.

It wasn’t the primary time California lawmakers would offer funding to cover the costs of job training and employment programs for people with criminal backgrounds. In spite of everything, there have been enormous costs associated with our nation’s commitment to mass incarceration. Within the fiscal year 2008-2009, the California Legislative Analyst’s Office published a report showing that taxpayers spent a mean of more than $47,000 to confine a single offender for one year. Those costs have risen because the report was published.

The state has a history of authorizing payments to counties for the purpose of lowering the high costs of confinement by investing in programs that can assist offenders live as productive citizens. In 1966, for example, lawmakers approved the California Probation Subsidy Act to encourage counties to assume the responsibility of preparing offenders for law-abiding, contributing lives. That legislative act subsidized counties for their expenditures of job training; the Stanford report mentioned above indicated that the Probation Subsidy Act authorized state payments of $4,000 per felon for each person sentenced to probation instead of prison.

More recently, in October of 2009, the governor of California signed legislation SB 678 “for the purpose of reducing parolee recidivism.” When leaders documented that fewer people on probation of their counties were sent back to prison than the statewide average, the counties became eligible for prime-performance grants. In an effort to win those grants, probation offices across the state began training their officers in concepts reminiscent of motivational interviewing, cognitive behavioral therapy, and offering rehabilitation services to probationers. Savings from such programs amounted to $179 million in 2010 alone.

The new legislative bill referred to as Realignment, or AB 109, gave counties an unprecedented amount of discretion with regard to how they deployed their funding allocation to prepare offenders for law-abiding, contributing lives. Within the fiscal year ending 2013 and 2014, AB 109 funding would make $1 billion available to counties for the aim of reducing recidivism. With Councilman Tubbs’ support, I hoped to steer other government officials that we could contribute by offering training that will result in immediate job placement with Golden State Lumber. If town of Stockton and county of San Joaquin would match Lee Nobmann’s commitment to building this program by funding the training component, I might teach the Straight-A Guide to offenders and help place them in jobs.

Although I understood that other entities would compete for those funds, I expected city and county leaders in Stockton would join Councilman Tubbs in recognizing the compelling model that we were presenting. In spite of everything, I am a man who emerged from prison after a quarter century with academic credentials and employment opportunities awaiting me. Didn’t taxpayers want prisoners to return to society with similar levels of stability Since I earned my place while traversing a quarter century, participants within the Straight-A Guide program would find hope within the message. As well as, the participants would have hope in that they might qualify for immediate employment with Golden State Lumber, enabling them to begin earning a steady paycheck and building a career. I expected government leaders to want to align with the combined strengths of job training and employment opportunities.

Friday Meeting:
To be able to advance this reentry project, Councilman Tubbs coordinated a gathering with several municipal leaders whose buy in would be necessary. Lee agreed to hitch me and we flew to Stockton with expectations of receiving support. We met in a conference room reserved for the board of supervisors at the county building, and after introductions, the man who chaired the meeting asked Lee whether he intended to rent individuals who had felony convictions. Lee did not hesitate, offering to hire people if I trained them through the Straight-A Guide.

I then told the story of my 25-year journey through prison, concluding with descriptions of how I built a curriculum across the Straight-A Guide. I showed the different books I wrote that were a part of this system, beginning with Earning Freedom: Conquering a 45-Year Prison Term and concluding with the Straight-A Guide workbook. I spoke concerning the 100 people confined in prisons across America who were enrolled in the program now, and that i spoke about five people with felony backgrounds that Lee already hired. I told the group how I was coaching them through the Straight-A Guide now.

Following my presentation, Lee spoke about Golden State Lumber’s operations in Stockton. He told the group that his human resources department had a policy of not hiring felons, but that he believed in the Straight-A Guide program and that he had backed that belief up by overriding HR policies to rent the five folks that I used to be currently training. If local governments would provide funding for additional training services, Lee agreed to place more people with felony records to work.

Being ignorant of government processes and policies, I expected the government leaders can you wash hair extensions with normal shampoo to acknowledge the value of what we were offering. One of the city’s most successful business owners had taken the time to fly over at his expense. Lee’s only purpose in visiting Stockton was to fulfill with the municipal leaders for the specific purpose of initiating a program that may employ people with criminal records. The people’s histories of problems with the criminal justice system meant that those people currently couldn’t make it past screening by the company’s human resources department, and it was likely that other large companies had similar corporate policies that precluded them from hiring people with felony records. Yet Lee was willing to make a mid six-figure corporate investment that might result in the hiring of a dozen people immediately, and open employment opportunities for many more people within the months ahead. The level of training that I could provide could be contingent on the quantity of support the local government would extend.

To advance the project, I expected the federal government leaders to ask a simple question after they heard of Lee’s credentials, his personal investment in Stockton, and his willingness to rent people with felony convictions: What can we do that can assist you bring this project to Stockton In spite of everything, the state vested the county leaders with substantial financial resources. The federal government officials also had unprecedented discretion to use those funds specifically for the aim of reducing population levels within the California prison system and for training offenders for employment opportunities.

Yet rather than seizing upon the chance to secure an agreement from a major private employer who expressed a willingness to vary the hiring policies of businesses he owned, invest substantial resources to open new employment opportunities, and hire people immediately, the government leaders largely ignored Lee’s influence. Instead, they proceeded to teach us on the slow-moving technique of government, on the organizations with whom they’d existing relationships, and steps that I should take to modify The Straight-A Guide in order that, in years to come back, it could qualify for funding from different government agencies. Without having done more research than fanning through pages of the six-book curriculum of the Straight-A Guide, considered one of the federal government leaders concluded with a suggestion that I should incorporate roleplaying into the Straight-A Guide training program.

Although the government officials certainly thought they were being supportive, the meeting frustrated both Lee and me. Even Councilman Tubbs expressed frustration that we couldn’t change the course of the discussion to think about steps which may be available to release immediate funds for the aim of job training. The very best we could hope for was to partner with an existing nonprofit, or submit applications that might qualify us for funding later, however the funding being discussed wouldn’t be sufficient to develop the kind of comprehensive job-training program we envisioned.

As a consequence of the meeting, Lee lost all interest in developing the reentry program further. His lumber division in Stockton generated more than $1 million in revenues every week, and Lee wasn’t going to disrupt current practices, change corporate policies, and make the necessary investment to rent scores of individuals with felony backgrounds if government officials weren’t willing to match his level of commitment. Lee was not able where he needed to submit proposals and wait for the potential of a trickle of government funding to come forth. He was ready to rent a dozen people tomorrow and put scores of new people to work over the approaching year. Since the government leaders in the room had a real interest in adhering to the processes in place, we lost a possibility to put felons to work.

Going Forward
Friday’s meeting put me at a crossroads. Lee Nobmann is my employer and I must focus my attention on projects that he can you wash hair extensions with normal shampoo directs. We’re now discussing whether it is smart for me to devote attention to developing training programs across the Straight-A Guide and lessons I learned while traversing a quarter century in prison. I am nearly 49-years old and i need to build a sustainable career, one that may allow me to support my family.

Without time or resources to work fulltime on this reentry project, I’m frustrated. I’m now assessing whether I can afford to devote significant energy toward writing and teaching the strategies that empowered me through a quarter century in prison, or whether I must pursue an unrelated career to be able to earn a living.

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