Oakland nonprofit helps parolees land on their feet

Women On the Way Recovery Center in Hayward is a sober living environment for many women who are leaving prison. Pastor William Grajeda, left, frequently comes to the house to share information about the Gamble Institute's resources and to host Bible studies.

Women On the Way Recovery Center in Hayward is a sober living environment for many women who are leaving prison. Pastor William Grajeda, left, frequently comes to the house to share information about the Gamble Institute's resources and to host Bible studies.

Veronica Hays stares out the window of a 12-person van cruising down I-580. In front and behind her, other passengers chat quietly with one another. Riding in a van with other parolees like herself on their way to volunteer has become a regular Saturday routine for Hays. This week they’re heading to the Alameda Food Bank where they will spend the afternoon organizing food donations. For Hays, just the thought of her sitting in this van, sober and out of prison, is enough to make her smile.

“Anything where I can handle life situations sober, is just like ‘Wow!'” says Hays, who has a long history of alcohol abuse and who served five years in prison for a violent crime.

After being released from prison in 2008, Hays says she fell back into her alcohol addiction. She said it was largely due to being overwhelmed by her transition from prison back into society, and to returning to a neighborhood where there is a liquor store on every street corner. She feared that her children resented her, and worried that without the routine of prison life, she would go back to drinking—and she did.

Now in recovery, Hays is getting her life back on track. The Gamble Institute, an Oakland-based parolee reintegration program, is helping Hays and over a hundred other Alameda County parolees start a new chapter in their lives by assisting them with job training, health care information, housing and emotional support.

There are anywhere from 3,500 to 4,000 parolees living in Alameda County, and about 1,700 to 1,800—or nearly half—of those parolees live in Oakland. Approximately 50-100 people are released from prison to Oakland every week.

Employment is a critical factor in ending the cycle of poverty, crime, and incarceration, says Dr. Elizabeth Marlow, a nurse practitioner who is the executive director and co-founder of the Gamble Institute. The majority of the parolees are unemployed or underemployed, according to the California Department of Corrections (CDC). Seventy-four percent of all reentering state prisoners also have a substance use disorder, according to the CDC.

Hays says participating in the Gamble Institute computer literacy and volunteer program called PAROLEE POWER Works! will be essential to her employment and reintegration success. “I have a fear of computers. I know I have to learn to work with them,” says Hays, who has been unemployed for about seven years. “I want to get back into the work field. I’m using this for baby steps.”

Like all of the programs at the Gamble Institute, PAROLEE POWER Works! was based on the input of members of the parolee community. “Everything that we do is influenced and created by men and women on parole,” said Marlow. “For parolees it’s so important—it gives them a sense of ownership over something that they are really creating and building.”

The Gamble Institute was founded in October 2009, in part to provide what’s called “reintegration counseling,” an innovative counseling and case management program designed to help parolees successfully re-enter society after their incarceration. During the 90-day program, the institute’s reintegration counselor, Pastor William Grajeda, accompanies clients to appointments like court hearings, DMV registration, school registration, and visits to employment agencies.  For about six hours a week per client, he helps parolees develop a plan that will create the kind of life they want.

Grajeda, the institute’s other co-founder, has been providing pastoral counseling to men in prison and on parole for the last 11 years. Before that, he spent 32 of his 51 years of life behind bars—11 of those in solitary confinement—serving time on assault charges, both in and out of prison. He became a Protestant pastor in 2009 after a decade of transforming his spiritual life while in prison.

“I’ve lived all my life in institutions,” Grajeda said. “I’ve been out many times and I’ve been back many times. Learning from all those experiences, I’ve learned that I got out with no direction. And that’s what the parolee gets out with.”

When a person is released from prison, they get $200 from the state to use toward transportation and finding housing. They are required to go to the parole office within a week. Grajeda says that at the parole office, the parole officer will usually tell the person to stay out of trouble, wish them good luck and say, “See you when I see you.” Parolees are usually offered little information about social services that are available to them upon release.

“That’s not helping,” Grajeda said. “Right now, we have in the Bay Area 82 providers that will help parolees. But the parolee has to trust these providers, and as a parolee it’s hard to trust. We grew up in a community in prison that you don’t trust even the person you’re sleeping with. It’s so engrained in us to not trust that we are wary to believe anyone is going to help us, just for free.”

Grajeda says that without the help of social services, many parolees are instead tempted back to the life they knew before prison. “They need help,” Grajeda said about the recently released inmates. “They’ll do whatever it takes to stay alive, to stay full, or to stay drunk, or to stay high. Where are these people going then? Right back to prison.”

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, approximately 60 to 70 percent of all individuals on parole in the US are re-incarcerated within three years of release of prison. About a quarter of all re-incarcerations are for parole violations, meaning that the person has not followed the conditions and requirements of parole supervision, not that they have committed new crimes. Parole violations can include not following curfews, associating with other offenders, or having a positive drug test

In order to develop trust with parolees and urge them to take advantage of social services, Grajeda attends appointments with them, acting as a translator between the client and the agencies providing resources like shelter, job training programs and substance abuse recovery programs.

Grajeda also attends the California’s Police and Corrections Team (PACT) meeting in Oakland every week to represent the Gamble Institute’s client-members—it’s a two-hour orientation session that all parolees in Oakland must attend within one week of their release from prison. At the meeting, a range of service providers explain the support they provide, ranging from drug and alcohol counseling to job training and domestic violence counseling.

In addition to facing re-entry to society with multiple problems and few resources, many parolees have grown accustomed to life in the correctional system, Grajeda said.  Parolees leave a highly structured, closely monitored, non-private environment to enter a socially isolated world that requires self-regulation, self-control, and independent decision-making skills. This can be disorienting for newly released individuals, causing stress, fear and destructive behavior that leads to them re-offending and being sent back behind bars.

“We have to fight this—it does nothing to increase public safety, it does nothing to make our communities safer because it’s such a destructive and brutalizing force in peoples’ lives that really break people down,” Marlow said. “The struggles that people have with self-esteem and believing in themselves… you see folks who are so amazing and you believe in them and who they are, but they can’t see it. This is not a good way to treat people.”

The Gamble Institute recently received $10,000 from the UCSF School of Nursing to further study the reintegration counseling program, including looking at drug use and recidivism outcomes. So far, the institute’s staff says that their program is working. A recent self-evaluation of the Gamble Institute’s reintegration counseling program found that at the end of 2010, 90 percent of parolees in the program remained abstinent from drugs and alcohol, had housing, and were either in school, employed, or both. None of the participants had committed new crimes, Marlow said.

“As of October of 2009, we served over 160 parolees. We have 21 of them on my case load doing good,” Grajeda said, “None of them has been back to prison, and that’s a big thing. Twenty-one parolees for a year hasn’t gone back to prison? That don’t happen.”

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