“Hi there! What can I get you?” With his hands clasped neatly in front of him, LeDarren Holden greeted customers at the Home of Chicken and Waffles with a broad smile. A group of teens with multicolored hair, lip piercings, and side-tilted baseball hats examined the menu, vexed about what to order. They settled on the “Lil John” special, with red beans and rice, before Holden moved on to seat the men in business suits who’d arrived for post-work drinks.
Holden is 24. He’s been working at the Home of Chicken and Waffles restaurant, across from Jack London Square, since 2008. Before that, he was a 19-year-old who spent 8 months in county jail for strong-arm robbery.
“I was young and it was dumb,” Holden said, as he carried two large plates of steaming chicken wings with mac and cheese to a pair of wide-eyed customers. Working at the Home of Chicken and Waffles has “given me a chance to work for what I want and learn from my mistakes,” he said. “Not many people get that second chance.”
“Uh huh. Second chance? You mean, third, fourth, and fifth chance,” Holden’s boss, Derreck Johnson, said with a laugh. The owner of the Home of Chicken and Waffles, Johnson stood behind the diner counter, his broad shoulders tucked under a long black coat and a yellow Cal t-shirt. His face was framed by a rugged five o’clock shadow that congregated at his chin into a goatee speckled with bits of white. It was the only feature that hinted at his age, providing information that his face alone refused to divulge. It was late on a weeknight, and this was Johnson’s last stop after a hectic day of traveling between his restaurant locations in Jack London Square and Walnut Creek.
He gave Holden a playful nudge. “But LeDarren’s always been a good one,” he said. “Right?”
Johnson hires the formerly incarcerated. It’s a practice he began two decades ago. “My philosophy is that the community has helped build and make my business what it is, and I always need to employ and serve the community in which I’m in,” he said.
A West Oakland resident and loyal Raiders fan, 47 year-old Johnson said he spent the first nine years of his life in the Acorn projects, before his mother remarried and moved the family “on up” to Adams Point. Although he left what he described as the ‘hood’ at a young age, Johnson said he has never forgotten his own background. “I come from one of the roughest parts of Oakland,” Johnson said. “I understand what it’s like to come from a disadvantaged situation.”
He first began his re-entry hiring practices in the 90s, when he owned car-detailing shops in Oakland and San Francisco. “In the beginning, it became really hard to gauge the flow of customers, and a couple of times we were hit really hard with business,” Johnson recalled. One of his employees suggested Johnson call his house to get some guys to work that day. The employee’s “house,” Johnson learned, was a halfway house for ex-offenders.
“Instinctively, it really didn’t matter,” Johnson said. “I said, ‘If they’re willing to work, let’s make it happen.’ And it just kind of worked out from there.”
Johnson is one of a handful of employers who purposefully choose to hire the formerly incarcerated. Soon, hundreds of men and women like Holden will be knocking on doors like his in search of a second chance that pays.
As of October 1st, following a US Supreme Court order requiring the state to address its epidemic of overcrowded prisons, California has begun releasing hundreds of inmates into Oakland and other cities. The “Realignment Plan,” as the release program is called, hands off responsibility for hundreds of low-level offenders to the county, rather than the state. Depending on an inmate’s original release date, he or she will either be transferred to a county jail, or released into the care of Post-Release Community Supervision (PRCS), or probation.
For Alameda County, that means 848 inmates currently in state prison will be released into the county’s care over the course of three years. 577 inmates will be released to PRCS this year alone, from October 2011 through June 2012.
Three kinds of inmates are supposed to be released into the counties’ care:
• Inmates currently in state prison for nonviolent, non-serious, non-sex offenses – but who could have prior violent offenses
• Newly convicted nonviolent, non-serious, non-sex offenders who do not have a prior conviction for a violent offense
• And parole violators.
The definitions of what kinds of crimes are considered by penal codes to be “nonviolent” and “non-serious” are complex. Alameda County’s Chief Probation Officer, David Muhammad, said the vast majority of those who will be released have been incarcerated for drug possession or theft.
Prisoners who qualify for release into county care under the new law will not necessarily re-enter right away. No inmate is supposed to be released before his or her scheduled release date, and those who are transferred to the counties will serve the remainder of their time in county jail instead of state prison.
According to a fact sheet provided by Muhammad, estimates by the sheriff’s department and the state show that once the realignment plan is fully implemented, county jails will house at least an additional 47 new inmates each month, and Alameda County jails will have 267 more inmates per day “at any given time.”
To prevent the revolving-door phenomena of the formerly incarcerated, the role of business owners like Johnson, is critical, Muhammad said in an interview at the city’s Neighborhood Safety Summit on Saturday. “He’s done an extraordinary job of hiring people on probation or parole, and in keeping them employed,” Muhammad said. Johnson’s “a perfect example of a private and public partnership.”
Johnson sold his auto detail shop years ago, but kept up his re-entry hiring practices. He stayed in touch with the man who ran the halfway house, a longtime friend who still passes Johnson recommendations for prospective employees. Including Holden, a total of nine current Home of Chicken and Waffles employees are on parole or probation. Johnson leaves one of every five positions open to hire former inmates.
He has no particular criteria for hiring ex offenders, Johnson said – several of the men and women who have worked for him, or who currently work for him, have committed violent felonies. He won’t hire anyone he knows has a substance abuse problem; Johnson said addictions call for special services, such as counseling and additional medical treatment, that he is not equipped to provide.
Johnson had a cold, and asked Holden for some ginger tea. Tucked away at a booth upholstered with grayish cushioning, he leaned forward and dipped a Numi tea bag into a paper cup. “I just think that the way that the whole system is designed is really not designed for it to work for previously incarcerated people to matriculate back into society in a normal situation where they have the self confidence to get a job,” he said.
If prisoners are released without any support once they come out, Johnson said, they will more than likely go back to crime to survive. “I mean, everything is just ‘No, no, no, no, no’ to them. Everything. So if everything is no, and you can barely put food on your table and can’t put a roof over your head – people go back to doing the same things that got them to jail.”
Hiring people right out of prison has its challenges, of course, Johnson said. “A lot of the employees that you hire that are on parole, they’ve just never had a job,” he said. “They lack a lot of the soft skills that most previously employed people already have, like knowing to call if you’re going to be late, or are sick.” Johnson said he “definitely noticed a change” in these individuals, from the time they’re first hired until after they’ve spent a few months working. “They become more responsible, and more productive,” he said.
So what would he tell an employer considering making these kinds of hires? “It’ll be a rocky road in the beginning,” Johnson said. “Ninety percent of them come in with a really bad attitude.” There’s an initial struggle with egos, he said. “Overcoming that prison mentality, that they’ve always got to be the tough one, is kind of hard to break.”
There’s also “emotional baggage” that employers need to deal with, Johnson added, like romantic drama or single-parent daycare issues. “But once you overcome those initial hurdles, you’ll have someone who’s very loyal, and who will be extremely grateful. It’s the biggest reward I get.”
It’s not the only reward Johnson has received. In 2009, local assemblyman Sandré Swanson, D-Alameda,
commended Johnson’s successful re-entry hiring practices. Johnson – who said 80 to 82 percent of his formerly incarcerated staff either stay or receive employment elsewhere – was picked by Swanson as the district’s honoree at the annual California Small Business Day.
“As a small businessman, Derreck Johnson has created an enterprise that is not simply a financial success, but a community achievement as well,” Swanson said at the time. “By hiring local residents, particularly those who often have difficulty finding work, Home of Chicken and Waffles contributes to our economy while creating a better quality of life for many people.”
Johnson acknowledged that he’s “not an average employer.” That’s why there’s a critical need for a transitional program — a “golden door” that prepares ex offenders for the work force, he said. “More employers would participate if there was a really formal and effective training program in place, before this population is just presented to an employer like, ‘Hire me,’” he said. “Once employers see the quality of these people, they would be more willing to hire them.”
Johnson paused for the noise of one of the Amtrak trains that chug past the front of the restaurant on Embarcadero Street at least twice every hour. He sipped his tea and watched his niece as she shoveled ice into a glass for a customer.
“I know the things that helped propel me living in that community was coming from a very strong family base, and a lot of these individuals don’t have that,” Johnson said. “Since we do address that here, people feel like family,” he said, before he added with a big smile, “And I sometimes talk to them like they’re family too.”
Behind Johnson, a large mural of his extended family overtakes the diner’s front wall. Over a yellow background, painted portraits of “Sabrina’s Select Chicken Burger,” the “Uncle Do Sample,” and the “Homeboy,” showed smiling faces carrying plates of delectable southern soul food such as cornbread, wings, and potato salad with greens.
The family feel may mean a lack of professionalism from time to time, but it’s warranted, Johnson said. “If they come into a situation where they feel they can achieve, then they’ll achieve,” he said. ”If you throw somebody into something where they feel like everything is so above their head, it’s intimidating. You got to gradually break them into that.”
Over the last three and a half years, LeDarren Holden has become a part of the restaurant’s expanding family. Starting off as a dishwasher, right out of county jail, he worked his way up to become a shift manager, and said he hopes to go back to school one day. “Jail, prison, is a whole other reality–it’s straight-up survival,” he said. Without jobs and employers like Johnson, “People will go straight back to prison,” he said. “That’s the cycle.”
Holden walked over to the cash register to take care of a customer’s bill. “You ready?” he asked the young woman, who replied with a polite nod. Johnson watched her leave, and Holden welcome in a young couple. He leaned back and stretched his arm out on the back of the seat.
“I don’t think you can judge people on their past. You can only look at them presently and where they want to go,” Johnson said, as light from the street lamp outside streamed through the window and onto his face. “With a little bit of confidence building, with a little bit of attention and someone showing that they care… I mean, we’re humans. That’s what most people want.”