on March 16, 2009
Gabriel De Jesus is bent over a laptop, eyes moving back and forth between the screen and the stack of forms on the desk next to him, jotting occasional notes. An older man knocks on the door and says he’s there to pick something up; De Jesus has him sign in on the sheet outside while he looks for his file. The phone rings; he answers, “Citizens for Education, this is Gabriel.”
De Jesus works four days a week here at the Merritt College office of Citizens for Education (C4E). His days there are completely normal – so normal that watching him work, you’d never know that he spent more than a decade high and selling drugs, in and out of jail, perpetually on parole and running from state to state to evade the authorities after him for violating it. You wouldn’t know that this is the first time in his adult life he hasn’t been in the system.
“It’s kind of like I have a new life, in a weird way,” he says.
After four years on parole, De Jesus was officially discharged from the rolls last September. Until then, he was one of roughly 6,000 parolees and probationers living in Oakland. Leaving the system isn’t easy for people like De Jesus, especially at the beginning – with the freedom to make good choices comes the freedom to make bad ones. 70 percent of parolees and probationers in the state of California return to prison within three years. It’s a statistic De Jesus is trying to avoid.
“I’ve been going in and out of jail since I was 15,” De Jesus says. “I’m 28 now.” He’s Puerto Rican, medium height and build, with a big smile and an easy laugh. “That whole time I’ve been under someone else’s supervision. I’ve been told to pee in this cup and be in my office at this time and oh, you’re going to jail ‘cause you didn’t break the law but you broke a rule.”
He pauses and shakes his head.
“The last time I saw a parole officer, she told me, ‘See you when you catch a new number.’ And that stuck in my head. I don’t want to get a new number. I don’t want to go back to jail.”
He’s got a facility for dates. Picked up July 15, 2003 after two years evading authorities; incarcerated at San Quentin September 30. Moved to three more institutions; paroled July 12, 2004. Discharged from parole 13 violations later, September 4, 2008. In detox by September 6.
Now, he lives in transitional housing in Oakland with a number of other men who, like him, have been in and out of the corrections system and rehabilitation programs. He sticks to a schedule. He gets up around 7 every morning, goes to an AA meeting, and heads to Merritt for class or work at C4E, a nonprofit that works with formerly incarcerated students. When he gets home he does his homework and tries to be in bed by 10pm; on weekends, he likes to go or what he calls “little adventures”: hikes, or road trips, or excursions to restaurants to eat new kinds of food. He can’t pick a favorite.
“When I was incarcerated I made a list,” he says. “All the activities and adventures I want to go on. Now I’m just checking them off.”
He tries to take in everything he can. Anything he can do for fun that doesn’t involve alcohol or narcotics. But staying straight is not always easy for him. He likes the thrill of committing crimes, the power that comes with selling drugs. Those things, he says, are tempting. But he can’t shake that parole officer’s parting shot. One time, he says, he decided to go back to the old neighborhood to see some friends. He was off parole, feeling good, until police raided the house he was visiting. He was scared until he realized that he wasn’t a wanted man – but the police searched him anyway. He thought about what the parole officer said. He hasn’t gone back to that neighborhood.
It’s those kinds of decisions that are the most difficult, says Vernell Crittendon, a former spokesman for San Quentin state prison who now directs a plethora of reentry and rehabilitation programs, including C4E. People who have been in the system for a long time often haven’t graduated from high school; they don’t have many marketable skills, and their old neighborhoods offer only temptation, not support. Without a strong network of people watching out for them, they’ll go right back to what they did before.
“I’m not gonna lie,” De Jesus says. “I still fight with it in my head, saying, ‘You don’t do it now. You don’t do drugs no more, so you’re okay to sell.’ And that’s what I mean when I say I struggle and fight. But hopefully I won’t have to go back to that lifestyle. That’s my goal.”
“It’s all due to drugs,” says Brandi Aguero, one of the parolees who works with De Jesus at the college. She’s 33 years old and spent several years in prison before being released in 2007. “Now that I’m not on drugs anymore and I’m not in my addiction anymore, I don’t even think of doing those things. Drugs changes your whole being. What you do, how you think, everything. It just changes everything.”
The hardest part, she says, is the fear of failure. In the beginning she was so afraid of failing that it was hard for her to do anything. “I always resorted to what I knew how to do best, and that was the streets,” she says. “That’s what I was taught.”
Gradually, she says, things got easier. She’s the first person in her family to go to college. She’s majoring in social work and loves her job. She has kids – her oldest son is 14 – and she tries to show them how life can be different
“My son is really proud of what I’m doing,” she says. “So that helped me a lot – just the whole idea of showing my kids that this is the way you have to live, instead of what I was doing before. But it becomes overwhelming.”
Rory Joshua has been there. At 53, he’s one of the oldest parolees living and working at the college. He says he’s spent most of his life in prison, but that now he knows what he wants. Right now he’s pursuing his associate’s degree in counseling while working in the Merritt admissions office. He hopes to transfer to a four-year college next year; after that, he says he’ll try for a master’s. But he’s taking it slow for now, doing his work and trying to be there for the younger kids. In his free time he goes out to the streets of Oakland and to the community colleges, telling kids his story and trying to get them to enroll in school. He even recruits within the transitional house where he lives.
“It’s helped me help myself,” he says. “It keeps me disciplined, keeps me giving back. I’m not ashamed to let them know I’ve been in prison. I’ve been in prison then, and look at me now. I’m still struggling, but it makes me feel good to struggle.”
Joshua went back in recently. He made a mistake, he says. But he tried to use his time wisely – to recruit new students.
“What they’re going through, I’ve already been through it,” he says. “I just tell them what I’ve been through and where they’re heading. And that’s what keeps me going.”
De Jesus remembers the first day he got out. Being in downtown Oakland, the financial district, filled him with fear. He forgot to eat, because, he says, no one was around to bring him food. He started doing drugs immediately, but two days later he stopped. That was September. In November, he voted for the first time in his life.
“In this presidential election!” he says with obvious glee. “I’m a part of history. It’s amazing.”
These are the best parts of his new life, he says. The simple things that other people don’t think about.
“It’s little weird stuff,” he says. “Like, before I had to have a residence on file at all times. Now if I want to move, I can move no problem. I can move to Pinole, or Antioch, or Brentwood,” he says, throwing his arms in different directions to indicate the destinations. “I can go anywhere I want. I just feel free.”
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