Bay Area Community Member Profile: “Coach”

Coach Pic

Coach, center, with the Root & Rebound team (Sonja, left, Katherine, right) on a beautiful Berkeley fall day.

Last week, we had the honor and pleasure of sitting down with one of our inspirations and mentors, Alton McSween, better known in the community as “Coach.” Coach got out of prison on April 4, 2013 after California passed a reform to our draconian Three Strikes Law in November of 2012, and Coach was able to petition under this reformed law, Prop 36, for release.

Background on the Three Strikes Law

In 1994, California voters enacted the “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law. The law imposed a life sentence for almost any crime, no matter how minor, if the defendant had two prior convictions for crimes defined as serious or violent in the California Penal Code.

According to official ballot materials promoting the original Three Strikes law, the sentencing scheme was intended to “keep murderers, rapists, and child molesters behind bars, where they belong.” Instead, more than half of people sentenced under the law were serving sentences behind bars for nonviolent crimes.

In 2012, California voters overwhelmingly enacted the Three Strikes Reform Act (“Proposition 36”) to address the harshest, and unintended, consequences of the sentencing law. First, Prop. 36 eliminated life sentences for non-serious, non-violent crimes. Second, it established a procedure for prisoners sentenced to life in prison for minor third-strike crimes to petition in court for a reduced sentence. In order to win a reduced sentence, a court must find that the prisoner no longer poses an unreasonable threat to public safety.[1]

Coach and His Journey

Coach’s first “two strikes” were residential burglaries in 1992 and his “third strike” for petty theft in 2001, a non-violent, non-serious felony. He was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison, with his earliest possible release date as April 26, 2026.

Yet Coach did not give up on improving himself or his life circumstances. From inside prison at San Quentin, Coach was a model citizen. He was a friend, advocate, and role model for many, and was he was involved in more self-improvement work than most of us are in a lifetime. Coach took advantage of all of the programs he could and was involved in a number of wonderful groups, including: Project IMPACT (Incarcerated Men Putting Away Childish Things; The Addiction Recovery Counseling (ARC) Program; The GRIP Program (Guiding Rage Into Power, a violence prevention and emotional intelligence life-skills program); and he began his training as an addiction recovery counselor through California Association of Alcoholism & Drug Abuse.

It was clear from talking to Coach that he took advantage of all of the resources available to him at San Quentin so that he could build a better future for himself and a better world for his community, both inside and out of prison. And that is exactly what he has done.

Now out of prison, Coach has continued his incredible work in the Bay Area community through his job with the California Reentry Institute, an organization that he became involved with at San Quentin. CRI staff provides its incarcerated members (about 34 men currently) at San Quentin with counseling, resources to assist them with their parole hearings, and prepares the men for release. CRI also provides many forms of reentry support to its members coming out of prison, and this is where Coach does his current work in the community. Coach is now a CRI program coordinator, a reentry mentor, and transitional housing supervisor.  Coach wants to help guys coming out of prison to navigate the world, because he knows from first hand experience how scary and daunting that can be.

When the CRI men first come out, Coach picks them up at the bus or train station and is the first friendly face that many of them see. He brings the person a backpack filled with a new and clean change of clothing, toiletries, a prepaid cell phone for the month, and other essentials—a “survival kit.” Coach then accompanies the person to his housing arrangements and takes them shopping for food. Coach talked to us about the incredible moment he has with all the men he works with who get to a grocery store for the first time in years, and how excited they are to see all of the options.

In addition to his work with men reentering the community through CRI, Coach is close to completing his counseling certificates in Domestic Violence and Addiction Recovery, so that he can one day work as a counselor in these areas.

Coach also works every Saturday at Options Recovery Services’ car wash, where formerly incarcerated men have set up a small business that benefits themselves and their families. One Yelp reviewer had this to say: “The best car wash in Berkeley is in the parking lot of the Lutheran Church of the Cross by Options Recovery Services! Every Saturday, the good folks there [are] ready to wash and detail your ride. A full service car wash includes inside vacuum, mats washed, tires treated, and very friendly service. Really wonderful service! It’s only $15. But do tip generously. They are a fine group of people helping themselves and each other.”

Coach’s life passion for reentry work and helping others is clear from the moment you meet him. He is involved in so many different groups because he is hopeful that life can and will get better for the people in prison and jail and those coming out. Coach believes in creating family wherever he goes, and treats strangers and friends alike with dignity and kindness. We are unbelievably lucky to call him an inspiration and mentor. We know he will continue doing incredible things.

Coach, thank you for your wisdom and for sharing your story!

– The R&R Team


[1] For more information about the Three Strikes Law and its reform, please visit the website for the Three Strikes Project at Stanford University, the group that made this reform (Prop. 36) possible: http://www.law.stanford.edu/organizations/programs-and-centers/stanford-three-strikes-project.

Target Bans the Box!

target-dog-lrg

Exciting news today that Target, one of the United States’ largest corporations and employers, has “banned the box” from its employment applications, meaning that it will not ask people about their criminal records in their initial job application. Target nevertheless reserved the right to ask about criminal backgrounds after the completion of an applicant’s first interview.

The announcement represents an important victory for the grassroots community group TakeAction Minnesota, which had been pressuring the company to change. Congratulations to TakeAction Minnesota on their incredible work, which will have a positive impact on the 65 million people across the country with criminal records who are hoping to join the job force. A Target spokeswoman said, ‘Target is an industry leader in developing a nuanced criminal background check process that gives qualified applicants with a criminal history a second chance while maintaining the safety of our guests, team members and protecting our property.’

The change at Target comes on the heels of other big changes around the country and the state of California.  Earlier this month in California,  Gov. Jerry Brown signed a ban-the-box bill that applies to government employers. Ten states and more than 50 U.S. cities have passed “Ban the Box” legislation, according to the National Employment Law Project. In 2012 the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission expanded and updated a ruling that barred employers from automatically denying people jobs based on arrest or conviction records. The E.E.O.C. guidance made clear that an arrest alone is not proof of illegal conduct or grounds for exclusion from employment. It also explained that employers need to take into account three factors: (1) the seriousness of the offense, (2) the time that has passed since it was committed and (3) the relevance of the crime to the job being sought.

We hope that  that this is just the beginning of a sea change in employment practices, and that  other large corporations follow Target’s footsteps, making the choice to “ban the box” because it is the RIGHT thing to do. For now, it’s a small victory for the 65 million people in the U.S. with criminal records, their families, communities, and a sign of our country moving in the right direction. And it’s a good reason to feel better about doing some Target holiday shopping!

To read more about today’s news, check out the NY Times op-ed and the Huffington Post’s coverage.

Community Partner Profile: Project Rebound at San Francisco State University

Project Rebound leadership (clockwise from top left): Director Jason Bell, Data Specialist Airto Morales, Staff Member Joseph Miles, Staff Member Eric Durnell.

Project Rebound leadership (clockwise from top left): Director Jason Bell, Data Specialist Airto Morales, Staff Member Joseph Miles, Staff Member Eric Durnell.

This week, the Root & Rebound team had the pleasure of meeting with leaders of Project Rebound, a nonprofit group that works out of San Francisco State University (SFSU). We met with Project Rebound’s Director Jason Bell, Data Specialist Airto Morales, Staff Member Joseph Miles, and Social Work Intern Deborah Boldwin, with whom we spoke about legal and social services gaps in reentry.

We wanted to share with you a bit about Project Rebound’s mission and program operations to highlight the critical work they do in the Bay Area community.

Project Rebound’s mission is to support the formerly incarcerated on their journey through successful reintegration in a college setting. In 1967, Professor John Irwin created Project Rebound as a way to matriculate people into SFSU directly from the prison and jail systems. The focus of Project Rebound quickly became “Education as an Alternative to Incarceration” and “Turning Former Prisoners to Scholars.” Since the program’s inception, it has assisted and supported hundreds of formerly incarcerated people to obtain four-year degrees; some have gone on to get Master’s degrees, PhDs, and JDs.

Project Rebound’s reach extends beyond the SFSU campus, as staff make an effort to mentor and assist prisoners who write to them from across the state and country. Project Rebound responds to every person who writes to them from prison and jail, or from the outside. Even if people who initiate contact are not college-ready, Project Rebound staff will send them a detailed education plan; each prospective students learns how and where they can become college-ready and how to prepare for enrollment at SFSU. If, for example, someone writes from prison wishing to improve his or her education, but doesn’t have a college degree, Project Rebound will tell them to start with the GED program at his or her prison and explain how to apply. If someone writes who is college-ready but currently incarcerated, Project Rebound will connect him or her with community colleges that run correspondence programs he or she can join.

Once they are out, formerly incarcerated people in the Bay Area connect with Project Rebound to learn more about opportunities in higher education. Director Jason Bell says, “If people can make it to our office, no matter where they come from, we will do everything in our power to help them.” Project Rebound assists people in reentry with the smallest and biggest of needs: the organization helps pay for people to take the SAT and ACT, find safe housing, and acts as a home base for formerly incarcerated men and women in the greater Bay Area.

One of the many things that makes Project Rebound stand out is its mentorship model. Its mission is that, “From prison to empowerment, from destitution to the notion of ‘restorative justice,’ we are here to aid those who want to help themselves and to help others. We are still about the business of ‘each–one—teach–one.’” Individuals who come to the Project Rebound office at SFSU are met by a staff who have been through similar circumstances—all of the Project Rebound leadership is formerly incarcerated, people who believe in reaching their hand back to help those who have stumbled down negative paths much like they did years ago.

Therefore, part of being involved in Project Rebound is believing in and living this mentorship model. Current Project Rebound students and alumni are given a stipend for serving as mentors—simultaneously providing a knowledgeable mentor to newly-released students and supporting people with criminal records who need a source of income.

Project Rebound is an exceptional model, run by an exceptional group of people. It provides triumphant direction to so many people coming out of prison and jail, ready to restart their lives. Our hope is that Project Rebound will grow and that its model will be implemented at other universities across California and the country. We are in dire need of more programs like this one.

Thank you, Project Rebound, for the wonderful work you are doing in our community, and for sharing so many great ideas with us. We have great hopes for many future collaborations!

–The R & R Team

P.S. To learn more about Project Rebound, please visit their website and facebook page, email projectrebound@asi.sfsu.edu, or call the program at (415) 405-0954.

Michelle Alexander & Modern “Legalized Discrimination”

This past week has been full of inspiration at Root & Rebound. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, came to San Francisco to speak about her research and describe the movement she imagines for achieving racial justice and ending mass incarceration in America. Her lecture raised money for the California Institute of Integral Studies’ (CIIS) brand new Arc of Justice scholarships, ten scholarships that will be awarded to formerly incarcerated men and women to complete their Bachelor of Arts degrees at CIIS.

Michelle Alexander - San Francisco CIIS Lecture - October 17, 2013

As an audience member and staff person at R & R, one of the most poignant pieces to Prof. Alexander’s lecture was how she broke down into layperson’s terms what she calls “legalized discrimination” against people exiting prison & jail and reentering society. What she means is that, while we no longer have laws on the books that are racist on their face, we have a legal system that disproportionately locks up people of color, and laws that, even after people have served time in prison and jail, exclude them from participating in society.

Prof. Alexander pointed to very specific ways in which our society “legally discriminates” against formerly incarcerated people: voting laws that make it impossible to vote if you have a criminal records,  employment barriers and occupational license bans against people with criminal records that force them out of the legal job market, the denial of public benefits and food stamps under some federal and state laws, and private and public housing discrimination. Prof. Alexander also described the destructive impact that mass incarceration of African American men has on their families and partners, because families, not just individuals who are formerly incarcerated, feel the stresses of this “legalized discrimination.” In all of these areas—voting, family life, jobs, public benefits, and housing—the law has been built up against people coming out of prison and coming back to the community. In the first video below, Prof. Alexander says:

“Now I find that many people have a general sense of, you know, understanding when someone is released from prison, life is hard. But I find that most people don’t fully appreciate that today, in the era of mass incarceration, once you’ve been branded a criminal or felon, you’re ushered into a parallel social universe in which the basic civil and human rights that apply to others no longer apply to you.”

Prof. Alexander then asks the audience: “What do we expect people released from prison to do? What is the system seem designed to do? Seems designed in my view to send folks right back to prison, which is what in fact happens the vast majority of the time. About 70% of people nationwide that are released from prison return within a few years. And the majority of those who return in some states do so in a matter of months because the challenges associated with mere survival are so immense.”

Watch more by clicking the link below.

In the second video clip, Prof. Alexander returns to big picture concerns—how to build a movement to end our current system of mass incarceration based largely upon race, the reality of prison expansion and its economic impact, and what we must do to change these systems going forward. She also discusses the importance of California’s prison system as a model for the rest of the country.

Prof. Alexander says: “History has shown that what happens in California often sweeps the nation. So what type of reform happens here has implications for the nation as a whole and for the future of race in America.”

She asks the audience: “What attitudes and belief systems must we change—personally, individually—must we change if we are going to respond with more care, compassion, and concern to those who have been locked up and locked out in the era of mass incarceration. It’s easy to point the fingers at politicians, but what about our own attitudes about crime and criminals. Whose stories are we willing to listen to? Whose stories do we believe or disbelieve? Who do we consider the others and who do we embrace as one of us? Who do we really care about? These are the questions we must ask if we are going to get to work building a movement.”

Watch more by clicking the link below.

We hope to be a part of the solution—that our small nonprofit will be part of a larger movement in California and around the country to respond with compassion, care, and empathy to those who have been locked up and locked out of society.

If you want to read more about these issues, we recommend picking up a copy of The New Jim Crow—a must-read for everyone living in the United States or anyone abroad who wants to understand the crisis of prisons, racial segregation, and criminal justice in America.

Feeling inspired!

–The R & R Team

To learn more about Michelle Alexander’s professional background and the funding for her book The New Jim Crow, please visit the California Institute of Integral Studies’ event website by clicking here.

Meet Debbie Mukamal, Executive Director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center & Attorney Extraordinaire!


Mukamal

It is only our second official week of work and we at Root & Rebound are already meeting with one of the preeminent experts on reentry services in the country at Stanford Law School. Does it get any better than this?

Meet Debbie Mukamal. She joined Stanford Law School in September 2010. From 2005 to 2010, she served as the founding Director of the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. Debbie oversaw all of the Institute’s projects, including the design and implementation of the NYC Justice Corps, an innovative neighborhood-based reentry service initiative, and the development of research and effective tools in the areas of entrepreneurship, correctional education, long-term incarceration, and reentry from local jails. Before joining John Jay College, she served as the founding director of the National H.I.R.E. Network and a staff attorney at the Legal Action Center, where her work focused on the collateral consequences of criminal records. Debbie holds a J.D. from New York University School of Law and received her B.A. from the University of California at Berkeley.

In other words, she is brilliant and accomplished and, more importantly, so generous and kind. She took an hour and a half out of her busy schedule to meet with the R&R team.

Debbie helped us brainstorm the different possibilities for a reentry legal and social services model in the Bay Area. She asked us to reflect on what knowledge, skill, and experience our staff has that will truly empower those returning to our community. Debbie said, “There are more than half a million people currently incarcerated or on probation or parole in the state of California. You can’t help everyone directly. But you might be able to touch all those lives through policy reform, or make a big impact on a certain population or in a certain community.”

Debbie pointed us to these astounding numbers: At the end of 2012, in California, there were 132,000 people in prison, 79,000 people in jail, 66,000 people on parole, and 419,000 people on probation. These numbers demonstrate how mass incarceration plagues our state and the enormous challenge of taking on the systems that contribute to and create mass incarceration.

Debbie described four common reentry services models and strategies for us to consider as we think about how and where we can be most effective for change:

  • Model 1: Housing a reentry services organization within a Public Defender’s Office or civil legal services organization
  • Model 2: Adding a unit devoted to reentry legal services under the umbrella of an existing non-profit organization providing other kinds of direct services
  • Model 3: Forming a public interest law firm with a strong emphasis on individualized legal services and public policy advocacy where the direct services and policy work inform one another
  • Model 4: Creating a community-based one-stop-shop with wraparound, holistic reentry services that will promote local community economic development

We decided that Model 3 is the best for us to focus and build on. Why? Well, we certainly want to have a focus on legal services & policy advocacy. And, though we want to be community based and integrated, neither Katherine (Executive Director) nor Sonja (Staff Attorney) is originally from the East Bay or even California, so it would be insincere to say we are 100% “in” communities most heavily impacted by incarceration and criminal justice involvement. Rather, we grew up in privileged environments that were not highly policed. We weren’t thrown on the sidewalk growing up as kids, just for being out late and “looking suspicious.” And neither of us has ever spent a day in jail or prison as an incarcerated person, not free to leave.

Rather, we were able to go to school, feel safe, and always be connected to our families. Now we have law degrees that we believe can and should be used for the benefit of people coming out of prison and jail and hoping to reintegrate into their community. Our role, we believe, is to empower those who want a better future than they had past, and for us to play a supportive role in assisting people to get out of prison and jail, stay out, and thrive.

Additionally, having a reentry legal services organization in the Bay Area would fill a huge gap in the local community. Though there are some incredible social service reentry organizations, and a few wonderful poverty-focused legal services organizations, Debbie suggested there might be a need for a comprehensive legal reentry services organization like currently exists in other cities like New York.

So that’s what we have decided to build on: Model 3—a public interest law firm with a strong emphasis on individualized legal services and public policy advocacy. So very exciting!

In addition to all the incredible knowledge about reentry services that we learned from meeting with Debbie, and the “AHA!” moment she gave us, we also walked away with the names of wonderful practitioners and reentry organizations doing work in California, New York, and around the country (you’ll be hearing from us!).

We also now understand and truly appreciate that Stanford’s Coupa Café sells the most incredible Spicy Mayan Mocha. 😉

Debbie, thank you, thank you!

–The R & R Team

What’s in a Name?

Some people have asked us about our name… What does it mean? Where does it come from?

It’s a simple concept, really, that we felt perfectly described the process, at any stage of life, of trying to restart and reset, and how difficult and thrilling and terrifying that process is for all of us. “Reentry” after serving a prison or jail term is exactly that: the human process of starting over, but after years, sometimes many decades, isolated and removed from a world that has changed without you in it.

In Yoga, there is the concept of “Root and Rebound,” or “Rooting to Rebound.” The idea is that, in order for us to grow fully, and be the greatest version of ourselves (physically, mentally, and emotionally), we must first be grounded and firmly rooted into this beautiful Earth.

Our hope is that, as an organization, we are able to help people find their “groundedness” in the world, to reconnect with or reestablish roots, so that they can more quickly become the fullest and best version of themselves. We hope to be a place where people always feel at home, whether it is to come in for a legal meeting, a group workshop, or just to sit in a community space, drink some tea, and read the paper.

So that’s the story… but we also leave “R & R” up to your own personal interpretation!

–The R & R Team

Incorporation Success!

Today is our one week anniversary over at Root & Rebound. It has been a very exciting week, and we are happily incorporated as a nonprofit corp. in the state of California! (Proof below).

 

Incorporation

Also had some wonderful and inspiring meetings this week, which we hope to share with you all very soon.

Thanks for your support!

— The R & R Team