2nd part of 3-part series feat. Root & Rebound on SF Public Radio Station KALW 97.1 FM today!

Taken at William Wallenberg High School, by Luisa Beck

Taken at William Wallenberg High School, by Luisa Beck

Root & Rebound is ON THE AIR!!!

The SECOND part of an INCREDIBLE 3-part public radio series on reentry aired yesterday on local San Francisco radio station 91.7FM KALW (part of the NPR digital network). The series has so far featured our very own Founder & Executive Director, Katherine Katcher and KALW also did a piece on Alton McSween (Coach) at the California Reentry Institute, a former lifer, who is a great friend and huge inspiration to the entire Root & Rebound team. We wrote about Coach’s story back in October 2013, when Root & Rebound was just starting out and we’re so pleased to see his work showcased. Again, many thanks go to Luisa Beck as well as Ben Trefny and Ashleyanne Krigbaum along with the whole KALW Crosscurrents team for making this important series possible. 

If you are in the San Francisco-Bay Area, tune into KALW 91.7 FM on Wednesday, August 20, at 5:00 pm for the FINAL part of this series! Or stream it online here

These are stories EVERY person should listen to!


See the full transcript here:

A note to our readers: the names of formerly incarcerated men and their families in this story have been changed to protect their identities.

“My whole life, I never had a job.”

At the age of 51, William Bennett was one of the oldest people in California who could claim that. But in June 2013, eight months after leaving prison, that was about to change.

“Either Monday or Tuesday I’ll be working on the freeways,” he said. “580 or 880. Picking up trash. First job ever.”

He enrolled in the Golden State Works Initiative, which provides job training and placement services to parolees in Oakland. On the last day of his training, Bennett and I met for breakfast. I asked him to tell me the most challenging part of reentering.

“Employment,” he said. “Finding employment. Being able to get paid enough to survive. Will this job allow me to continue working and be able to pay my rent? Or will I find a job that will lay me off? That’s just a fear I have, you know, of the unknown.”

A criminal record lowers earnings and limits opportunities

Bennett introduced me to many parolees who had similar questions and fears. People like John Porter. Porter and I met in April at the Berkeley Rose Garden.

“I can find jobs all day long at $10 an hour,” he said. “You know, $10 to $12 an hour, easy. But to actually find a good job that’s going to pay some money, that’s been roughest part.”

Like Bennett, Porter had taken part in the GSW job training program. But he was having trouble finding work that paid a living wage.

“Because if it’s not anywhere between $19 to $25, you know, it’s really hard to live because you’re just going to be working to pay your rent,” he said.

According to a 2010 study, serving time reduces annual earnings by 40 percent on average.

“One barrier is having a criminal record, and another barrier is just having many years of incarceration where you’re out of the job market,” says Katherine Katcher, executive director of Root & Rebound, a reentry advocacy center in Berkeley. “Even if people are involved in training programs inside of prison or educational programs inside of prison, when they get out, there’s a huge stigma against them, and because they’ve committed a crime, especially if it’s a violent crime, they’re going to find it extremely difficult to get any kind of gainful employment.”

Nearly one in three working-age Americans has some kind of criminal record. About half don’t find jobs the first year out. Some local governments have made it illegal for city contractors to ask an applicant about their criminal record on an interview form. But current state and federal law allows potential employers to reject formerly incarcerated people. Katcher says it can happen at any point.

“In the application review, in interviews, in hiring, in promotions, and in termination decisions,” she says. “Technically, they are supposed to do a kind of nexus test where they look at how recent that conviction is, and the relationship of that kind of conviction to the job. But very few employers actually do that work.”

Juggling jobs

Porter told me he’d recently been turned down from his old job as a school bus mechanic because of the felony on his record. He was getting frustrated.

“I’ve been applying at AC Transit, the Port of Oakland, Muni, the city of San Francisco, the city of Oakland. You know I’ve been applying everywhere trying to get a decent job,” he said.

While waiting to hear back, Porter was working several part-time jobs. As a mover, an installer, a welder, and a part-time ceramics instructor. He’d also started making pottery in a prison arts program. In May, we met up at Creations in Clay, a ceramics studio in Oakland. He showed me bright tall vases with blue, orange, and mother-of-pearl glazes displayed in the studio’s small gallery. This was one place where he was not judged for his past but admired for his skill as a teacher and artist. The job, however, did not paid enough money to live on.

Like Porter, Bennett worked part-time jobs while looking for permanent work. He worked two to three jobs that paid minimum wage or up to $10 per hour. Some days, he drove a truck from 3pm to 5am. On other days he transported cars for a car rental company, washed uniforms and rugs for an industrial cleaner, and worked as a security guard at night clubs. But he kept networking – talking with contacts and handing out business cards.

One day, he told his story at a fundraising event and impressed the Chief Executive Director of Westside Community Services, a mental health agency in San Francisco. He got hired, and started as a receptionist.

“It’s a big office,” he said. “It has a copy machine, lots of nice chairs, pillows. I have a nice chair. It has cold water. Pictures of giraffes like in the jungle on the wall, magazines, a little table and chairs for kids when they come in.”

The job turned out to have surprising challenges. In prison, Bennett had no access to the Internet. So things like searching for online information, managing passwords, and using smart phones were completely new to him.

Studies show that many formerly incarcerated people have significant educational and employment deficits. Roughly half lack a high school degree and many depended on illegal income prior to incarceration. When they get out, they have a lot of catching up to do.

To reveal or hide the past?

Eventually, Bennett transitioned into a role as a community liaison. Part of his new role included reaching out to local parents and youth.

We drove to Wallenberg Traditional High School in San Francisco. Bennett came here to speak to a group of students about his experiences growing up and in prison.

About 20 students and their teacher, Kachiside Madu, gathered in the school library for their last ‘men’s group’ meeting of the year. The room became quiet when Bennett began his speech.

“The reason why we’re here today is because we’re giving back to society,” he said. “I was one of the first juveniles in the state of California to be tried as an adult. I was 17 years old, like a lot of your ages.”

Bennett has found a job that lets him pay his bills and tell his story. Porter hasn’t been so fortunate. He decided to stop telling potential employers about his criminal history. Now, he says, he’s close to landing a job as a full-time driver – not what he wants to do, but better than nothing. Yet he’s anxious a background check could end his employment at any time.



Root & Rebound on SF Public Radio Station KALW 97.1 FM today!

photography by Luisa Beck

Photo by Luisa Beck


Root & Rebound is ON THE AIR!!!

An INCREDIBLE 3-part public radio series on reentry began yesterday on local San Francisco radio station 91.7FM KALW (part of the NPR digital network), featuring our very own Founder & Executive Director, Katherine Katcher! Huge props & gratitude to Luisa Beck, the producer and reporter on the series.

If you are in the San Francisco-Bay Area, tune into KALW 91.7 FM on Wednesday, August 13, at 5:00 pm for Part 2 of this series! Or stream it online here

This is a story EVERY person should listen to!

You can also read the full transcript below:

A note to our readers: the names of formerly incarcerated men and their families in this story have been changed to protect their identities.

It’s hard to tell how old William Bennett and his friend John Porter are based on looks. Bennett is about six feet tall, wears a silver ear stud, and has a signature cologne: Gypsy Musk. Porter is a little shorter. He has big eyes, a small gap in his upper teeth, and a huge friendly grin. Both of them have a determined and yet playful air about them. When they show me the kitchen they share with 12 other guys, they start the kind of banter that only two trusted friends can get away with.

“Do you both cook sometimes here together here in this kitchen?” I ask.

“Yeah, yeah,” says Bennett.

“So who’s the better cook out of both of you?” I ask.

“Me, I am,” says Bennett.

“I am,” says Porter.

“No, I am,” says Bennett.

“I’m the better cook, because I used to cook for everybody in the penitentiary. I came out here, and I cook for everybody out here. He’s not telling the truth, I always cook,” says Porter.

Bennett and Porter do their cooking in a shared kitchen that’s part of a transitional house in West Oakland. But they met many years ago.

“Well, we were actually in prison together,” says Bennett.

“We did about twenty years together,” says Porter.

Porter and Bennett went to prison for murder. Each was on drugs at the time that he shot a person. Porter served 27 years in state prison. Bennett served 31.

“I got out November 1, 2012,” says Bennett.

“I got out February 21, 2013. And I put in to go to the Options Program,” says Porter.

Options Recovery Services provides clean and sober housing for people who are either recovering from substance abuse or re-entering society from prison. The program has 10 houses in Oakland and Berkeley.

Bennett and Porter’s house in West Oakland looks a lot like all the other family-style houses in the neighborhood. It’s got a front porch, white wooden panels, and a stairway leading up to the entrance. It’s hard to tell from the outside that at any point in time, 14 to 20 men live here.

I ask Bennett what he thinks of sharing a room with someone else.

“I don’t like it,” he says. “Yeah, I’ve had cellies for so many years. Cellmates. So I just want to be in my own room and you know, just relax without people coming, opening doors, waking you. Like you can be in a nice deep sleep, and somebody opening the door, you know, just getting something, but it wakes you up a little bit, you know? Those little things. I want to just be able to just have peace. Quiet.”

The men give me a tour of the house, which is tidy and yet crowded. A chore list with over a dozen names hangs in the kitchen, and the computer, chairs, and piano in the living room are all shared.

“Yeah, yeah, this is my shelf right here,” says Porter. “I share this shelf with someone else. And you know, sometimes guys come in and they take food, but I don’t never say anything. If a guy is so hungry that he needs to steal food, you know, if he feel that he’s too proud to ask for it, you know, I don’t say anything.”

While Porter and Bennett appreciate having a roof over their heads at Options Transitional Housing, they do share a criticism of the program.

“You have two types of people that’s here,” says Bennett. “You have lifers like us that came out. We don’t have no addictions. Nothing. We’re just trying to get out here, get a job, move on to get us a place and get on with our lives. Then you have other people here that’s real addicts. So they’re liable to relapse.”

Dr. Davida Coady, the executive director of Options, disagrees with Bennett.

“I think it’s good for them to meet the people just coming off the streets,” she says. “I think it’s good for the people just coming off the streets to meet them particularly. I think having a diverse population is good for people in recovery.”

Coady started Options 16 years ago because, at the time, there were no services available to people with little money who were suffering from addiction. A lot of former lifers choose Options over other programs, because it’s one of the few places that will accept them even before they get out prison.

“Many of the prisoners tell us that they wrote to many, many organizations. Twenty…thirty…fifty. One of them told me 125,” says Coady. “And we were the only ones who said, ‘Yes, we will take you whenever you get out.’ We send them an acceptance letter, and they can take that to the Board of Parole Hearings and present that as their plan to come. Yes, it does help them get parole in many cases.”

She says that many of the people who’ve been in prison for a long time don’t have contacts on the outside or family to go to.

“Many of our people come from families where there’s a lot addiction and going back there is not going to work for them,” she says.

A struggle to meet basic needs

People coming out of prison often have very little support for basic needs like housing.

“The cities and the counties don’t pay for this stuff,” says Katherine Katcher, the founder and executive director of Root & Rebound, a re-entry advocacy center in Berkeley. “I mean when you leave prison, or you leave jail, you get a certain amount of money. In prison it’s supposed to be $200 and a bus ticket and that’s it. The state doesn’t take care of your housing. They’ll put you on parole, and parole doesn’t pay for housing. Probation doesn’t pay for housing. You’re expected to pay for housing, but you don’t have the money. It just doesn’t exist and so people end up on the streets very, very quickly.”

Katcher says that the few programs that do get funding tend to focus on substance abuse.

“But what happens is that the men and women that will apply to that and get into those programs don’t belong there,” she says. “It’s an inappropriate place for them to be, and they’re taking up space from people who might actually need to be there, but they need a place to live, and they’re not able to go and get jobs or go to school, because they’re in very restrictive housing, because they supposedly have a substance abuse problem,” she says.

Some people like Bennett and Porter, who served long prison sentences, already spent decades in drug recovery programs while they were in prison.

“The burden that they have to show in order to get out from the board of parole hearings is kind of true rehabilitation and complete insight and remorse about everything that they’ve done,” says Katcher. “I mean these people are the most rehabilitated, and wise, and prepared people when they come out, because they’ve spent years and years inside, and they’ve decided that if they ever have the chance to be free again, they’re going to be grateful, and they’re going to work hard, and they’re going to give back to their communities.”

In 2013, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, or CDCR, found that people who were sentenced to serve up to a lifetime in prison were six times less likely to return to prison as people who served shorter sentences. And of about 1,000 people who were paroled after serving sentences in California of first- or second-degree murder, zero have committed another murder.

The challenge of leaving transitional housing

Bennett and Porter are both eager to get their own place. But it’s not easy. Many landlords require rental or credit histories, which someone who has spent most of their life in prison cannot show. And housing in the Bay Area is expensive. So the men need to find a steady, well-paying job before they can earn enough money to move.

As we walk out of the Options house, Bennett tells me how much he wants to have his own apartment.

“I can save a lot of money there, but it’s time to move on,” he says.

A few months later, I check in with the guys to see how they’re doing.

Bennett has moved on from Options. He’s found steady work and an affordable studio apartment in San Leandro. I go to visit him at his new place.

“Why, you’re the first one that ever came here,” says Bennett.

“Can you give me a tour?” I ask.

We go into his kitchen. Bennett has many, many Oakland Raiders cups.

“Twelve more and about 20 more in the cabinet,” he says.

“For Raiders parties?” I ask

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. And that’s my grandmother right here,” he says, showing me a picture. “She’s the one that really helped me plant a seed to forgive. And that’s my daughter. That’s when I first got out. The first time I took her out I took her to the movies. That’s one of the pictures.”

“Can you describe to me what it’s been like living in your own place? Because is this the first time you’re living by yourself?” I ask.

“Yeah, other than a prison cell,” he says. “It’s the first time ever. I was only 17. I stayed with my mom before I went to prison, so this is the first time being on my own. Freedom. It felt real good, you know, to be able to come here and close the door and not have nobody here, you know. Solitude.”

Bennett tells me that having his own space is one of the best parts of leaving prison and Options Transitional Housing.

“Waking up in my own place feels like I’m crawling into a nest, you know? It’s peaceful. It felt like a place where I could crawl into and just really sleep.”

He contrasts his new living space to prison.

“Because all these other places in prison, I haven’t been able to really sleep. Because people will either get up or, like in prison, you have some cells, and most cells have toilets inside the room, so your cellie could get up at anytime during the night and use the restroom. When he flush that toilet, that woosh. That wakes you up. And out here, people come in and out of rooms, going in their boxes and plastic and waking me up, so I was never able to sleep. And here, the only thing waking me up here? Sometimes I can hear BART, but it sounds good. I can hear the train, but it sounds good, you know. It’s a different sound, you know.”

Porter is still living at Options. Unlike his friend, he has not been able to find a job that pays enough for him to afford his own place. Options recently moved him to a different apartment in Oakland.

We meet at a nearby park, where he describes it to me.

“It’s a one-bedroom apartment, and it has five guys in it,” he says. “They use the living room as a bedroom with three guys in there. And it’s just cramped. It’s too much. I have one guy, he snores real loud, you know, and it’s just being around people, you know being back in that environment where you’re living with guys like that, you know? I was in prison for all those years, I never used drugs or alcohol, you know? I followed the rules, I got my education, I did everything I needed to do to get out of prison. You know, I don’t like coming out of prison in that controlled environment and being in another controlled environment.”

Limited housing options are a huge hurdle for people who leave prison. Section 8, for example, bans people with certain types of offenses from living in public housing. And private landlords are permitted under law to discriminate against people on the basis of their criminal records, as long as it doesn’t violate other civil rights laws.

Until there are more housing programs for people re-entering, they will have to do the best they can with what’s available.

Don’t forget to tune in on Wednesday, August 13, at 5:00 pm for Part 2 of this series! Or stream it online here.