Home for Good? 

How Oakland is pioneering ways to keep parolees like Whitney Chappelle and Michelle French out of prison.

Page 2 of 5

Oakland also is working to help inmates prepare for release months before they are even paroled. The federally funded program, Project Choice, isn't even up and running yet, but sixty inmates will be recruited to receive prerelease classes, counseling, work training, and assistance planning for life on the outside. The project will target prisoners between the ages of fourteen and thirty with violent criminal histories: those who, research shows, are most likely to reoffend and have a lifetime of criminal opportunities ahead of them. It's a high-intensity intervention program aimed at those people who will cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars if the cycle is not interrupted.

Such early intervention is critical for parolees, criminal-justice experts agree. "We call it 'seizing the moment of release,'" Travis said. "The recidivism data show that people are rearrested in the first months they are out. It's a very disorienting time of great difficulty. We need to put our resources where the risk is. You seize the moment of release."

Although there was a handful of programs for returning inmates in years past, most parolees knew nothing about such services. Before the 1999 adoption of the so-called Police and Corrections Team model, offenders simply received a pocketful of cash and a one-way bus ticket back to the community where they last lived. They usually got out, committed further crimes, and were sent back for violating parole.

"In the past they just let you out of prison, gave you $200, and said, 'Good luck,'" recalled French, whose mother is a dispatcher for the Oakland Police Department. "You can get out of prison nowadays and see success stories and know you don't have to go back to prison. Oakland is letting us know there are more choices than just committing crimes."


Each Wednesday morning, between fifty and eighty parolees show up for a two-hour meeting at the Oakland parole office near the airport. The vast majority of those in attendance are African-American men, although the typical meeting also hosts some white and Latino males, along with a handful of mostly black women. Parolees tend to wear hand-me-down clothing obtained from charities, and many arrive by bus or on foot. A few sit like eager students, taking notes and nodding in agreement as speakers make their presentations. Many, however, seem thoroughly uninterested in being there. Some even fall asleep during the meeting and have to be awakened by parole agents.

The presentations begin with parole officials explaining what is expected of the offenders now that they are out. Then a host of social-service providers get up, outline their programs, and practically beg the parolees to enroll in vocational training, substance-abuse counseling, transitional housing, GED and literacy classes, or employment assistance. A few of the speakers are themselves former felons who've turned their lives around and now work for some of the social-services agencies that offer reentry programs for parolees. And as soon as one of them started to speak, even some of the most bored attendees perked up.

"I am an industrial-strength dope fiend, alcoholic, liar, thief, moral coward, social-predator convict and, otherwise, snake," said Ron Owens in a booming voice, as he paced in front of the group. "I'm in redemption from that type of behavior due to my Lord, my savior, Jesus Christ. He directed my path to recovery."

Owens told the group that now is the best time ever to be a felon because of the array of programs now available in Oakland.

"You got to understand this is a choice, a choice!" he yelled. "If you're a professional consumer of correctional services, if you're satisfied stripping before guards, dancing like a little ol' stripper and then bending over and spreading your cheeks for another man, if that's what you like, then this message is not for you!"

He encouraged his audience to continue acting like convicts out on the outside. "Be a convict out here!" he said. "A convict has respect for time. Isn't that right? Convicts know what time they going to do everything. They wake up with that jingle every morning. You got to be a convict out there. You can't wake up and not know what you're going to do."

Owens, 49, is something of a celebrity in the world of ex-cons. A coordinator for Second Chance Inc., which operates substance abuse recovery programs in five East Bay cities, he cycled in and out of jail and state prison for nearly ten years for armed robbery and other offenses. But in the early 1990s, during yet another go-round between the streets and custody, Owens decided to try a new way. He married a woman he met at church and started working with drug-addicted parolees. Today, he oversees Second Chance's programs in three East Bay cities. Since his formal discharge from the correctional system nearly ten years ago, he has risen in the world of parole reentry programs in Oakland and today is a consultant to the city and a trusted Brown adviser. He has a big personality and is a sensational public speaker with a touch of Tony Robbins, a hint of Dr. Phil, and the rhythmic cadence of a charismatic Baptist preacher on a tear.

"If you want to buy houses, own cars, if you want reunification with your family again, if you want a bank account, if you want a TDA, which is tax-deferred annuity, you want to know what a 401(k) means, if you want some of this, then you go with me!" Owens said to the group of parolees, many of whom were jolted out of complete boredom into a kind of rapture. One man yelled out, "Amen!"

Owens' philosophy is pretty straightforward. People won't change their criminal ways, he believes, unless they can see for themselves a successful way out.

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