Home for Good? 

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

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"A man needs food, water, and hope," he said during a recent interview. "If a baby is not stroked and loved and nurtured and stimulated, the baby dies. It's the same with men. If you shut them out of the system, if you put up roadblocks that are institutional and it's systematic for them to fail, you deny them access, and then you bombard them with all the success in the world and don't provide them with a means to get there, then they'll quit participating in the system. There's got to be some exchange. In exchange for your criminality, we're going to give you an opportunity to work, the opportunity to pay your bills, and the opportunity to function as a grown male or female in society."

Another ex-con who gets up and speaks each week is Kevin Grant, who spent seven years in Leavenworth Prison for drug trafficking and was paroled in 1989. Today, he does consulting work for numerous social-service providers, counsels offenders, and trains police forces on how to deal with parolees. As Owens had, Grant told the group they were lucky to have this kind of help available to them. "When I came home, the groups showed me how to open Tupperware," he explained. "They didn't talk about lifestyle addiction."

After years of working with ex-cons, Grant candidly admits that he tries not to get personally invested in their success. He knows that for many of the parolees, it takes three or four returns to prison before they figure out how to manage on the outside. He has seen dozens of offenders succeed and finally move out of the cycle of crime and punishment, and he has witnessed many more fail. He calls the miserable cycle of watching his clients blow it and return to custody his "brokenhearted syndrome."

"You see them trying, and that's what I see," he said in an interview. "I see them go down in the water and come up all watery and try again. Finally, they get a little stroke down and the undertow takes them back down under."

Those people wash up in state prison and write Kevin Grant letters. On a recent weekday afternoon, Michelle French's apartment in the shadow of a Highway 24 overpass buzzed with screaming kids. Two were hers and four were from neighboring apartments. Whitney Chappelle, French's boyfriend and the father of her two kids, took a break from his job-hunting and played video games with their son, Jamari.

Chappelle has gotten used to this ritual in the year and a half since he was released from the Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga for a parole violation. Chappelle is a 38-year-old whom Owens might describe as a "professional consumer of correctional services." He has done time at Folsom and other state prisons for auto theft and numerous parole violations.

A well-built black man who resembles the actor Laurence Fishburne, Chappelle lives with an aunt in Berkeley because Oakland housing officials rented French this $150-a-month apartment only because she was a single mother about to get off parole. But he drops by every day to watch the kids while she attends college and interns at the drug-abuse center.

Since he's been out, Chappelle has completed his own substance-abuse treatment program and worked at some temporary jobs he found through Allied Fellowship. But his job search has been a humiliating experience.

"I've put in over a hundred applications, from McDonald's to temp agencies," he said. "I just keep going and keep trying. I tried the Internet. I get two or three calls a week, but once they ask that question about my record, I tell the truth and they say, 'Well, our clients don't want any thieves.'" Others have another answer for why they won't hire a felon on parole. "They say, 'Our policy is you can reapply in seven years from now,'" he said.

Chappelle is not your typical parolee. Although a Berkeley native, he also is a Republican. He stressed that he is not looking for any giveaways, just a chance to work. But the opportunity keeps eluding him.

It eluded French, too, until she decided to get into what Sara Bedford, Oakland's policy and planning manager for the Department of Human Services, called one of the most popular careers for ex-convicts -- drug-abuse counseling for parolees.

French would have liked to work with mentally troubled kids, but she was told by a counselor at Merritt College that no facility would ever hire an ex-convict to do that. She tried finding jobs through government-funded employment services, but gave up that idea after she'd gone on several interviews and finally was told by a transit agency manager to go somewhere else. French recalled that the man asked her, "'Who sent you?' And I said, 'Miss Mary from the Felony Employment Program on 19th and Harrison,' and he said, 'Tell her we do not hire felons!'"

French was not surprised that he and several other interviewers responded to her that way. "I'd never hire me," she said. "If you just look at my application, if I tell the truth, I look terrible." So French chose a career in drug counseling because it was the only place, as far as she could tell, where having a criminal record is actually an advantage.

Employment has turned out to be one of the biggest challenges for the city's parolee-outreach efforts. City officials and social-service agencies are working on creating relationships with employers willing to hire offenders. But it's a tough sell in a place where the economy has been on a long downward slide and where, Bedford noted, employers "can hire somebody with a BA to unload their truck." Although it's modest, there's a federal tax credit in place for firms that do hire ex-cons, and the feds also bond working parolees against theft. Still, people in the social-service reentry network say that if the job component cannot be worked out, all else will fail.

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