Home for Good? 

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

Page 4 of 5

"You have to get at the root causes of crime, and that's a lack of jobs," said Reverend J. Alfred Smith of Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, a renowned East Oakland institution that has had success in its construction-trade training program and its support groups for felons.

Smith admits that he had great difficulty convincing some of his own parishioners that getting involved with the parolees was a good idea. "Of course, when we first started this here, there were church members who worried what the parolees were going to do to our building," he said. "But they haven't destroyed any property, haven't stolen anything, haven't beaten up any of the members, haven't sexually molested any youths at the campus. They've just tried to get their lives back together again."

The sweet-talking preacher has much disdain for churches that turn their backs on such people: "I think the conservative Christian church is more concerned with the sweet by-and-by than with the nasty here-and-now."

Parolee Dennis Collins understands each and every hurdle he must now overcome. For him, there are roadblocks and obstacles at every turn. Having spent 34 of his fifty years behind bars, he's a man whom almost anyone might assume is predestined to fail. Paroled most recently in January, he now lives in the Allied Fellowship sober house in a crime-filled Oakland neighborhood, with a July deadline for moving out.

On this run, Collins says he's giving it all up, because he is tired after seven state prison convictions for various offenses including armed robbery and assault with a deadly weapon.

"I've made several bad choices," said Collins, sitting at a table in the backyard of the Fellowship house where he shares a room with another parolee. "I've worked hard for 34 and a half years at being stupid, and I managed to accomplish that. My reward was a cell lockdown, solitary confinement in Pelican Bay for 22 and a half hours a day for four and a half years."

Collins has a tough-guy air about him; he's a man who must have earned the respect of fellow inmates at Pelican Bay. But he also is quite funny, and astonishingly articulate about the predicament he finds himself in.

"I'm taking it day by day, and Allied Fellowship is giving me the tools to be able to carry on that way, and I'm following their suggestions," he said. "It took me fifty years to turn 21; however, I'm 21 now."

Collins describes his prior life as a dizzying, miserable mess that he couldn't get out of: "I would go to the jailhouse and then when I got out of the jailhouse, I went to the dope house. When I left the dope house, I went to the whorehouse. When I left the whorehouse, I went to my mother's house, and after I left my mother's house, I went to my friend's house, and then I winded right back up in the jailhouse completing the circle. This trip here, I had to stop and go on to the Allied Fellowship House, and into the church houses, and the houses I've been missing my whole life that could have helped me."

Housing, in fact, is another one of the great obstacles that Oakland faces. Without more transitional housing, many parolees will continue to end up living on the streets. "Felons are at a distinct disadvantage because they are not eligible for most federal housing support; they're just ineligible," the city's Bedford said. "They can't get food stamps. You can argue they're not the most worthy and that the mom with her kids is more worthy, but they're going to be out on the streets committing crime if you can't find a way for them to be self-sustaining."

Collins said he plans to enroll at Merritt College this summer and start working toward a career as a youth counselor for kids at risk. He challenges anyone to tell him he's not the right man for the job.

"The things they're doing -- I've done over and over again," he said. "I'm the best one to tell them it don't work. I'm like the poster boy for that. Everything they're teaching them in those schools, they're actually talking about me."

He has a warning for people who don't want to give parolees such as himself a chance to succeed. "If you don't give me the tools to actually go out and learn what you learned, then what is Dennis going to continue to do?" he asked, referring to himself, between drags on his cigarette. "He's going to go back to what he's comfortable with. If all my life I been into committing crimes and you don't show me another way, then I'm going to do what I'm comfortable with."


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