Without funding, East Palo Alto prisoner re-entry center on the verge of closing

These signs, posted on the door to the classroom in the reentry center, serve as a reminder that the choices people make have consequences. (Tobin Asher/Peninsula Press)
These signs, posted on the door to the classroom in the reentry center, serve as a reminder that the choices people make have consequences. (Tobin Asher/Peninsula Press)

The news that, after three years, the David Lewis Reentry Center in East Palo Alto might be closing came as a shock to its three employees. When those at the center heard the news that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) would not fund the program, they thought the center would be forced to close.

However, members of the city management in East Palo Alto (EPA) are looking into ways to keep it open.

The reentry center is designed to increase public safety and reduce recidivism by providing formerly incarcerated persons with services to aid their reintegration into society. It provides classes, job training, cognitive support and referral services.

The original program, founded by criminal turned community activist, David Lewis, ran from 2008 until its contract ended in 2010. In 2011, the city of EPA agreed to use funds from Measure C, a strategic plan adopted by the city to increase public safety, to reopen the center.

By the numbers, the program seems successful. Currently serving 80 former inmates, only seven have returned to custody — less than nine percent. By comparison, according to a January 2014 report from the CDCR, California’s overall recidivism rates for one, two and three years after release are 45.2 percent, 56.9 percent and 61 percent, respectively. Additionally, an October 2013 report by then EPA Police Chief Ronald Davis cited that nearly 90 percent of the center’s clients were employed, attending college, taking classes or actively searching for jobs.

Despite its apparent success, the program has continually struggled to find funding. The city originally agreed to use Measure C funds temporarily with the understanding that the center would seek money from other sources. However, until now, the reentry center has been largely unsuccessful on this front.

As projected, Measure C funds ran out in 2013, but the city has continued funding the program’s approximate $192,000 annual budget from its general funds and money pooled from other city departments. With the city currently struggling financially, it cannot afford to continue to fund the program by itself, according to Jaime Zarate, East Palo Alto Police Department’s administrative services manager.

The projected budget for the current fiscal year is $210,000. Until recently, the city planned to give $40,000 to reentry for the coming year with the rest funded by partnerships with the County of San Mateo and the CDCR. However, while the county has granted $35,000, enough to keep the program open for another two or three months, the CDCR notified the city on June 3 that it was no longer interested in funding the center. The CDCR had considered giving upwards of $90,000 to fund the center, though it has decided to fund its own reentry programs instead of expanding its support to other city programs.

The reentry center is smaller than most county programs. Its employees are Robert “Bob” Hoover, program manager; Delores Farrell, administrative assistant; and Jose Cabrera, case manager. Hoover describes his fellow employees and the former inmates they serve as a family, which he says is the secret to the center’s success. Each employee works directly with the formerly incarcerated men and women, or as they call them “clients,” fulfilling different roles in the family structure.

A long-time community activist, Hoover — the grandpa figure known as “Pops” — has worked with teens since 1963, and started a golf program in 1991 to keep kids off the street. When David Lewis asked him to join the center, Hoover wondered how his background with youth might help adults. Lewis explained to him how when some inmates get out of jail, in many ways they are still like kids because their social and educational development stopped when they were teenagers.

Farrell — the grandma and mother figure known as “Mamma D” — has a background in administrative and government work and brings organizational and education skills.  She teaches classes for clients in anger management, decision-making and budgeting. Clients open up to her about their personal relationships, a topic rarely discussed on the streets.

Cabrera, a former member of a Northern Hispanic street gang in EPA and who served two sentences in California prisons between 2006 and 2010, is the brother figure. He serves as a role model and has the background and language to relate to the clients in a program he went through four years ago.

With two strikes for crimes committed while trying to maintain his drug habit, Orlando Palomares is one of the program’s greatest success stories; he points to the center’s family structure as being essential to his rehabilitation. After Palomares’ release from prison in 2012, his parole officer referred him to the program. “This place really helped me out. If it wasn’t for [Jose], I don’t know where I’d be right now,” Palomares said. After only a year, his parole ended early due to his impressive achievements in the workplace.

One of the center’s frequently recidivating clients, Mell Christopher Jordan III, committed crimes — including thefts — to get money to buy alcohol. However, after his most recent release in April, Jordan maintains he has really decided to change. He says that when he sees himself “violating” and then thinks of the workers at the reentry center trying to help him, he realizes that sooner or later they are not going to want to help anymore. “I don’t want this program to end for me or for other people that come behind me … There’s not a lot of people trying to help us, but these people are,” Jordan said.

However, even those intimately involved with the program admit their ability to change people is limited. While the center significantly helped him, Palomares believes there are some criminals that no program could change. He and Cabrera agree that some individuals need a drastic event to make them think differently.

“Everybody’s rock bottom is different,” Cabrera said. “Unfortunately, some people die reaching it.”

Farrell echoed Cabrera’s belief that testing the limits is inherent to human nature. However, eventually people need a wake-up call. “Some of them have it inside [prison]. And some of them have it when they get out,” Farrell said. “And some of them never get it, or they haven’t gotten it yet, or they had it but they missed it, they missed the call.”

Furthermore, Cabrera says, “Some people are actually going to be criminals for the rest of their lives.” However, while it is hard to change someone’s mind, Cabrera says he will not stop trying. When his clients find themselves back in prison, Cabrera says he feels sorry for them and their families. It is difficult, he says, to see someone with such potential regress.

Hoover says his job is about more than statistics. “It’s about what can we do to help men and women who have been incarcerated become productive people in this community,” Hoover said.

Interim Police Chief Lee Violett believes that having a reentry program in EPA is a great benefit to the city. Officer Zarate agrees, saying that he suspects that the center’s hands-on, personal approach makes clients more willing to help themselves. He hopes that one day, with the proper funding, the city will be able to serve three types of individuals: state parolees, county adult probation and those in the juvenile probation system.

The City Council will discuss the future of the reentry program, and possible funding partnerships, at its July 1 meeting.

Also on Peninsula Press: Formerly incarcerated himself, East Palo Alto re-entry center case manager is role model for clients

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