Sustainability As Key to Reentry for San Quentin Prisoners

The Green Jobs Fair illuminates the ecology of staying out of prison.

The economy has chewed up and spit out plenty of experienced professionals and newly minted college graduates. Now, imagine you’re a recently released prisoner from San Quentin, reentering the world with the same set of life and employment skills (only rustier) that likely contributed to the actions that got you into prison in the first place. What would you do? What help exists to smooth your reentry?

A number of inmates facing imminent release from San Quentin recently attended a Green Jobs Fair (the second held inside the prison), where they were able to meet and speak with various representatives from local green industries and nonprofits to find out about green opportunities on the outside.

Henry, an inmate scheduled to be released in 30 days, was picking up pamphlets about biofuels. “I’m a driver, and I’m just here seeing what’s available,” he said. “One thing I learned from the computer age is that people don’t keep up. Green is big and I want to learn as much as I can because it’s big.”

The job fair was organized by The California Reentry Program and The Insight Garden Program, two organizations that work with prisoners in San Quentin to help ensure that former inmates stay on the outside.

Founded in 2003 by Allyson West, who started as a volunteer teacher at San Quentin, The California Reentry Program (CRP) offers a number of resources to help released prisoners succeed in the outside world. They include help obtaining employment, education, medical services, drug/alcohol treatment, and housing.

Acknowledging the lack of jobs in this economy, even for people without a criminal record, West said that the idea for a Green Job Fair was sparked when she heard Van Jones speak at the prison a couple of years prior about the lack of green jobs. What struck her about his speech was that he encouraged prisoners to broaden their thinking and look at and learn about some of the green industries, not necessarily for jobs, but for opportunities where they could become entrepreneurs.

“You can’t stereotype prisoners any more than people on the outside,” said West. “There’s a wide range of dreams and aspirations, and many of these men have not thought about what they can do beyond working in a warehouse. If these guys have some kind of entrepreneurial spirit, down the road, they can hire others and stop the cycle of discrimination.”

Like the California Reentry Program, The Insight Garden Program (IGP) works with men scheduled for release. This program teaches men how to reconnect with the outside world through an ecological lens. Through hands-on work in the prison’s organic garden, the program teaches ecological literacy with the ultimate goal of rehabilitation through a connection with nature. IGP’s Founder and Director, Beth Waitkus, also works with interns from various universities to conduct research and explore employment opportunities in gardening, landscaping, and green jobs for men leaving prison.

How can an understanding of ecology help men succeed in the outside world? “If the men don’t understand how things are interconnected, they can’t understand how their behavior impacts those around them,” said Waitkus. “As part of the program we give them cognitive and emotional tools to help them learn to respond to the world, rather than react.”

With California slated to release 40,000 prisoners over the next couple of years, it seems imperative to support any program that has a chance of sending these people out into the world healed. And it’s not so crazy to think that working outdoors in nature-based systems can be the key to keeping men from re-offending. This story of one recently released inmate who learned beekeeping in a prison program illustrates how connection to something larger than themselves can keep men engaged in the outside world in healthy ways.

The numbers bear up. In 2011, the IGP launched a reentry program for men paroling to Richmond and Oakland in collaboration with Rubicon Programs, Planting Justice, and the CRP. The recently completed recidivism study of 117 men who paroled from the IGP between 2003-2009 found that less than 10% returned to prison or jail – a 60% drop compared to the statewide recidivism rate.

Earl, who was attending his second Green Jobs Fair, has no intention of coming back to prison after he gets out in June. He’s one of the lucky ones. He has a job to go back to. His boss at the storage facility where he was previously employed has been writing and asking when he’s getting out. Still, the programs in prison have given him an understanding of the possibilities of a green economy.

“The green economy is about doing things differently, and the more people know, the more they can get involved,” he said. “I took this class so I could go convince my boss… we have all this roof space [in the storage facility]. I told my boss we should put solar panels in and it won’t cost anything and then sell it back to the grid.”

Earl also thinks that, if there were more tax write-offs, more businesses should be planting gardens and donating the produce, and that prisons should be more self-sufficient and grow their own food.

Mark Stefanski, a biology teacher at Marin Academy, who has been a volunteer teacher in the IGP for five years, said “These guys are more educated about sustainability issues than the general public,” adding, “We encourage systems thinking in the program, using nature as a model. These guys get it. They realize they are part of a system that’s broken…and they see the concepts in these restorative programs as a way to be plugged into the future and a principal pathway out that is both earth friendly and human friendly.”

Attending the fair were a number of food and farming organizations, including People’s GroceryCA Food and Justice Coalition, and Farmlink; and green industries including Give Something Back, Stop Waste, and Yokayo Biofuels; as well as representatives from the Ella Baker Center, Green for All, and other non-profits; and educational attendees such as Laney College and Solano Community College.

I spoke to a few representatives to see what they could offer former prisoners in the way of jobs and resources.

The non-profit food justice organization, People’s Grocery, offers resume building stipend positions in gardening and event planning and outreach. Bay Area Green Tours hopes to be able to connect former prisoners with green jobs through their networks and educate willing participants about how to eat greener. They also offer internships in tour planning. Farmlink is the second step for aspiring farmers who already possess agricultural experience, offering loans and brokering agreements with landowners.

Since jobs are so hard to come by for anyone these days, I was left hoping that there was more to successful reentry than a job. Cheryl Parr, a retired corrections officer trainer who worked at both Sierra Conservation Center and California Correctional Facility in Susanville told me over the phone that, “a strong family core outside of prison is essential,” adding that “even if there are jobs, they still need a little push. A lot of prisoners never actually got the life skills they need.”

Because many prisoners have always lacked a strong family core, programs like the California Reentry Program and Insight Garden Program are necessary to teach the skills former inmates need to take advantage of the job opportunities that do exist. Even though well-paying industries are not exactly standing in line to hand out good jobs to men exiting prison, programs that offer prisoners new ways of looking at and dealing with the world, as well as information about what opportunities exist on the outside, give men a better chance of succeeding. A chance at success isn’t just about ensuring the men don’t commit more crimes; it’s about offering a chance to give back and contribute to the community in meaningful ways.

Stefanski told me about one prisoner who is a model for what can be accomplished with a little investment in rehabilitation and education. The man, a participant in both programs at San Quentin, was released about 1 1/2 years ago, in his late 50s, after spending half of his life in prison. He now works with youth in Richmond, CA, at the urban agriculture non-profit Urban Tilth, whose core belief is that environmental restoration is inextricably connected to economic and social restoration. Urban Tilth uses the principles of Permaculture to hire and train local people to grow food for the community.

As Stefanski said, “these guys are going to get out in three to five years. The question is how are they going to come out?”

Photos courtesy of Kirk Crippins

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.