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California Prisons' Soon-To-Be-Released Inmates Can Turn To Aid In Search For Jobs

Irene Byon |
May 23, 2011 | 11:15 p.m. PDT


(Creative Commons)
(Creative Commons)

When John Urban was released from prison in 2005, he still had tattoos on his face and was an active gang member in his alliance. He was 24 years old.

“I didn’t see a future for myself," Urban said. "I went back to doing what I knew, which was not being part of society."

Urban was first arrested when he was 14 years old. At 20, he was rearrested on four counts of murder, release of a firearm and transportation of cocaine. Prison life was hard for Urban; that’s why he never wants to go back. But life outside of prison was just as difficult.

“The way people treated me was brutal― but I had it coming,” he said. “I never once felt sorry for myself because I recognized that this is the way I made a reputation for myself. This is the way I conducted myself. So what would I expect?”

Employers rejected Urban countless times. People slammed doors in his face. Rude comments on his appearance were a regular occurrence. But that didn’t stop him.

“I was persistent and resilient,” he said. “I would get up every single day, put on a tie again and say just go for it because I’m not going to go back to prison again.”

With California now under a federal court order--upheld on Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court--to lower its inmate population by 30,000 prisoners during the next two years, thousands of more parolees will soon flood the job market. It remains to be seen whether they will match Urban's vigor, luck and post-incarceration success.

Urban, now 28, is a job developer for Friends Outside L.A., a non-profit organization that helps parolees like him.

“Today, the most important thing for me is to make sure parolees know about companies such as Friends Outside L.A.,” he said. “Because when I was trying to reintegrate back into society, I didn’t know about the benefits.”

Although Urban came to his success through many trials and errors, parolees now have organizations that will give them guidance.

Whether assisting them with their resumes or helping them achieve sobriety, Friends Outside L.A. is just one the many non-profit organizations that participated in the Pasadena Parolee job fair earlier this year. More than 700 parolees swarmed the gymnasium at Robinson Park to find work with about 70 service providers there to discuss employment opportunities.

It was the first time the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations [CDCR] hosted a job fair geared solely towards parolees.

Regional Parole Administrator Maria Franco said the overall results were impressive.

“We have heard from several parolees thanking us for giving them an opportunity to seek employment,” Franco said. “The communities are thankful that we are attempting to put parolee’s to work and build their self-worth and esteem.”

But as with Urban’s case, finding employment is especially hard for people who are released from incarceration.

With the unemployment rate near 18 percent in Pasadena and about 12 percent statewide, parolees are at an even greater disadvantage.

As a perk, the Work Opportunity Tax Credit gives up to $9,000 in tax breaks to private-sector businesses for hiring individuals from twelve target groups who face barriers to employment. Those target groups include parolees, veterans, and handicapped individuals.

When Urban approaches employers to educate them about the program, he said roughly 85 percent of them are dumbfounded.

“I get the same reaction every time,” Urban said. “They think it must take a ridiculous amount of paper work or it seems almost intangible to them.”

On top of the tax credit, parolees are secured up to $25,000 in fidelity bonding, a type of insurance that provides government compensation if hired parolees destroy something or cost the employer money.

“So when you approach an employer with all these incentives, it’s a little overwhelming for them,” Urban said. “They think ‘why not give somebody a chance.’”

Franco said several parolees were hired on the spot, while others received preliminary follow-ups.

She said she experienced a great feeling of pride and accomplishment when she saw parolees receiving jobs.

“Going back to our mission statement, we are helping our parolees reintegrate back into society and we are showing them that they can work and be productive in society and that we care,” Franco said.

But Urban said he felt a whole different level of pride and accomplishment when he saw the results.

“This is my redemption; this is my therapy because I myself was a felon,” he said. “I remember what that was like and I think that’s why I’m so effective with my job.”

Among the companies that attended the job fair: Wells Fargo, Labor Ready, Apollo Courier, and Volunteers of America Job Program.

“It should be noted that these employers are committed to providing work for our parolees and helping them reintegrate back into society,” Franco said.

Parole and Community Team agent Gerald Freeny said CDCR is planning to have its next parolee job fair in the fall. His team is trying to make this event a biannual program.

“We are trying to get [parolees] to build their self-worth and esteem and to let them know they can do positive things in life.”

That kind of self-worth is what most of Urban’s clients lack, he said.

“They don’t have self-esteem because of the way people treat them and how they put them down,” Urban said.

Mainly, it is because when people are released, parolees are so detached from society that even the most trivial participation seems so far fetched, he said.

“But it can happen,” Urban said. “It’s just up to the parolee to pick him or herself up to make the effort to get back into society.”

For Urban, all the trials he’s endured shaped his character, he said.

In the mean time, Urban’s continuous goal is to prove parolees can live a life outside of prison bars. He said he is a living testament so if he can do it, then anyone can.

But right now, Urban said he has something that many people he thinks don’t have.

“I wanted to be happy and successful,” Urban said. “And that’s what my life is today. It’s what everyone wants― well, I have it; it’s in my pocket.”

Reach contributor Irene Byon here.



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