Enhancing the conversation about rehabilitation and reentry
Photos and story by Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR Public Information Officer II
Office of Public and Employee Communications
Partnerships, cooperation and community took center stage at the annual Reentry Solutions conference, a gathering of law enforcement, elected officials, nonprofits and corrections representatives who share the same goal: reducing recidivism and helping offenders succeed.
CDCR Secretary Scott Kernan served as the keynote speaker on the first day of the conference, praising the diversity of organizations represented and assuring his commitment to rehabilitation. He urged attendees to engage CDCR staff in conversations about best practices, acknowledging real success will only happen with input from everybody involved in rehabilitation and reentry.
“There is a hope being created in my department,” Kernan said. “You can go into any prison today and see innovative programs happening. Many of you in this room have an interest in trying to change the lives of people in the prison system – that is the hope I’m talking about.”
“I trust that some great ideas and positive things will come from getting a group of people together with the same focus,” he added. “How do we make an offender better as he or she comes out of our system?”
Reentry Solutions: People, Programs and Policy, was held over two days in Ontario, with hundreds of attendees sharing information in person while even more watched live streams online. The steering committee itself is an example of the diversity of organizations represented, including members from CDCR, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, California Reentry Council Network and the Riverside County Probation Department.
“I believe in the power of our tongue, in what we speak,” shared steering committee member Deanna Allen of Abundant Place, which works to build communities both during and after incarceration. “The things we think about direct our behaviors. When we have a vision, if we don’t speak about it, nothing will happen. We have to put it out there.”
Each day consisted of large group meetings followed by breakout sessions focusing on topics from housing and employment assistance to juvenile justice and the role faith-based communities play in reentry. During the session “Success Starts Pre-Release: Building Bridges to Successful Reentry,” Rusty Bechtold, California Prison Industry Authority administrator, moderated the panel consisting of Sharon Owsley, Deputy Attorney General, California Department of Justice; Rebecca Silbert of The Opportunity Institute, a nonprofit that promotes social mobility with a focus on education; and Anti-Recidivism Coalition member Sam Lewis, who was formerly incarcerated.
Lewis spoke about the importance of education not only before incarceration, but also while in prison. When he realized pursuing an education would better enable him to find viable employment after release, he got to work, earning three college degrees while behind bars. Because of his degrees and the support system he built with nonprofits like ARC, he was able to find a steady job after prison, and continues learning to this day.
“Education can’t be separated from reentry,” he said. “You can’t learn if you don’t have somewhere to live.”
Other breakout sessions included “Why Gender Matters: Addressing Gender-Responsive and Trauma-Informed Approaches to Reentry for Justice-Involved Women,” and “Changing the Landscape of Health for Returning Individuals,” which discussed the long-term physical and behavioral health issues that can negatively affect reentry, and how nonprofits, law enforcement and medical professionals can address them.
Elaine Zucco of the California State University San Bernardino Reentry Initiative reflected on the breakout sessions during the second day of the conference, acknowledging a common theme that emerged throughout the day. No matter the issue, be it housing, education or employment, treating a returning offender with respect as opposed to feeding the stigma of incarceration goes a long way toward helping the formerly incarcerated succeed.
“People coming out of prison are just people,” she said. “The handshake you give them every day makes all the difference.”
The conference culminated in a general session about reentry success, “Rethinking the Framework for Delivery of Reentry Services,” moderated by Riverside County Chief Probation Officer Mark Hake. CDCR was represented on the panel by Jay Virbel, director of the Division of Rehabilitative Programs (DRP), who was joined by Linda Penner, chair of the Board of State and Community Corrections; Troy Vaughn, executive director of the Los Angeles Regional Reentry Partnership; and Jim Mayer, president and CEO of California Forward, a bipartisan organization working to improve the performance of government in California. Each offered their perspectives on reentry, from enhancing programs in prison to facilitating a “warm handoff” as offenders return to their communities.
“We are preparing offenders for tomorrow’s success,” Virbel said. “They are coming back to each and every community, and we must ensure we can address their needs.”
Virbel shared recent changes at DRP and CDCR, including the expansion of the reentry hub model to provide reentry programming at every institution, and the increase in transitional programs such as the Male Community Reentry Program and Custody to Community Transitional Reentry Program, which give eligible participants the opportunity to serve the last months of their sentence in a community program that will connect them with rehabilitative services, employment and housing assistance, along with life skills training, family reunification services and more.
Penner commented that this important work can’t be done without the input of not only law enforcement and the courts, but also community-based organizations working with returning offenders every day.
“I can’t imagine doing this work without these partnerships,” she said. “As we take on this enormous job, if we don’t invest in the locals, if we don’t continue this conversation, we are only getting half the job done.”
If Kernan’s keynote speech highlighted the future of CDCR, Roderick Q. Hickman’s talk the following day gave a history lesson in California corrections. Hickman was the department secretary in 2005, when the department was reorganized and the word “rehabilitation” was added to the name. This included consolidating operations of various departments and boards into the new CDCR, and working more closely with outside agencies.
Hickman reflected on the changes that have happened since then, not least of which is the continued strengthening of community partnerships. Most offenders are going to come home, he said, and it is the responsibility of both law enforcement and community service providers to work together to help offenders succeed. It is also incumbent upon neighborhoods and communities to accept these returning individuals, acknowledge the changes they have made in their lives and support them as they move forward. What it comes down to, he said, is a universal truth that has guided him throughout his life and career.
“People are more the same than different,” he said. “This is not somebody else’s family – this is our family.”