CEO (Center for Employment Opportunities) client Timothy Rodriguez, right, gets help getting set up for filling his taxes, from CEO intake and transition coordinator Justin Marshall, March 11, 2022. Rodriguez, who said he has a lengthy criminal past and incarcerations, credits CEO for turning his life around. Credit: John Walker / Fresno Bee

This story is the seventh of the Broken Ladders series, exploring why so many in Fresno can’t climb out of poverty and what different organizations are doing to help create better job pathways. The series is made possible with support from the James Irvine Foundation.

Timothy Rodriguez was serving a 20 years to life jail term when Gov. Gavin Newsom commuted his sentence in March 2021 because of his age (68) and vulnerability to COVID.

“It wasn’t very easy,” he said of the period following his release. He credits the Center for Employment Opportunities with helping him survive the first months post-prison.

His conditional release required him to live in supervised sober living housing in Madera County. Rodriguez said he shared an apartment with three others and that they were randomly drug tested, fairly regularly, at least “twice a month.”

“When I was released, I didn’t have any family. I didn’t have any family support,” Rodriguez said. “My past history, and the amount of money I had, I believe, was only $150. That doesn’t go very far.”

“I couldn’t get welfare and couldn’t get food stamps,” he said. He felt lost, his money dwindling fast. Rodriguez said, “It was a difficult, difficult, difficult situation.”

His last prison stay was for more than 20 years, during which someone stole his identity. “I didn’t have a Social Security card. I didn’t have an identification card,” he said. “You know, without a Social Security card, and without an identification card, you can’t get a job. It was impossible.”

He got lucky. One of his roommates worked for the Center for Employment Opportunities.

Three weeks after his release from prison, Rodriguez came to CEO for a job interview. He had no valid California identification. All he had was his prison ID and a severely limited work history.

Miraculously, he remembered his Social Security number. “I had memorized it, and with that alone, I was able to get a job here with CEO.”

His proper ID card would take another two to three months to come.

Rodriguez started with job readiness training – the first step of the CEO process, which prepared him to enter the workforce while helping with the reissuance of necessary documents that employers may need.

He worked six days a week, five days in the field and one designated as a coaching day. “They come in here, and they help you prepare for a job,” Rodriguez said. “They help you with the resume, mock job interviews; they call it ‘job readiness.’”

CEO paid him every day on a debit card. “So every day,” he said, “I had money, instead of getting paid once a week, or holding a week back. So that made it easy for me to buy the things that I needed to buy on a daily basis.”

His first job outside of CEO was with Foster Farms, and after a two-week training, he was on an assembly line fileting and packaging chicken.

“Because of my age, I struggled a little,” Rodriguez said. “It’s a hard job, and I was unable to keep up.” He was fired after only three weeks.

“And so I called CEO and told them about my situation. Fortunately for me, they put me back to work” on one of the crews doing litter abatement and landscaping maintenance along the freeways, he said.

There were more obstacles, but each time, he said, CEO offered him ways to overcome them.

He was hired for another job, but that, too, ended “because I was wearing an ankle monitor and could not clear the metal detector. They told me that once I had the ankle monitor removed, I could go back,” Rodriguez said.

Meanwhile, he needed an income for his rent and food. CEO immediately put him back on the work crew, ensuring he’d receive daily pay until the ankle monitor issue was resolved. He makes between $17-$20 an hour.

Rodriguez, who has been in and out of prisons numerous times, said CEO made the transition this last time out easier.

“They help you. CEO helps you financially; they give you a job,” he said. “They also help you find jobs and find training or education, whatever it is that your goals are, they make it possible for you. They help you accomplish whatever goals you have set for yourself.”

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Dr. Dympna Ugwu-Oju is the senior editor for Fresnoland.