Rochelle Trujillo, coordinator of the CEO (Center for Employment Opportunities) program, goes over paperwork with CEO site supervisor Christopher Williams, March 11, 2022. Williams was given a second chance at employment through CEO after serving 16 years in prison for a second degree murder conviction, committed when he was a teen. Credit: John Walker / Fresno Bee

This story is the sixth 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.

When 37-year-old Christopher Williams was released from the Corcoran State Prison after serving 15 years for second-degree murder, he found his trials were far from over.

Williams, who had been confined in some of the most dangerous prisons in California – Wasco, High Desert, Folsom, Ironwood and Corcoran – said he learned how to stay alive “from older guys” and mastered the art of being alert, not disrespecting anyone and, most importantly, of reading cues from fellow prisoners and guards.

But once released, Williams found, like most formerly incarcerated people, how difficult it was to find his footing. Everything was a struggle – from finding a place to live to finding a job to reconnecting with people.

“I will only say that it was very difficult for me,” Williams said. “I had the mindset to come home, get out there and live my life.”

He found that life after incarceration is tough and hard to navigate. He is not alone.

At any one time, nearly 6.9 million people are on probation, in jail, in prison, or on parole in the United States. About 650,000 people leave state and federal prisons across the U.S. each year. As many as 9 million people may cycle through local jails. In California, about 120,000 people are paroled every year.

According to information provided by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 1,809 people were on parole in Fresno County as of Feb. 23. Parolees can come from prisons throughout the state.

The Center for Employment Opportunities, a nationwide program which started in the Fresno area in 2020, is giving formerly incarcerated people a chance to work, earn an income and restart their lives.

The program provides workforce readiness training, job coaching and placement as well as job retention support to help “people who are system impacted” build experience and skills, in order to secure long-term employment, said Rochelle Trujillo, director of the Center for Employment Opportunities in Fresno.

“So, they’ve been incarcerated, and they’re finding it difficult to find employment due to their background, that’s kind of the clientele that we really focus on because we’re really trying to reduce recidivism as much as possible,” she said.

“And we really believe that the way to do that is by giving people opportunities by helping them build skills and experiences that are really going to set them up for a different way of life.”

Trujillo said that upon release, formerly incarcerated people come with various needs, including, “stabilizing their personal life, transportation, housing, childcare, and just having support,” which is complicated because “there’s some people that have burned a lot of bridges to this point, and they don’t really have a lot of people to rely on to help encourage them outside of us (the center).”

Some of the needs are so basic, and some formerly incarcerated people who have served long prison terms “don’t even know how to use a cell phone, don’t understand what WiFi is, or the internet or data,” Trujillo said.

The Fresno office opened in August 2020, in the thick of the COVID lockdown, which made community outreach difficult. Getting off the ground was tough. The first cohort had 20 formerly incarcerated persons, about half the program’s capacity, Trujillo said.

‘A difficult, difficult, difficult situation’

Sixty-eight-year-old Timothy Rodriguez understands really well the hardships after release from prison. He has lived it, having spent about 47 years of his life cycling in and out of prisons until 2020, when he was released early due to the pandemic.

“It was a difficult, difficult, difficult situation,” Rodriguez said of the period following his release. “Three weeks after I was released from prison, I came for a job interview and all I had was my prison ID, not a valid California identification, just a prison identification with my picture and my name.”

Rodriguez grew up in Madera and was still a teenager when he started his first prison stint in 1974. He had dropped out of school in the 10th grade, too early to learn any life-sustaining skills. That, coupled with a serious drug addiction, doomed him.

His was a cycle of economic desperation from lack of income, followed by criminal activities (mostly theft), then arrest, trial, conviction, sentencing and imprisonment. Upon serving his punishment and release, the cycle starts all over again. He never lasted more than a few months outside of the criminal justice system.

He remembers that each time he re-entered society, there was so much to learn; things that others take for granted – how to use tech gadgets, completing basic tasks online, social media – were overwhelming. He no longer recognized people he thought he knew before; some family members had cut him off, and it looked like life had moved on and left him behind.

The hardship spilled into every other sphere of his life. He needed to secure a job and make a clean living to break the cycle that got him in trouble many times before.

Economic stability reduces rates of recidivism

Studies show that employment helps formerly incarcerated people gain economic stability after release and decreases the likelihood that they will return to prison.

In Rodriguez’s case, most of his imprisonments had resulted from robbery – because he had no money and no means of earning an income and had resorted to theft. However, despite the overwhelming benefits of employment, people who have been to prison are largely shut out of the labor market.

According to a 2018 study by the Prison Policy Initiative, unemployment among formerly incarcerated people is at least 27% higher than the total U.S. unemployment rate. Studies repeatedly show that people leaving prison want to work but face huge structural barriers, especially during the period immediately following their release. This economic exclusion significantly degrades their lives and may contribute to recidivism.

To reduce barriers and ease their clients’ transition to work situations, CEO partnered with the Society for Human Resource Management to develop curriculum which offers businesses an understanding of the benefits of employing formerly incarcerated people as well as “the unique barriers justice-impacted individuals face, as well as knowledge and tools to attract, hire, and retain people with past criminal records,” according to Bari Samad, national director of communications for the Center for Employment Opportunities.

The four pillars

Samad said the organization follows a four-step model for working with “returning citizens” who “are facing a lot of barriers to employment – from background checks to lack of experience – because they’ve been away.”

Job readiness training, also called the pathway to employment, prepares individuals to reenter the workforce. Samad described this step as “very crucial,” as it ensures that the individual gets all the necessary documents that employers may need, including identification or clearances from the courts and parole departments.

A lot of the job readiness training that CEO does involves counseling formerly incarcerated people about what it means to work and how it will impact their lives.

“We talk about the basics of getting on a routine; going to bed early; getting up early; getting yourself on a sleeping schedule and eating schedule, those types of things,” Trujillo explained. “Maybe, getting an alarm clock, creating a plan for how you’re going to get to and from work, lunch, are you going to buy lunch or are you going to prepare lunch.”

In the second stage, Samad said, “we create opportunities for transitional employment.” This begins as soon as the participants graduate from the job readiness training. They immediately begin paid transitional work.

“They get daily pay, that’s critical. Our organization is very unique in this whole country, in this respect,” he said. “We are advocating for reforms, like others, for the criminal justice system, but we’re also creating immediate pay and work opportunities.”

CEO stresses the importance of ensuring that people “get income in their pockets immediately,” to meet their immediate needs and forestall the temptations of looking for quick money elsewhere, Trujillo said. “And it really allows them to kind of hit the ground running.”

For some formerly incarcerated people, immediate daily pay made all the difference. “Every day, 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,” Rodriguez said.

The transitional employment is generally in areas that do not require particular skills.

“So this could range from working with the Department of Transportation – usually physical jobs working on work crews. . . . From landscaping to working with the Department of Transportation’s cleanup crews, there’s a huge range of jobs,” Samad said.

In the third stage, participants get job coaching to match them with possible employers. “We do mock interviews, help them prepare resumes, and provide guidance to their job search,” Samad said. “They have a coach assigned to them.”

The fourth step involves retention services. “Once they find a permanent job, we will work with them to create a job retention program for them, including workplace counseling and crisis management,” he said.

How CEO works

CEO employs all the participants in the program. Currently, the Fresno office has four transitional work crews, working alongside Caltrans, and performing litter abatement and landscaping maintenance along the local freeways – 99, 41 and 168.

Because of the newness of the CEO program in Fresno, Trujillo has limited data to illustrate the program’s success locally. However, the program has reported success in other parts of the country, according to records.

For example, CEO participants in some cities in New York – New York City, Buffalo, Rochester, and Albany – were able to reduce recidivism and the rate of committing new crimes. Additionally, formerly incarcerated people in their programs were 48% more likely to be employed than the comparison group. Also, a study found 13% lower turnover rates for employees with past convictions and that 85% of HR professionals indicate workers with a criminal history are equally or more effective than their peers.

“We really believe that the more support and the more opportunities you’re able to provide someone,” Trujillo said, “really gives them hope that they can achieve more than what they’ve achieved in the past or what they’ve done in the past.”

“We really focus on the workforce training development aspect, and on trying to do that really well,” Trujillo said. “But we do understand that it’s not just one solution that’s going to fix everything right.”

Do these jobs pay living wages?

Among the criticisms of programs like CEO is that jobs open to formerly incarcerated people often pay minimum wage, therefore trapping participants in poverty, with limited opportunities to move up the economic ladder. Both Williams and Rodriguez now make between $17 to $20 an hour.

Rochelle Trujillo said that the organization’s first priority is to get their clients working and earning an income, and meeting with a job coach to assess their level of readiness for a more permanent job.

The job coaches explore clients’ career interests, Trujillo said. “What type of work are you interested in doing?

Depending on previous background, what types of jobs would be a good fit? Are they allowed to go back into the type of work that they did before? (For people who had previous careers), and if not, what are some alternatives?”

Depending on their criminal record, some formerly incarcerated people may not be able to return to their former work, she said. “That can be a little bit difficult for people to accept, and they could feel really lost in that process.”

In such situations, CEO provides support and reassurance. “You’re not going through this alone. You have people here that are helping walk that path with you, and, depending on where you’re wanting to go, we can continue to build a new skill set, if that’s something you’re interested in doing.”

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