By Nadine Ono.
A unique partnership between California State University San Bernardino and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) gives state parolees a better path to success and away from a return to prison. Created in 2010, the Cal State Reentry Initiative (CSRI), provides a variety of services to recently paroled inmates who return to the region from the state’s prisons.
“One of the reasons I became so passionate about reentry was that, for anyone who lives or works inside, we know what matters is when you get out,” said Dr. Carolyn Eggleston, CSRI’s program administrator and a CSUSB faculty member who has worked in correctional education for 40 years. “You can try to take classes and try to decide you’re not going to do that life anymore, but without help on the outside, it’s almost impossible.”
Before opening its doors, the key individuals of CSRI spent several years planning with community stakeholders to develop this community-based, comprehensive program. Working with local elected officials, law enforcement, county schools and nonprofit providers, CSRI’s leadership structured the program to meet not only the needs of the CDCR and the parolee, but also the community.
CSRI has four locations in San Bernardino and Riverside Counties and each serve 150 people at any point in time, except the recently-opened Indio office, which handles about 50. Each site provides service to approximately 300 (except Indio) over the course of the year. The program offers court-ordered classes some must take to complete their parole such as substance abuse education, 52-week batterer’s intervention and anger management, as well as voluntary classes. Students also have access to much-needed services such as housing, transportation assistance, education and employment.
CSRI has provided services to 4,582 parolees since opening. Eggleston credits a strong team for it’s success. “The senior staff who really run the place are Director of Operations Elaine Zucco, Director of Administration Eric Goddard, and Director of Program Quality Andrea Mitchel.”
And because CSRI is administered through CSUSB, the parolees are referred to as “students” and the offices have the feel of a college student union. “It needs to be a place where people are comfortable,” said Eggleston. “We have seen across the country some of the day reporting centers that are really ‘prison-lite’ and people are treated like they were in prison. People don’t continue coming to those.”
Though CSRI has a rigorous attendance requirement, each student has individualized, customized schedules. The goal is to provide programming to address the criminogenic needs each student. “CSRI uses an evidence-based assessment to create a customized program for each student. We set high expectations for attendance and students are meeting these expectations,” said Zucco.
In addition to the court-ordered classes, voluntary classes are offered depending on the needs of each center. These classes include public speaking, cognitive-behavior therapy, life skills, art, GED, and adult basic education, Spanish and current events. Some of these are taught by university interns and volunteers.
There is a computer center that has the feel of an internet café where students can search for jobs and a closet full of interview-ready clothing. The program is free, but students are asked to provide “sweat equity,” meaning they have to show up and do the work.
There is a referral list of potential students with priority to those who were just released from prison. When inmates are released, they are given $200 and told to return to the parole office nearest to where their crime was committed, which is sometimes miles away from where they were incarcerated.
“We know that the most important 48 or 72 hours after they get released is the time we really want to get them, because they’re lost and that’s the time that they’re most likely to go back to their old patterns,” added Eggleston.
And, according to Eggleston, it is hard work to successfully reenter. “We’ve taken somebody who’s already demonstrated he’s not a good community member, put him inside for X number of years and told him what to do at every moment, then send him back home telling him to do better without any help in the community and sometimes with real dis-incentives. I believe there are a lot of people who, when they get out decide they want to go straight, but they just haven’t learned how. And that’s what makes reentry so crucial, because there needs to be a place for people who are interested in changing.”
“A surprising number of people who come back after they’re successful,” she added. “It’s an educational program at its heart, but it’s also a safe haven. We’ve actually had students tell us, ‘This is the safest place in San Bernardino.’”
She spoke of one former student who, with the support of a San Bernardino city councilmember, got a job as a trash collector. “Although that’s not a glamorous job, he is so thrilled. He got employee of the month. Te has a pension started. He has a health benefits and is just so happy to be doing this job and it’s worked really well.”
Another former student was a lifer who spent 45 years in prison and returned to the area with no family connections. Through CSRI, he was able to obtain housing, get a part-time job and start community college. But he developed cancer. Dr. Eggleston recalled a conversation she had with him in the hospital, “‘You finally have things going you’re way and here you are with cancer.’ And he responded with something I’ve taken with me and used when I’m feeling sorry for myself. ‘You know, but I have friends now that I didn’t have. I have people who care about me when I didn’t have that and I’m not dying in prison.’”
At the end of the day, Eggleston expressed why programs such as CSRI are important: “It’s really for all of us. And the dollars spent in reentry are a fraction of the dollars spent to incarcerate somebody.”