Robert Powell has been in prison for five separate stretches in his life, with a total of 24 felony convictions. When he is paroled on Sept. 24 he plans to stay out for good. But the only way he can do it, he says, is with a little help.
It isn’t because Powell hasn’t tried. While taking full responsibility for the crimes he has committed, Powell says the cards have been stacked against him ever since his first offense. During one of his paroles, he says he hit the streets for 30 days straight looking for jobs, with no luck. The problem is, it always came down to that one question: Have you ever been convicted of a felony?
Powell has been advised not to lie in answer to the question and so, time and time again, he found himself turned away from potential jobs. Although the multiple offender doesn’t say it, it was obvious what his only choice was. In order to survive on the streets outside of prison, he had to turn to something that eventually landed him back in prison.
Fast forward to the present. It’s Saturday, July 10. Powell is standing outside the mosque at San Quentin prison, inquiring about what kinds of skills he needs to get a job when he gets out. He’s well built, easily 250 pounds, with several tattoos and a shaved head, but talks so softly people have to lean in to hear him. He’s shy when he approaches people, noticeably trying to be as courteous as possible.
Powell, along with more than 70 other inmates at San Quentin, is outside in the sunny prison courtyard during a break in an inmate-developed program called No More Tears (NMT). For several hours, he and the others listen to counselors, union representatives, and job placement representatives talk about possible job and living opportunities for them when their sentences are finished. Powell and others create a sea of blue sitting in their prison-issued blue button down shirts and blue denim pants. The room is filled to capacity, with some having to stand. Interest in the program is so great that many inmates have to be turned away.
“I’ve been doing installment programs and I’m tired,” says Powell. “I’m looking to come out and be an asset and not a problem.”
This meeting with NMT is the second in what inmates and program coordinators hope is a whole series. The theme last Saturday is job placement and how to survive parole.
Run by Center Force, a nonprofit based out of San Francisco, NMT was originally created by inmates. About a year ago, Center Force and inmates at San Quentin filmed a video about violence in the community, focusing on Alameda county. They received such a broad response that inmates decided to form a steering committee and thus NMT was born.
With continued help from Center Force, inmates devised a mission statement and a set list of goals. Their aim is to help stem violence and stop recidivism among inmates by creatively using the resources they have.
According to Powell and others, NMT immediately caught the interest of inmates because it’s one of the few programs that try to bridge the gap between the community and the inmates.
“NMT is different from all the other groups because it makes that connection between the inside and the outside,” said an inmate self-identified only as “Black.” One of the inmates on the steering committee, he asks specifically to be identified only by that name because that’s how other inmates refer to him.
Unlike other programs that only focus on inmates while they’re in jail, NMT hopes to ease the transition back into the community. Helping the community understand that the inmates have changed and genuinely want to be a part of the community is part of it. Giving the inmates options when they get out and helping them prevent violence is the second half.
“Who better to be a part of the problem-solving than those who were once the problem?” asked Black.
The first NMT meeting brought in victims of violence and the families of victims. Run as a confrontation of sorts, inmates received first-hand accounts of the results of their own actions while they were on the outside.
“That affected guys in here,” said Black. “There is a face to the people who are the victims.”
But the initial meeting also allowed community members to put a face on inmates who, for the most part, they had only previously identified as faceless violence. “[The meeting] built a bridge between the inside and the outside,” Black said. “Victims want to throw away the key, but they are able to see that us on the inside are people, and that with change we can be a good community member.”
At Saturday’s installment, inmates had the opportunity to meet with people concerned about helping inmates by providing them good jobs and career opportunities. Along with general job placement counselors and representatives from Peralta Community College was Alameda county Supervisor Keith Carson and his staff member, Rodney Brooks. Carson and Brooks, while limited by the county budget, have been into San Quentin with No More Tears several times and pledged to do everything they can to facilitate transition and curb violence.
There were also a number of union representatives from the building trades unions. Iron, sheet metal and electrical workers’ unions from around the East Bay came to tell inmates that as long as they work hard and produce, the unions aren’t concerned that they’ve been convicted of a felony.
“I’m often told apologetically, ‘I have a record,’ but it’s not any of my business,” said Don Zampa, the business manager for the iron workers’ union in the East Bay. “My concern is that you have a good work ethic and that you’re a productive worker.”
Besides overlooking their records, the union representatives told inmates that union jobs will help them overcome the cycle of recidivism because they pay a living wage and provide important benefits that will let them get back on their feet. Nor do inmates need prior experience, since each union provides training programs that pay and lead to jobs.
And while most listened and asked questions with a real sense of urgency, another group sat back, acting more like facilitators than like participants. Among them was Black, who, like a handful of others, does not have a set parole date. Currently he is in his ninth year of a 25-to-life term.
Two inmates in particular, Lonnie Hairston and Lafayette Nelson, acted as the primary facilitators, taking roll and introducing speakers. Both wore glasses and had gray in their beards. In August, Hairston will have spent 27 years in jail. Nelson is serving a life sentence under the three strikes law. He’ll be 53 in a couple of weeks. They know they might not get out but want to participate because they see NMT as a productive was to create change.
“There is an attitude, ‘who are you guys to teach anyone,’ but who better than us?” asked Nelson. Along with Hairston, he commands an unspoken respect from other prisoners. “The only benefit I get is that I know I’ve tried to change the life of someone who just becomes another statistic by coming back to prison or dying on the streets.”
It was Nelson who lectured inmates as the program ended. Even though it was time to go, the inmates were confined to the building until the prison finished an official inmate count. Inmates used the time to rattle off last minute questions to presenters who assured them they would be back. Powell was at the front, gathering brochures that the union reps and job counselors had left.
Black stood by the doorway, listening to Nelson talk. “A lot of us feel like we’ve been sitting on our hands,” he said. “That’s the biggest joy, knowing that we’re making a difference and letting the community know that we care.”