“They will come to you the night before and let you know that you are to get up at 4:00 in the morning and you’re going to what is called ‘R and R’ [Receiving and Releasing]. And then you’re in a cell until they process your release. They also [give you your clothes], if you have any change of clothing, if anybody sent you a package with a change of clothing — they’re called ‘parole clothes.’ ”
At R.J. Donovan, released prisoners are driven to the Iris Avenue trolley stop, says S.N., in an unmarked van — “as if everybody don’t know.” S.N. chuckles.
This last time, though, S.N. caught a ride with a friend who happened to be released on the same day. Without a set of “dress outs,” he was provided with the prison’s standard-issue duds for those being released: beige pants and a white shirt, a telltale sign, to those in the know, of where one has been.
S.N.’s first order of business post-release was to ditch the state clothes. The second was to get a good, filling meal with his buddy.
“We went to eat and everything like that,” S.N. recalls. “And the first thing I did was go have me a beer. When you get out, you want to do what you’re not supposed to. So I went to get me a beer, and then I went to the porno shop on 30th Street and stayed in the booth for a couple of hours.”
Not always does a release run so smoothly, S.N. cautions. Generally speaking, it takes four hours from wake-up time to hitting the streets, but… “That’s only if you don’t piss them off. If you make them angry, they’ll take you to the trolley whenever they feel like it. They can take you down at one minute to 12:00 at night, knowing that no trolleys are running anymore.”
The drive to whatever transportation stop is nearest — gratis — is normal at most prisons, but Chuckawalla, where T.C. was detained, is the exception. Instead of driving the newly released to a bus depot and paying for tickets home, they must either be picked up or catch a bus along the dusty desert roadside. The bus company, Desert Transport, which services former prisoners exclusively, charges $50 to travel from Blythe to San Bernardino, and if there are enough people, will go to San Diego for a total of $76. There is an alternate route, which involves taking the Metrolink line to Oceanside, then getting on the Coaster to San Diego, for $69. With $200 in their pockets, that leaves released prisoners with an average of $120 dollars.
“If you don’t have [anything] on the streets, then you’re pretty much screwed,” says T.C.
For S.N., this was almost the case (though he was not detained at Chuckawalla). While he knew where his friends lived, he says, he didn’t know the exact addresses and could not write to them after he’d been arrested, telling them he was “inside.”
To make matters more difficult, part of the conditions of his parole (which he is no longer on) for a prior crime required him to wear a GPS ankle bracelet so that his whereabouts were known 24/7. The prior offense classified S.N. as a sexual offender — he
wasn’t comfortable divulging additional information about the nature of what happened — under Jessica’s Law, which states that registered sex offenders in California must wear ankle bracelets that track their every movement. They are also not allowed to live within 2000 feet of any place that children congregate — schools, parks, etc. — which makes it practically impossible to find “compliant” housing. For S.N., there were few viable options.
“I was actually sleeping behind the parole office,” he says. “Me and a lot of parolees [were there] because of the nature of our crimes and the restrictions that they put on us, or else [we’d] be violated. So they allowed the parolees [to be there]. They even called it ‘Tent City’ because a lot of parolees had their tents. [There were] about 30 of us. I had a sleeping bag and a blanket.”
Luckily, S.N.’s parole was nearly up and, after three days behind the parole office, the GPS was cut off and S.N. was free to stay with friends or family. He’s found someone to bunk with temporarily.
“I’m staying with somebody that I love staying with,” he says, putting down his pint glass. But, for him, a place of his own would be ideal.
The hardest part, he says, has been trying to find a job. As a former felon — something S.N. admits he doesn’t always disclose — it’s almost impossible. Since his release, he’s interviewed at a casino, where he was initially well received, until his prospective employers did a background check. Ultimately, he did not get the job.
“Most of the parole offers say that you must tell [potential employers] that you have been convicted of a felony,” he says, “whereas I have never told any of them that I’ve been convicted of a felony. With the nature of my crime… As soon as they run a background check, they don’t want to hire [me].”
F.B., 23, on the other hand, managed to find work while still in prison. A St. Louis native, he came to San Diego with his family four years ago. He’s fresh-faced and still dressed in a button-down shirt and tie from church as he sits at a secluded table at a coffee shop downtown, not far from where he lives. In a low, even town, he tells the story of how he met his then-future boss, the head of a property-management company.
“He’s part of the prison ministry,” he says. “I [met him] through the chapel inside the prison, about a year into my sentence, but I never really talked to him. I met him, shook hands, and introduced myself. He was just coming in as a volunteer. He’s still a volunteer, I think.”
F.B. was picked up in 2006 for robbery; he served his time at R.J. Donovan and did two years in their level-three facility.