Once he leaves a California state prison, a man gets (at max) 200 bucks “gate money,” a set of “dress outs” (post-prison clothes), and his freedom. An unmarked white van drops him and a handful of other former prisoners off at a bus depot or public-transportation hub and, from then on, he’s on his own.
The total number of current parolees is unknown, as this year’s statistics on prisoners and parolees have not been calculated. But figures for 2007 are available. According to data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 121,286 parolees were male.
In San Diego County alone, there were 8145 total males on parole; that’s 6.7 percent of the total number of males on parole in California in 2007.
These men, known as “parolees,” generally fall into one of two categories once they are released from prison: those who return home to a supportive network of family and friends, a good meal, and a spot to lay their heads…and those that return to little or nothing at all.
S.N., 60, is a tall and stately army veteran originally from New York City. He was a decorated staff sergeant when he discharged, having served three tours in the Vietnam War. Seated at his favorite bar in San Diego, the name of which has been withheld at his request for privacy reasons, he speaks about the seemingly insurmountable loss he faced after returning from his last stint in prison.
“I had a beautiful place,” he says, eyes wistful behind his glasses. “I lost my brand new car, everything. They repo’ed [it]. After three months of nonpayment, they came and picked it up.”
“I lost a great deal. My big thing was clothes. I love clothes. I had thousands of dollars’ worth of wardrobe. And I lost all of that. TV set, furniture…And then, most importantly, mail and pictures that I can never get back again. They threw it all away. But they didn’t throw away my clothes, trust me. [They kept them.] And they didn’t throw my TV and DVD player away…”
S.N. says he contemplated suicide.
“[I’ve] never been without money like that and without a ride, and I always used to dress nice,” he says. Then he smiles. “I’m old, I’m ugly, so I like to look nice. And I don’t have any of that.”
S.N.’s most recent sentence, for parole violation, was five months long. He served it at the R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego. His original offense was for “getting into a little scrape,” as he describes it, with someone in El Cajon, an incident that ended, ultimately, in a shooting. S.N. held the gun. The result was a 24-year sentence.
The catalyst for the parole violation was, according to S.N., murky, until he spoke with his parole officer.
“When I did get out, I [told him], ‘You didn’t have to violate me. I had 29 days to go.’ Then he told me, ‘I violated you because you didn’t open the door when I’d been knocking.’ He said, ‘You pissed me off, so that’s why I violated you.’ With that violation, I was not only out of work, but I lost everything I owned. Everything. My daughter, I reunited with [her] in 2006, hadn’t seen her since she was five, she finally gave me pictures of my son and her growing up and we connected again, and now I have none of those pictures.”
In contrast to S.N.’s experience, T.C., 46, who did his most recent time at the Chuckawalla Valley State Prison — also on a parole violation — has had an easier time post-release.
“For me,” T.C. says, “it’s always just a relief to get out of there. I just can’t stand being in there. My friends came to pick me up. It was a good thing. Saved me a lot of money, and we went to the tramway [in] Idyllwild and had a good time. It was nice. So, for me, I had a good release this time.”
T.C. is a lanky guy in a white shirt; he is quick to smile and just as fast with a quip or joke. Glasses on his nose, he furrows his brow in concentration as he dips the tip of his needle in a small puddle of ink and, delicately, applies it to the back of the woman he is tattooing.
For T.C., prison was a familiar landscape; he’s been in three times prior to his parole violation, booked for his first offense in 1994, which landed him two years in the Level Two (Level Five is the most dangerous) section of the California Correctional Institute (known simply as ‘Tehachapi’) in Tehachapi, California, for the transportation of methamphetamine. His second time in was in 1998; he served one year in the Avenal State Prison in Avenal, California, for possession of stolen property. His third incarceration, in 2002, was, T.C. says, technically for trespassing — according to him, a case of being “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“They ended up getting me on that one for three years,” he says ruefully. “Because that’s what they do. Once you have a prison record, it really doesn’t matter. What they did is they gave me 16 (extra) months for prison priors. Every time you’ve been to prison, they can give you an extra year on top of it.”
While each of his offenses have been different, and each time he has been at a different facility, the process of being released, T.C. says, is fairly uniform everywhere he’s been.
“On your release date, you go to [the] Receiving and Releasing [department], and they check you out, ask you a bunch of questions [to make] sure you’re the right person,” he says. “Because there are people who have escaped that way. And then they give you 200 dollars” gate money “to get yourself home and to live on while you’re out there.”
It takes about four hours in total to be released, according to S.N.
“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.
His boss, F.B. says, sometimes recruits R.J. Donovan prisoners to come work for him. He helps out with finding them housing within the properties the company manages.
“[His business] is not government-funded, it’s out of his own pocket,” says F.B. “So he can [only have] a select, chosen few, [which is based on] people recommending them, or going off of his own judgment.”
F.B. speculates that a friend of his, an inmate with a life sentence who works as a clerk under the guidance of the prison pastor, spoke to his boss on his behalf. As a result, F.B. was guaranteed temporary work with the property-management company until he found another job, but lucked out when a permanent position became available. The boss offered him the job, and now he works in the maintenance and janitorial department. He reports that it has been going well.
Before securing the position, F.B. was under the impression that he would have to seek other work. Still, he wasn’t particularly worried.
“I wasn’t really stressing over it,” he says. “Something inside was telling me, ‘I’m going to be all right.’ Regardless of what’s going on. But [the anxiety] was there. I had my moments where it would get to me, and then I would just talk to myself and say, ‘All right, you’re going to be all right, just push through.’ All you have to do is push through it, and I use that AA saying, ‘Take it a day at a time.’ ”
T.C. also experienced no problems finding employment; he was able to return to the construction job he had before he was arrested.
“My boss actually sent me a lot of money while I was in prison,” he says. “I told him I’d pay him back. I tried to tell him not to send money, but he wouldn’t hear of it. He kept sending me money, sending me money, and I finally told him, ‘You know, I’ll pay you back.’ And he said, ‘It
wasn’t a loan, it was a gift.’ It was cool.”
S.N. speculates he will find work soon as well. At the time of this writing, he is about to attend a job fair that taps San Diego’s population of veterans. He also has an apartment lined up through Veterans Affairs Supported Housing (or VASH), a government-supported program that provides veterans with affordable places to live.
“If I receive a job tomorrow [at the job fair],” he says, “I already have a senior-living place that will house me. Five hundred dollars a month, three meals a day, cable TV, and your own phone.”
Though S.N. found his apartment quickly, locating a place to live can be difficult for ex-prisoners, depending on their circumstances, as T.C. explains.
“Somebody that doesn’t have any support system or any type of family or anything, they’ve only got 100 bucks left out of their gate money, and they have to resort to using that 100 bucks. Instead of getting food, or getting a place to stay, what a lot of people do is they’ll buy a bag of drugs and they’ll sell drugs, try to make their money.”
T.C., who is a lifelong resident of San Diego, had family to pay his rent and keep his apartment and things safe…which has not always been the case for him. F.B., as previously mentioned, received housing from his boss. Until he gets a job, S.N. will be staying with his friend; then he will move into his VASH-provided home.
Usually, though, it’s not so easy. Because of this, S.N. says, once he’s in his own apartment, he will lend a hand to friends that have recently been released.
“Someone that wants to do well when they get out, I want to help them out if I can,” he says. “If I have a place, they have a place to come to. Because the biggest thing about getting out of prison is where the hell you’re going to lay your head that night. Sleeping in Balboa Park is certainly not an option. I’ve done it.”
All three men say that making and maintaining friendships with people they knew in prison is beneficial to them, even when their pals are still inside. Phone calls and letters from friends and family help as well.
“To have contact with the outside world is very important,” says F.B. “It feels good to have it in there, because in there, you feel like you’re all by yourself, alone, nobody cares about you. Those are the types of thoughts that go through your head.”
F.B. also valued his prison friendships, ones based on mutual goals of self-betterment.
“I guess you got to surround yourself with people who are on the same type of deal you’re on,” he says. “It’s kind of like high school, who influences you. So if everybody has the same mind to do right, everybody has an influence on each other to do right.”
On the outside, choosing with whom you associate, according to S.N., is equally important. Those he deems “negative,” in personality and in influence, he does not want within his circle, which mostly consists of former prisoners and parolees.
“I only deal with parolees that work and who are responsible and want to stay off parole,” he says. “You go with a positive attitude and stick around positive people, you don’t go back to prison. I am never going to commit my crime again; that I know. And these guys never want to go back. I don’t parole to get rid of an old prison number [only] to pick up a new one. I hear guys brag, ‘Oh, damn, this is my third number.’ I don’t want to brag about something like that! You should be shot! My goal is all positive, that’s all.”
His dark eyes are round.
“And I’m going to achieve it,” he says. ■
— Rosa Jurjevics