LINCOLN BLVD — Today, Randolph Halo has a job at a tech office in Santa Monica, helping keep the premises ship shape. He has dental, vision and even managed to get that pesky “check engine” light on his car fixed.
Seven months ago, the story didn’t look so good.
Halo was recently released from prison after 27 years behind bars. He had been in a gang, and was present when a friend shot a man to death, which earned them both lengthy sentences at a time when, activists say, the California prison system is more about retribution than rehabilitation.
Still, Halo worked. He received five different kinds of vocational training, an education and, perhaps most important, behavior modification training and counseling. He became a different man.
When he walked out, Halo had a sister waiting for him, but no job. He knew every time he tried to apply there would always be that little white box on the form that asked him the damning question — “Have you ever been arrested or convicted of a crime?”
For those who must check the box, that seemingly basic question remains a sometimes-insurmountable obstacle, said Gretchen Chiari, a volunteer at Chrysalis who led a panel discussion Thursday at the nonprofit’s Santa Monica office called “Putting the bars behind you,” a look at the challenges that face ex-cons as they try to return to normal society.
It prevents men and women who have made mistakes from getting government assistance for housing, confounds applications for schools and acts as a red flag for employers who may be nervous about the prospect of hiring a felon.
That’s where Chrysalis steps in. The nonprofit has one mission — getting people employed. In 2011, it helped 3,125 clients at its Los Angeles-area offices, and helped secure 1,783 jobs. It received over $277,000 from City Hall in 2011-12 to run the Santa Monica Employment Center, which aimed to help 400 low-income and homeless develop the skills needed to get jobs.
It offers classes like the one Chiari teaches, which helps those with a criminal history learn how to explain the checked box and missing years on their resume, as well as job training opportunities and even clothes for the day of their interview.
The Thursday discussion was one of the first in what Mark Loranger, president and CEO of Chrysalis, hopes will be a wider outreach effort to expose the community to the nonprofit, demonstrate its work and help change the stigma placed on a person who has spent time behind bars.
“We hope it changes the perception of what an ex-con is like,” Loranger said.
Although the panelists that day must still check that white box on an application, they fit in none.
Productive after prison
Joshua Wafer, the transition program manager at Chrysalis, spent 12 years in prison for aggravated assault, but his criminal history started much earlier when he sold crack cocaine at the age of 10 so he and his friend could afford to buy chili fries from a restaurant down the street from his South Bay home.
Today he helps people with similar histories find jobs and get their lives back under control.
Rene Sander spent 27 years in prison on a first-degree murder charge, coming off of five years incarcerated as a juvenile. He couldn’t read nor write when he went in, but Sander took it upon himself to get an education and get counseling to help deal with some of the demons from his difficult childhood.
He found Chrysalis with the help of a third panelist, Ruben Casey, who also spent more than two decades in prison on a murder charge. A chance meeting at a HAZMAT training class turned into a career. Sander is now a vocational counselor.
Their successes are not the norm, although people who have been behind bars longer tend not to go back. Whereas 65.1 percent of those released in the 2006-07 fiscal year went back to prison within three years, according to a 2011 report by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Sander estimated that figure to be less than 1 percent for those with more than two decades of prison time behind them.
In part, that can be attributed to the amount of resources waiting for people with lengthy sentences compared to those who spent only a few years in prison, Chiari said.
Halo, for instance, was able to secure transitional housing as he worked toward restoring his life, an option that might not be open to others.
Whether or not enough services are being offered in the prison system is also at question. The California prisons’ mental health and medical facilities have been under the watchful eye of a federal judge for several years, and the state is under a mandate to reduce the prison population to 137 percent of capacity by the end of the year to relieve overcrowding.
Although few doubt that the system needs to be reformed, picking a place to start can be daunting.
Loranger would like to see the state act as an example to private businesses by hiring ex-cons for public positions.
“Let the government set the example,” he said.
He is also behind the “Ban the Box” movement, which would restrict when an employer could ask about a person’s criminal history except in specific cases, like when working with children.
“I want business leaders to take a hard look at their policies,” Loranger said, calling the box an “automatic disqualifier” in many cases.
It stands in the way of giving people second chances, of which, as the panel proved, some will take full advantage.
“Life is not so much where you’ve been, but what direction you’re going in today determines whether you succeed or fail,” Casey said.