Since he was released from prison in December, Harold Johnson has been looking for work — as a cook, a janitor, a dish washer, at any place that will take him, at any wage. “I’ll do anything, man,” he said one day last week, exasperation in his voice and a slump in his posture. Bus rides as far away as Oceanside from his girlfriend’s southeastern San Diego home have not yielded a single offer.
“It’s been rough. Real rough,” Johnson said of the search. “All day, every day.”
Johnson is a 56-year-old convicted bank robber on parole looking for only the second job of his adult life. He was fired from his first as a fire watchman for Nassco last summer after his employer learned he had more felony convictions on his record than he’d revealed on his application. The application only asked for disclosure of convictions from the last seven years, Johnson said. A few months later, he was sent back to prison for two weeks when an officer found a knife in the car he was riding in.
Job prospects are never good for someone like Johnson. He’s got a criminal record. He relies on public transit. And he lives in a neighborhood where unemployment hovers between 15 and 20 percent. The community already gets a disproportionate share of the roughly 9,000 parolees released from state prison in San Diego County each year, service providers there say, many returning home with few skills after long sentences.
But recent state decisions to reduce prison overcrowding and save $100 million over the next year mean that some San Diego communities stand to see a new influx of prisoners returning home in the coming months.
In Southeastern San Diego, it’s been a topic of conversation at social service agencies, informal places like trolley stops and the local Starbucks, and at a recent debate between City Council candidates.
“That’s our brothers, cousins, uncles, sisters. That’s our families,” said Jordanna Kidd, an employee of the United African American Ministerial Action Council, which helps returning prisoners find jobs. “Of course we’re talking about it. That is us.”
Those like Kidd who work to smooth the prisoner reentry process anticipate a local surge of unemployed and uninsured with few places to go for help, a situation compounded by the dearth of jobs. Inmates returning home will find fewer resources available to ease the transition between prison and community, the result of massive state cuts to parole programs.
The San Diego Sheriff’s Department estimates that as many as 2,000 to 3,000 additional inmates could be released to San Diego County under the state’s revised parole and early release programs over the next two years, said Sheriff’s Department Commander Rich Miller.
In southeastern San Diego, Kidd said, the news is bittersweet.
“We’re elated to have our loved ones back amongst us,” Kidd said, “but we’re left with this broken person with all these needs and no resources.”
For two decades, the 40-bed Freedom House on Imperial Avenue has been a place where women with drug problems preparing for release from prison could spend the last weeks or months of their sentences preparing to transition home. It gives women drug treatment and a place to stay. Now, the facility is slated for closure.
This year, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation will cut $250 million in funding for adult rehabilitation programs, including $50 million for parole operations. Places like the Freedom House are among the casualties of the state’s cuts, which refocus limited resources on parolees with a higher risk of recidivism.
But the majority of inmates set to be released under the state’s plan to reduce its prison population will be low-risk offenders. The state plans to reduce its prison population by 6,500 in the next year and as many as 40,000 in years to come under a program known as non-revocable parole. They will not be supervised by parole officers.
As a result, service providers say, those parolees will lose eligibility for programs like the California New Start program, which helps parolees find jobs. A parole officer’s referral is required.
“There’s not that person or persons to help with that transition,” said Anita Paredes, executive director of the Community Connection Resource Center, a local organization that administers the employment program.
Other organizations are not set up to handle the new category of unsupervised parolees.
Service providers get information about their clients’ needs from parole officers. The severed ties mean that will be harder to do, making those parolees harder to serve, said Jim Sanders, who directs the Jacobs Foundation’s prisoner reentry program in southeastern San Diego. The program has referred those on non-revocable parole elsewhere, he said.
“With non-revocable parole, those who would be most likely to succeed are being left on their own,” said Clovis Honoré, a lead organizer with the San Diego Public Health Reentry Policy Initiative, a local consortium. “What [the corrections system] would have been handling with resources in the prison is being left to the community to manage. That’s not problematic per se, but it’s not providing resources.”
Kidd of the ministerial council said non-revocable would be a curse for southeastern San Diego.
“They’re going to end up places like here, and organizations like ours are going to be inundated and overburdened with the need.”
The challenges facing returning parolees are so well known in southeastern San Diego that City Council candidates discuss how the returning prisoners might be tapped to improve the community. That strangers at the local trolley stop can recite details about the state’s plans for its prisons.
Sitting on a bench at the trolley stop on Euclid Avenue and Market Street in the heart of southeastern San Diego’s Diamond neighborhoods, Keith Bryant watched as a woman sat handcuffed on a bench on the other side of the tracks, a cluster of trolley security officers surrounding her.
He left southeastern San Diego after high school in the 70s, and was surprised to discover with each visit home that more of his friends had gone “on vacation,” a colloquialism his friends and family used for prison.
“A really high percentage go back,” he said of the stream of parolees who end up returning to prison. Statewide figures show recidivism is close to 80 percent. “They get out and they don’t care about trying to get their lives turned around because while they’re in there they get into this institutional mindset.”
“As far as the community here,” he said of the coming influx, “it could be bad. You’ve got to realize these guys don’t got no skills, and with this economy, it’s called survival. … Everyone knows it doesn’t look good.”
Nearby, Detria Nelson, 26, sat studying at this community’s only Starbucks, not far from where she used to sprint to the bus stop on her way home from school as a child.
“As a parent, it’s not something I’m looking forward to,” she said, saying that drug peddlers have never had trouble recruiting local children to work for them. “Unless they’re providing the structure for people to come back to, that’s an issue.”
Desperate stories like Harold Johnson’s, Kidd said, are bound to multiply.
“It’s going to mean more suffering,” she said. “But they’re going to get their needs met one way or another.”