There is a 15-year gap on Paul Smith's resume that he reckons will haunt him for the rest of his working life.
Smith (not his real name; he asked that it not be used) is an assistant manager of a property maintenance company in Orange County, but for most of the last decade and a half he worked at a variety of tasks such as clerical chores and auto repair.
He didn't have far to commute to work each day because he lived on the job site--California's maximum-security prison at Folsom, a forbidding stone fortress northeast of Sacramento.
But about six weeks ago, Smith stepped outside the prison gate with $200 in his pocket, bound for Orange County, where he had lived before being sent to prison.
"A convict is a strong man because he has the fortitude to come back," said Smith. "I want to be a part of society, I want to produce, I want to be productive."
19,000 Released Yearly
Smith is one of more than 19,000 prisoners released in Orange County each year. Of these, about 150 are from federal prisons, 1,550 are from state institutions and 17,700 are from county jails.
Most of those released have limited schooling, just a fistful of worn work clothes and, at best, enough cash to stake them through the first few days.
But three Orange County groups are helping these men and women cope with the outside world, particularly with the crucial step of getting a job. Despite the county's vigorous economy and streams of job listings in local newspapers, the ex-offender's journey to the work world is a difficult passage. And because more people are going to prison, more people are eventually coming out, crowding the programs that the organizations offer.
The ex-offender's first few days and weeks on the outside can be a "treacherous animal," Smith said.
Helping ex-offenders tame the animal is the mission of Chicano Pintos (pinto is Spanish slang for prisoner), My Break Transitional Center and the Orange County Halfway House. All three organizations are based in Garden Grove, and OCHH also has residential facilities in Anaheim and Buena Park.
Chicano Pintos was founded in 1971 by several ex-convicts and is financed by federal, state and county grants; OCHH was founded in 1975 and operates with state and county funds; My Break was founded in 1982 and is financed through the U.S. Department of Justice.
Struggle for Funds
Orange County spends about $660,000 a year on prisoner re-entry programs. Most of that money is spent on OCHH, a residency program operated from an apartment complex where selected prisoners live for the last few months of their sentences while they secure jobs and permanent places to live. The OCHH program grew from 64 beds to 88 last year, and only rarely is a bed unfilled.
Budgetary constraints limit what each of the programs is able to do, and the continual struggle for funds wearies the program directors. For example, Chicano Pintos Director Baltazar Perez cites figures indicating that it costs taxpayers $17,000 to $25,000 a year to keep a person in prison. Yet Chicano Pintos spends an average of just $1,200 on each ex-offender who comes through the voluntary program.
"We're expected to put people to work, that's the bottom line," said Perez. Employment, and with it a sense of self-worth, are the keys to a convict's successful re-entry to the community, he said.
"When you get out of prison, (the programs) are going to offer you every opportunity," said a recently released inmate who asked that his name not be used. "It's up to you to take advantage of it."
County officials say that public financing of the programs is money well spent. The programs have "definitely been of service to the community," said Joan Conroy, the county's justice system analyst.
For each of the three groups that work with ex-prisoners, the difficulty of the task tends to depend on where the convict served time.
Those released from federal prison tend to be more educated, "white-collar" criminals who have been involved in fraud, embezzling, tax evasion or other nonviolent crimes.
Those who have served time in county jails generally have been convicted of lesser offenses and have served shorter sentences than those sent to state prisons, who have been convicted of serious crimes and generally have served long terms. Thus state prison parolees tend to be older and have greater difficulty meshing back into the society they have been absent from for so many years.
Although Chicano Pintos and My Break actively work to secure employment for the recently released prisoner, OCHH leaves it to the individual prisoner to find his own job.