In a recent AMA (Ask Me Anything) session on Reddit.com, Documentarian El Sawyer described what it was like to create and direct his first feature length film Pull of Gravity. Sawyer, who was incarcerated for 8 years following an assault incident at the age of 17, recently answered questions for Reddit users about his film. Because he was able to learn film and video production while incarcerated, he decided to create Pull of Gravity once he was released in order to shed light on the reentry and recidivism issues that plague the United States today. I was among hundreds of Reddit users attempting to reach out to Sawyer, hoping to get a few of my questions answered. While I personally was unsuccessful at getting my questions answered, an amazing discussion was had regarding recidivism and reentry in America.
Sitting at the top of the Cesar Chavez Center on the SF State University campus, I spoke with Project Rebound Director Jason Bell about issues facing the formerly incarcerated community, and how Project Rebound helps to empower this marginalized community. To read about how Bell got started with Project Rebound, and brief history of Project Rebound’s success, click here to link back to Part 1 of this 2 part blog.
An important aspect of Project Rebound’s usefulness is helping formerly incarcerated individuals become acclimated to university life, which can also mean help finding work again. Coming out of prison with little reference on how to obtain work can be especially difficult when you don’t have an educational background, and you’re forced to disclose your previous convictions on many job applications.
Bell and I talked about what it’s like for someone who has had a previous felony trying to find work, and the difficulties they face when applying for jobs. “…this is the way you can legally discriminate against a person…” he said. “There are different nuances like the years you spend in prisons, probation, but in actuality that part is almost irrelevant— if you go through the system and have the label of being through the system, legally that’s enough to caste you.”
“We’re not asking for miracles. If a person has been a bank robber, we’re not asking for them to be able to work in a bank. That’s not what we’re talking about. What we’re talking about is the people who had a joy ride when they were 18, and since then are 40 years old and haven’t had any convictions, and they’re still having to mark [prior convictions on job applications] without being discriminated against.” Jason Bell, Project Rebound Director
This is the first blog of a two part special on Project Rebound. For Part II, click through at the link on the bottom of this page.
Making the transition from prison to pursuing a higher education can often be a daunting task for formerly incarcerated people, especially when they are not familiar with the necessary networks available to help them during reentry. Many times a person being released from prison leaves with the mentality that they have no chance at acceptance into a university, which ultimately leads to recidivism. At San Francisco State University, a group called Project Rebound has been working for nearly five decades to enrich the lives of former inmates by guiding them through university life. Since it was created by former “Criminal turned Criminologist” John Irwin in 1967, Project Rebound has had countless success stories come through their program, including Hood Recipients and Ivy League graduates. I recently had the chance to sit down with current Project Rebound Director Jason Bell, to learn how “Education as an Alternative to Incarceration” is proving to be so successful at SF State.
I met Bell through a UC Berkeley program called ‘Teach In Prison’, which allows students from Berkeley to tutor students in San Quentin who are obtaining their GED. Jason was a guest speaker for my class, coming to share his personal stories with anyone who had a question, and to promote the good work that Project Rebound does. I approached Bell after class with the proposition for this interview, and he received this idea with open arms. We scheduled a meeting at SF State, at his offices in the Cesar Chavez Center.
Last month Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) introduced a bipartisan bill with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) that would aim to decrease the minimum mandatory punishments for those convicted of drug-related and non-violent crimes. The bill, which is already receiving support among conservatives and liberals, hopes to relieve some of the life-altering burdens and sentencing that a drug charge can cause.
While speaking about this bill, and on how drug use can negatively affect a person’s life, Paul gave examples of President Barack Obama, and former president George W. Bush. Both Presidents have admitted to smoking marijuana in the past, and Paul says they both “got lucky” that they were not arrested for it.
Paul says that he is not in favor of smoking marijuana, but that kids should not have their lives ruined for experimenting while their young. “… I don’t want to put people in jail who make a mistake. There are a lot of young people who do this and then later on, in their 20s, they grow up, they get married, and they quit doing things like this. I don’t want to put them in jail for the rest of their lives.”
Earlier this week, 27-year-old Brian Banks received the second greatest bit of news in his life. The Atlanta Falcons offered Banks his first contract to play in the NFL, a rare opportunity for someone of his age who had not previously been drafted out of college.
This contract was offered ten months after Banks received the first greatest bit of news in his life: that after five years of being locked in prison, the charges of rape for which he was convected and locked-up for had been dismissed.
In 2002 Banks was falsely accused of rape after a classmate alleged a sexual encounter between the two of them was not consensual. Banks faced the decision of either fighting the charges and facing a longer jail sentence, or accept a plea bargain to spend five years in prison. As a young man who faced with two options leading to punishment for a crime which he did not commit, Banks ultimately chose the latter.
CaliforniaInnocenceProject.org reports that “nearly a decade after his convection, [Banks accuser] recanted her statements and has acknowledged she fabricated the whole story.” California Innocence Project, the group responsible for helping Banks get released from prison, says the presented the information they uncovered to the CA District Attorney’s Office and on May 24, 2012, Judge Mark C. Kim of the Los Angeles Superior Court reversed Banks’ conviction.
In Washington D.C. a group known as CSOSA (Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency) holds a yearly program to help previously incarcerated women begin their reentry lives right. The program, which changes its theme annually, is called “Lifetime Makeover”, and is part of a series of programs known as “Reentry Reflection,” all run and co-sponsored by CSOSA. These programs are designed and held to assist those women who are coming out of prison and need counsel to help with any mental, violence, or health issues they still may need addressed.
During these events, recently released women from the D.C. area come to hear and share stories of hope, struggle, and support with one another. The events also consist of clothing donations, fashion and beauty donations, as well as book donations. Kemba Smith, a formally incarcerated woman and recent author of the book Poster Child, attended the most recent event as a motivational speaker.
In a release from justice.gov covering CSOSA’s 2012 “Lifetime Makeover”, CSOSA director Nancy M. Ware was quoted as saying “[Lifetime Makeover is] …able to provide the women in attendance with helpful information about job retention, housing, drug treatment and recovery, and healthy relationships.” The theme for 2012 was “Stepping In, Stepping Out and Stepping Up”— in 2013, the theme was “Reclaiming My Life”.
In a recent story published by NBC Connecticut’s Jo Ling Kent, Kent compiles several interviews with various opinions regarding Connecticut’s $17 million per year spending on prison education. In the article, Kent’s interviewees vary in support for which type of programs should be funded— although all of them agree that some sort of change is needed in the prison’s educational system. In particular, Kent interviews Andrew Ferraro, a formerly incarcerated man of over 18 years, who claims the education he received in prison was not necessarily helpful.
Ferraro, along with Kent, both seem to imply that the vocational training programs Ferraro received while incarcerated were not important to his rehabilitation. As an example given from the article, Ferraro completed programs in basic baking skills, culinary skills, facility design, and menu planning. On the surface it’s understandable that completing a “basic baking skills” program is not going single-handedly lower Connecticut’s recidivism rate, but I feel this article is approaching these educational issues in the wrong manner.
The problem I have with this article is with its limited viewpoint, and blatant lack for investigating the state’s educational system as a whole. What Kent has done in her piece is take multiple similar viewpoints, bundle them into one article, and claim it to be an “investigation”. Furthermore there is literally no attempt by Kent, or any of her interviewees, to suggest solutions for what they all feel is a prison educational system in need of change. By failing to find anyone with a different opinion, or critical message to convey, the piece lacks in reporting what could be a more full story.