One of us ... again
A coalition of Pasadena police and community organizations attempts to ease recently released inmates back into society
By Carl Kozlowski 09/22/2011
With an intimidating bushy mustache and tattoos covering much of his arms, neck and upper body, 39-year-old Mark Franco is the kind of person one might envision when they think of a career criminal. And in the case of Franco, who has spent 22 years behind bars throughout different phases in his life for robbery and assault, that assumption would be correct.
Jumping to conclusions about Franco, however, would be a mistake, because in the past three years the East Los Angeles native has made a dramatic turnaround, not only by going straight and getting a job at a construction company, but also by attending school at Pasadena City College. Today, Franco works as an outreach coordinator for the nonprofit Flintridge Center’s Pasadena Altadena Community Team (PACT) program, where he helps other former inmates get their lives together.
That kind of ideal transformation — from thug to productive citizen — is what nervous prison and government officials are hoping will happen across the board starting Oct. 1, when more than 40,000 nonviolent state prisoners, nearly a third from Los Angeles County alone, will receive early parole due to provisions of Assembly Bill 109 (AB 109). The bill was passed in response to a federal judge’s ruling — upheld by the US Supreme Court’s order — to reduce California’s vastly overcrowded prison system by releasing inmates.
Nonserious, nonviolent and nonsexual offenders will be moved to county jails, saving the state an estimated $458 million, according to Gov. Jerry Brown’s office. Still other inmates will be released due to a lack of space to hold them.
In Pasadena, where at least 500 former inmates have already been released back into the community, officials are doing more than merely hoping for the best. They are following a successful program used in East Palo Alto by the reintegration-focused group Free at Last, which provides community-based resources and job training for parolees to reduce recidivism rates.
“We wanted to get the stigma changed of being a parolee,” explains Pasadena Police Deputy Chief Darryl Qualls. “If a person did time and wanted to change, we would help them and so we started the parole integration and an education program. Beyond all the training, businesses like Target are also on board, donating basic needs like toothbrushes and toothpaste that parolees need when they’re released.”
A daily learning experience
As he discusses his formerly turbulent life in a rapid-fire tumble of words, the life changes Franco has made are evident in his dark, piercing eyes, which are hopeful and then suddenly filled with sorrow when he shows a visitor the tattoo he had inked into his neck in memory of his late father.
“I started my life of crime at 14, after losing my father to a violent death,” recalls Franco. “I had no hope and just wanted to continue destroying what was taken away from me by people. I thought the epitome of being a man was destroying the community around me, being locked up all my life, getting tattoos and hurting people.”
From age 14 to 18, Franco was locked up in juvenile hall before being transferred to adult prison, from which he was released but would return to on a number of occasions, serving sentences that ranged from 12 months to seven years at a stretch. Whenever he was released, he was so ill-equipped to find a regular job that he would usually be re-arrested within 30 to 60 days. It wasn’t until three years ago, Franco said, that he finally came to his senses through the help of a Flintridge program called the Apprenticeship Preparation Program (APP).
“I went into a nonprofit and saw a flyer for the AP Program, an apprenticeship program for people who want to learn the construction industry, and that’s what I’m an outreach worker for,” Franco explains. “I saw that someone would teach me construction. Not knowing any life skills for an interview — I’m even surprised I’m doing an interview now — all I knew was how to hustle.”
Despite harboring fears of failure, Franco took the plunge and enrolled in the Pasadena City College courses required for the program. As he made the daily trek by mass transit to Pasadena from his home at the Royal Palms Recovery Center near Echo Park, Franco’s commitment to creating a new life grew with the discipline he attained from attending 240 hours worth of classes in 16 weeks.
Franco credits the classes with saving his life by showing him people in the noncriminal world could care about people like him.
“Every day is a learning experience because I learn how to go through life as a normal, everyday person and they help me with anger issues, substance abuse issues, helping me be a good father to my kids,” says Franco.
“And it’s not funded from the state. It’s community based,” he adds. “This stuff needs to be addressed in the public and communities like this in Pasadena, because parolees need resources to live. At the same time, this program teaches you that a job isn’t just handed to you, that there’s a process where you have to earn anything good in life.”
A new life
Stories like Franco’s — heartening examples of a system combining with individual drive resulting in successfully transformed lives — are music to the ears of Qualls, a lifelong Pasadena resident who says he has seen far too many childhood friends become criminals.
“I was a pretty good police officer on the streets, and I put a lot of my friends in jail,” Qualls recalls. “They’d get out and really need assistance, and I can help those who are on parole.I’m 49 years old — that’s 30 years into adult life and some people still need help, and to finally be able to give it is tremendous.”
Qualls found some new ideas for reintegrating parolees into society at a conference of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLEE) in Oakland three years ago. The Oakland and East Palo Alto-based group Free At Last made a presentation on how its own community-based and locally funded program succeeded in reintegrating parolees returning to those high-crime cities.
After hearing four hours of stories about successful programs that included partnering with Caltrans to hire parolees on highway cleanup crews, Qualls was determined to share the ideas with then-Pasadena Police Chief Bernard Melekian. When a subsequent town hall meeting about the program drew 175 Pasadena citizens eager to learn about the bold new opportunities, Qualls quickly enlisted Pasadena police, the Flintridge Center and the San Gabriel Valley chapter of NOBLEE to form the Pasadena-Altadena Parole Reintegration Council.
Perhaps the best example of the success Qualls has seen came when a grant from Los Angeles County enabled the program to provide job and life skills training to 24 Altadena parolees before hiring and placing the six best participants with solid jobs through the help of another community nonprofit called Friends Outside.
That, in turn, led to Qualls and Flintridge Center Director of Community Organizing Brian Biery speaking to a national meeting of the Police Executive Research Forum in 2010, offering police chiefs nationwide the same inspiration Qualls had found in Oakland. Pasadena’s program is also being monitored for potential implementation throughout LA County, which could spark a national revolution in how parolees are handled.
“One in 37 people in this country are under correctional supervision of some type, and those are numbers beyond any other country in the world,” says Mary Weaver, executive director of the LA County chapter of Friends Outside, which provides everything from job training and counseling to food banks for parolees and their families. “Most people want to turn their lives around and want to care for their families and children, but it’s very hard because there’s a stigma around them and most have no money.
“My opinion is that we are using incarceration as a panacea for problems that should have been addressed through drug and alcohol treatment — mental health needs, because 15 percent have them, and a large number are senior citizens who are unlikely to commit crime. If we had been more proactive we wouldn’t have more incarceration.”
At the Reintegration Council’s monthly meeting at the Flintridge Center on Aug. 14, an impressive array of community organization representatives, including Qualls, Biery and Weaver, gathered to address the Oct. 1 deadline. The next day marked the group’s PACT Works information and job fair, an event held on the third Thursday of each month at the Center for Community and Family Services in the 500 block of Villa Street, and the optimistic buzz Franco brought into the proceedings quickly spread through the room.
“Regardless of how this plays out, the parolees will hit the streets, and we have to think of how we take on the challenge,” says William McLaughlin, program development manager for the Pasadena drug and alcohol rehab program Impact House, which is also part of the reintegration team. “It was unique for a law enforcement officer to view the issue the way Qualls did. The usual path is to want to lock people up, waiting for parolees to mess up and knocking on their doors at 3 or 4 in the morning to remind them to stay in line.
“But we’re saying if they can get help to handle housing, dental, health issues and jobs, we can help them stay out of trouble and be productive citizens,” McLaughlin continues. “This is sincere because we have to make Pasadena livable. We’ve decided let’s take away incentives in an atmosphere that makes it more likely to be arrested. Let’s get them a job, housing, health and dental care, mentors, as many resources that we know how to work — and let’s see how many really embrace a new life.”