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New Lives, New Hope | An innovative program at Oakland’s Merritt College aims to help parolees go to school as a pathway to a new future. | By Martha Ross

West Oakland native Yema Lee, 40, had been cycling in and out of prison for drug and assault crimes until her most recent release in January 2010. Marcus Austin, 44, of Oakland served nearly 15 years for burglary and possession of stolen property, two of those in solitary confinement, before getting out June 2011.

Then there is Earthy Young, also of Oakland. He is one of the rare inmates to overcome the California correction system’s reluctance to parole people with murder convictions. Young arrived back in Alameda County in April 2010, after spending 26 years behind bars.

The odds show that Lee, Austin, and Young have more than an even chance of re-offending or violating their parole and returning to prison. A 2011 study by the Pew Research Center shows that 58 percent of California inmates returned within three years, either for committing new crimes or violating rules of supervisions, making California’s recidivism rate the second highest in the nation. But with Lee, Young, and Austin, so far, so good.

Actually, more than just good.

They have been pursuing their education at Oakland’s Merritt College as a pathway to new lives. And, they have recently begun to help others ex-offenders do the same thing. They are Street Scholars for The Gamble Institute, a nonprofit program that aims to help ex-offenders enrolled at the two-year community college stay in school.

With the motto “for parolee, by parolees,” the institute, which operates out of an office at Merritt College, launched a program in January that has the scholars providing academic peer mentoring and other support services for up to 25 ex-offenders enrolled at Merritt College. As of early February 12 ex-offenders had started in the program.

The scholars meet with the new Merritt students once a week and coach them in a variety of challenges that could hinder their ability to stay in school and out of trouble The scholars help the newbies set academic goals, guide them in preparing for tests or writing papers, and offer referrals to appropriate services, from tutoring to student disability services, to agencies that help with housing, financial aid, and substance abuse treatment. The scholars also lead monthly student support groups, which include talks by academic advisors and formerly incarcerated men and women who are attending four-year colleges.

“A lot of people who have been in prison have the potential to do good things with their lives,” says Austin, who wants to pursue a bachelor’s degree and other training to be a substance abuse counselor. “They missed opportunities, or just didn’t have a lot of chances, or, like me, they were looking for easy way to cut corners. At this stage of my life, this is, like, my time. I want to take advantage of this opportunity. I don’t know if that would be possible without The Gamble Institute.”

Measuring success

The Gamble Institute was co-founded by Elizabeth Marlow of San Francisco as part of her doctoral research at the UC San Francisco School of Nursing and post-doctoral research at UCLA’s School of Nursing. The institute is named in honor of Marlow’s grandfather, E. Lee Gamble, a professor of chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was long interested in civic causes.

An adjunct faculty member at UC San Francisco and the University of San Francisco, Marlow grew up in Walnut Creek before studying to become a nurse practitioner. She has nearly 20 years of clinical practice with inmates and formerly incarcerated men and women, including some in the San Francisco County Jail system. Her dissertation studied the impact of community health care access on the reintegration of middle-aged, chronically ill male parolees.

In her work with people with criminal histories or who had served time in jail or prison, Marlow says she was always struck with her subjects’ intelligence and good hearts—and saw how many struggled to make a go of it outside of prison. As part of her post-doctoral work at UCLA, Marlow received training in community-based participatory research methods. In her view, it’s important for the institute’s mission to develop strategies that are proven to help reduce recidivism. And so in addition to the peer mentoring they’ll be doing for new Merritt students, Lee, Austin, Young, and the other two Street Scholars, Ron Moss and Victoria Perez, will gather data and measure the effectiveness of the interventions they provide.

“One of our hypotheses is that people who can stay in school for longer are going to be less likely to go back to prison,” Marlow says.

The institute received a major boost this fall in the form of a $130,118 grant from Alameda County’s Innovations in Reentry fund, which supports a range of community-based projects that aim to reduce adult recidivism. The grant helps The Gamble Institute with operational costs for its program, including giving the Street Scholars salaries for their part-time mentoring work.

First steps first

Marlow and the scholars are aware they will be helping people who face major obstacles to staying in school. At Merritt, only about 1 percent of formerly incarcerated students complete their associate’s degree. “Just getting them to finish a semester is huge,” Marlow says.

The challenges parolees face staying in school also trip them up in life. Every year, more than 100,000 men and women are released from California prisons. The system gives them a ride back to their home counties, $200 in cash, and a mandate to stay out of trouble. On their own, many must find jobs, housing, and access to health care and other services.

They don’t all have friends and family able or willing to take them in and help them get their lives back on track. For many, their personal relationships may be in turmoil: Austin’s only relative when he returned to the Bay Area was a daughter he hadn’t seen since she was 6 years old.

“I didn’t have a clue what a cell phone was,” Austin says. “I had very little money, very little resources. I knocked on every door, asked a lot of questions. I put one foot in front of the other, one situation after another. I started putting things together.”

The majority of ex-offenders also are dealing with substance abuse problems. A study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse estimates that 65 percent of the nation’s 2.3 million state and federal prison inmates meet the criteria for drug and alcohol addiction.

Mental illness is another challenge. Lee struggles with schizophrenia, and continues to work with her doctor to find the right combination of medication to keep her moods in check. And, returning to school was itself frightening, Lee says. “I hadn’t been to school in 26 years. I had really bad study habits.”

Her story is typical: The institute’s clients will likely consist of men and women who have not been anywhere near a classroom in years or decades. Not only do these ex-offenders have to figure out how to sign up for classes and apply for financial aid, they need to re-learn—or learn for the first time—how to study or write a college paper.

“The first semester was really hard,” Ron Moss says about his first semester at Merritt. “I had always been an avid reader, but studying textbooks is not like reading the paper. I had to start reading for learning, for the concepts.”

Getting to work

The Street Scholars will work with the student parolees through the end of 2014. To become scholars, the five participated in The Gamble Institute’s early programs, emerged as leaders, and expressed an interest in becoming mentors, as well as in research and growing the program, Marlow said. To prepare for their work, they received training in qualitative research methods and in focus group and individual interviewing.

Their coaching will include guiding students through a Tools for Success manual they helped compile. It is basically a workbook with exercises that ask them, through writing and discussion, to define ways they show self-love, contemplate future goals, plan for academic success, and overcome thinking that leads to criminal behavior.

Marlow has told the scholars to keep in check their expectations about the percentage of mentees who will still be in school a year later. “If only 1 percent of formerly incarcerated students at Merritt College now get their AA degrees, if we could get that number up to 2 percent, that will be a success,” Marlow says.

Away to the future

But the success stories, even if they number in the single digits, are pretty powerful. And the Street Scholars’ stories themselves represent those possibilities.

Lee loves being in school and is focused on one day opening a residential program for people with schizophrenia. “I never thought I’d go to college,” she says. “It’s opened my eyes to other opportunities, and I can foresee my long-term goal coming true.”

Earthy Young is a true model of redemption who shares his story as a way of letting ex-offenders know that change and a new way of living is possible. Sentenced to 15 years to life for a homicide he committed in an alcoholic blackout, he talks about how prison “was a cruel place, and we always had to be on guard,” says the gentle-faced Young, 51. During his first years in prison, he was angry but then chose to stop. He worked on his spiritual growth while training in a range of vocations and gaining practice in substance abuse counseling and nonviolent communication. He calls prison his “college.”

In his first semester at Merritt College, he discovered an interest in sustainable building. He’s now working toward a degree online so he can get a job in the green industry. And, he works as a Street Scholar, where he believes he is making a difference in the community. “I want to keep doing positive things and moving forward in a good way.”

Ron Moss was never in prison but served stints in different jails over the years due to an addiction to alcohol, marijuana, and crack cocaine. He graduated from high school in upstate New York but never went to college because it wasn’t expected in his working-class neighborhood.

He was a functional addict for much of his life—working a variety of jobs, including as a liaison officer for at-risk youth at a Rochester public high school. After he and his wife moved to Oakland in the early 2000s, Moss was laid off from a job as a property manager, and his drug use escalated. His wife began praying for him to turn his life around. Amazingly, he did. At 50 years old newly sober, he enrolled at Merritt College. At first, his intention was to take computer classes to gain more marketable skills.

“Considering the circumstances, I didn’t have anything to lose,” he says. “I was unemployed; my savings was shot. I was literally living from paycheck to paycheck.”

Long-time Merritt psychology professor William Love encouraged him in taking classes in community social services and substance abuse counseling. Moss earned his AA degree and is now a student in UC Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare, where is also involved in a field study project working with at-risk male students at Oakland Technical High School. After earning a bachelor’s degree, he is contemplating going for a master’s degree and even a Ph.D.

“I learned to love more at school and connected myself with people,” he says. His mantra for the Merritt College students he will be mentoring: “I’ll tell them, ‘If I can do this, anyone can do this.’ ”

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Martha Ross is a feature writer for Bay Area News Group. She also is a former co-editor of The Monthly.

 

(Top to Bottom) Helping others: Earthy Young, Victoria Perez, Marcus Austin, Yema Lee, and Ron Moss, from left to right, are Street Scholars serving as mentors for parolees enrolled at Merritt College (photo by Elizabeth Marlow); Shop talk: Earthy Young, left, and Ron Moss discuss strategies (photo by Elizabeth Marlow); Parolee friend: Elizabeth Marlow, who founded The Gamble Institute (photo courtesy Elizabeth Marlow); Stays focused: Marcus Austin, who says, “I put one foot in front of the other . . .” (photo by Elizabeth Marlow).