Joshua Stewart, 37, graduated from Bethany University with a major in history and a minor in English literature. He was planning on teaching community college. He was even working on his master’s degree, until he was arrested for selling drugs.
Four years for trafficking and transportation, including a gang injunction for being a card-carrying gang member. Before that, he served two years for an assault conviction. He spent most of his time in level 4 prison, the highest security level in California penitentiaries.
“I was selling drugs to take care of my kids,” Stewart said. He has a 19-year-old daughter and a 17-year-old son.
Having spent a total of six years in prison, he missed important milestones in his children’s lives, but now he’s trying to make up for lost time. Stewart’s prison history has inevitably come up in his discussions with his children.
“I’m trying to talk to them about things without making it seem like it was OK because nothing I did was OK. No matter what the reason was, nothing was OK,” Stewart said. “It’s very difficult to do the things we do to our families and feel OK about ourselves. Part of the reentry process is building our relationships back.”
Reentry refers to the transition former inmates make back into mainstream society.
“When we get out, there’s oftentimes nothing for us or we don’t think anybody is going to help us,” he said. “That’s what I thought.”
Luckily, there are people in the community who take it upon themselves to help former inmates like Stewart transition back into life outside of prison, with the hope that their clients never see the inside of a cell again.
Barrios Unidos (BU) has made a name for itself in the Santa Cruz community as an organization dedicated to providing youth and adults with alternatives to gang association and violent behavior. But even more well-known among current and former prison inmates is BU’s adult reentry coordinator Mary Lou Alejandrez.
One look at her slight, five-foot frame wouldn’t tell you that she works closely with people in prison. But BU is Alejandrez’s family business, her brother Daniel being the organization’s director, and she has worked with BU for over 25 years.
“I’ve been doing reentry since before it was called reentry,” she laughs.
Alejandrez’s office is spattered wall to wall with pictures, handmade artwork and various knick knacks — here a figurine of a Mayan god, there a dream catcher made of the scraps of an orange jumpsuit. There must be dozens of items lining the walls, and every one of them is a gift from a client.
Her office is so small that a tarp-covered table takes up half of the room. “The roof has been leaking recently,” Alejandrez says as she lifts the tarp, revealing stacks of binders, each with its own label. Social Security, Parental Rights, Gang Injunction.
Many of Alejandrez’s clients have been released as a result of AB109, the California assembly bill aimed at closing the revolving door of low-level inmates going in and out of state prisons.
“AB109 is for ‘non non non’ crimes, which are nonviolent, nonsexual, nonserious crimes,” Alejandrez said. “So instead of being sentenced to prison, they can do their time in a county jail.”
On Sept. 30, 2011, the number of felon parole violators in California was 13,285, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. By the end of November 2013, that number was down to 25, since most felon parole violators now serve revocation time in county jail. Jail is often preferable to prison because it allows people to stay in their local county, while people sent to prison can be shipped off virtually anywhere in the state.
To prevent her clients from recidivating, Alejandrez holds one-on-one counseling and group therapy sessions that help clients confront decisions they’ve made and work through past trauma.
Alejandrez keeps in contact with her clients while they are incarcerated and after they get out. It is her job to help them readjust to everyday life. She helps them get their IDs and driver’s licenses back, drives them to their doctor appointments, helps them find jobs — she does anything she can to help them feel normal again.
Once when she picked someone up from prison the day he was released, Alejandrez said he got in the car and didn’t know how to put on a seatbelt. “But how could he?” she said. He had spent the last 37 years behind bars.
The purpose of Barrios Unidos’ AB109 adult reentry program is to help clients get back on their feet and promote positive, nonviolent behavior. To Alejandrez, this process also involves reconnecting with loved ones and fostering healthy relationships.
“A lot of them struggle with trying to get back with their families and their own children not respecting them anymore,” Alejandrez said. “Or their children don’t see [their parents] as they have to answer to them because they haven’t been in their life for so long. They think, ‘Now you walk into my life and try to tell me what to do?’”
Alejandrez helps parents throughout all kinds of complex family issues like filing divorce paperwork and navigating child support services. But in her 25 years of reentry work, she’s found that her clients often also have trouble with simple family dynamics.
“Just getting back into the swing of being at home, learning how to play ball with your kid,” Alejandrez said. “All of the little things that we take for granted, they don’t even know where to start.”
“THE WORLD DOESN’T STOP”
Rebuilding relationships is crucial to reentry, but is only one part of a larger, ongoing process that can take years. Former inmates also have employment and housing to worry about, and they’re often dismayed at how difficult the transition can be.
“Mostly they think they’re just going to get out and go back to how they were before, or they think they’re going to buy a house in a couple months,” Alejandrez said. “They don’t realize the cost of living. If you’ve been in prison even three years, it’s a long time. The world doesn’t stop.”
Nick Koumides spent two and a half years in prison. Before that, he worked in the restaurant industry all his life and was known among patrons as an all-star bartender with flair. But now he has two felonies on his record and can’t even work at a Chipotle taco shop or a Valero convenience store.
Frustrated at the lack of success in his job search, Koumides decided to take a break from working and instead register for classes at the Santa Cruz Adult School to finish his GED.
“I just signed up for school today,” Koumides said during an interview. “People won’t look at me funny in there.”
Koumides attributes his inability to find a job to people’s perceptions of his criminal record. He said a Chipotle manager told him he really wanted to hire Koumides after an interview, but told him, “Corporate said no.”
“We get through four or five phases of an interview and we can tell they want to hire us by their voice on the phone,” Stewart said, speaking on behalf of other former inmates. “But they assume we’re going to steal, they assume we’re going to fight, they assume we’re going to be difficult. And that’s not true.”
For some, societal stereotyping is enough to drive former inmates back into the same negative behaviors that got them into prison in the first place, which is how low-level offenders get trapped in the prison system’s revolving door.
“The stigma itself can be a trigger for some of us, and that’s what happened to me the last time I relapsed,” Stewart said. “There I was, thinking I’m smart as a whip, and what happens is I end up taking a low-paying job, and then it gets down on me.”
“Not everybody is forgiving in society,” Alejandrez said.
The two and a half years Koumides served was for a convicted hate crime in 2012. It is unclear whether Koumides has failed background checks due to the charge or due to the sheer fact that he has two felonies on his record, but the folks at BU are not concerned with either when it comes to providing reentry services.
“We never ask anybody what they’ve been incarcerated for,” Alejandrez said. “These people have already paid the price society has asked them to, and we need to learn to forgive people for their mistakes in their past but at the same time, hold them accountable for future actions.”
BU helps former inmates cope with the discrimination they face from employers, strangers and the world outside, and according to Alejandrez’s clients, BU staff go above and beyond what their job descriptions require of them.
Koumides said BU’s staff and affiliates help him edit his resume and search for jobs, but they also invite him to social outings. He was surprised one day when someone asked him to go kayaking. A few of the former inmates said they were just grateful BU’s staff lets them around their children at the office.
“They wanted to help keep me out of the street so they started taking me out with them,” Koumides said. “And I’m tearing up right now because if it wasn’t for this place, honestly I probably would’ve been locked up by now, man. I’m so grateful to these people.”
Alejandrez realizes there is only so much she can do to help people with reentry, but until the rest of the world accepts people with criminal records, Alejandrez and Barrios Unidos will continue to help people however they can.
“Don’t ever try to mess with this place,” Koumides says, puffing up his chest and blinking away a tear, “because you’re going to have to deal with me.”
Alejandrez chimes in and smiles, “In a nonviolent way.”