Brown urges second chance for ex-offenders

Gov. Jerry Brown spoke about the benefits of prison labor and hiring former convicts Friday morning at the Bay Area Employers Forum in Oakland, urging local leaders to give ex-offenders a chance to earn an honest living.

During the forum’s opening remarks around 9:45 a.m. at Merritt College, Brown said that during the 1980s and ’90s the prison population soared in California and around the country.

Brown said:

“The principal punishment that California has is to lock someone up in a cage. But things change for everyone over time, Brown said, even for people in prison. … And it can change for the better if they’re working, and getting some respect.”

Brown added:

“The trust and respect that comes out of work is fundamental.”

The forum featured a series of officials speaking on the benefits of teaching job skills and good work habits to convicts in prison, as well as helping them find gainful employment after incarceration as a way of keeping recidivism rates down.

That, in turn, can help reduce prison overcrowding. In recent years, there’s been a reduction of roughly 40,000 inmates in the prison population, according to Brown:

“These are human beings and they have flaws, but I find most people have flaws. … Most of them can come back to the world … and so they need that job.”

The event was staged by the California Prison Industry Authority, a government agency that describes itself as a “self-supporting, customer-focused business that provides productive work and skill development opportunities to offenders to reduce recidivism, increase public safety and prison safety,” according to the organization’s mission statement at pia.ca.gov.

Charles Pattillo, General Manager of the CalPIA, said the agency produces roughly 6,000 products and offers a range of services:

“The number one product we put out is an offender that never goes back to prison.”

Prophet Walker, a former offender, said that without jobs to come home to it’s unreasonable to expect someone who’s just finished serving time in the prison system to somehow emerge from the experience more productive than they went in:

“I’m imploring you, along with the Governor of the State of California and everyone else: give people a shot.”

Walker added that nothing stops a bullet like a job.

Inmates participating in CalPIA work programs have the opportunity to learn a wide variety of trades, including construction, manufacturing and even computer coding. They’re also required to obtain their GEDs within two years, according to an informational video played for the forum’s attendants.

Jeff Beard, Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said the revenue generated by the sale of products manufactured by convict labor is used to purchase equipment and expand the program:

“We have joint venture programs where we have companies from outside who come in to our prisons and use prison labor. … They pay standard wages, it would be whatever you could get out in the community. Then they can save a little extra money for when they get themselves back out in the community.”

Those joint venture programs are required to pay “comparable wages,” meaning that inmates earn similar wages to those earned by non-inmate workers.

Joint venture program employers cannot pay less than minimum wage under state and federal law and workers are eligible for overtime pay, according to jointventureprogram.ca.gov/wages.

The inmates only get to keep 40 percent of that money, however, with 20 percent going to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for room and board, 20 percent going to pay fines and restitution or support programs for crime victims and 20 percent being sent to the inmate’s family or used to pay wage garnishments like child support, according to jointventureprogram.ca.gov/wages.

The website also says that inmate employment is “at will,” and that the inmates participation is voluntary.