On a Tuesday morning, in a barren warehouse across the street from Superior Court, Pastor Johnny is leading a gathering of over 40 parolees in a meeting that is part resource fair, part spiritual revival. The meeting, called Parole and Community Team, is mandated by parole, and is for every recently released parolee from the state prison system that is returning to Santa Clara County. Drawing little attention, it’s been happening for years with a new group of recently returned former inmates every week, both men and women, and may be the first time anyone has said two profoundly important words to them “welcome home.”
That phrase is how Pastor Johnny starts the meeting after parolees have signed in with the parole officers, picked up a donut and juice, and filled with rows of chairs facing a line up of service providers anxious to share their resources. The service providers are representatives from agencies that provide housing, mental health support, NA, AA groups, employment opportunities, and educational programming – basically every needed lifeline for short term necessities, or long term development the county has to offer. And despite the early morning, the dull, graying colored walls, the fact that the audience may not have a dollar in their pocket or a place to sleep that evening (or perhaps because of that) – everyone is listening.
But another reason why the room is at attention is because of Pastor Johnny himself – the tone he sets as a sincere, charismatic figure that can both relate to the struggles these men and women have faced through his own experiences, and his know how based on years of being a bridge between parolees and the services they need to survive, succeed, and stay out. The service providers follow his lead, using their own personal testimonies, as they take turns speaking for 5-10 minutes about their programs to the group. The representative from AA shares a story about how he remembers sitting in the same chairs the parolees are sitting in, how when he was drinking and was getting incarcerated his family wouldn’t return his calls. He goes on to describe how he stopped drinking, and is now a family man, with his own company. A guy from a truck driving school gets some smile from the group when he breaks out a few toy trucks, as he talks through how his program can help employ folks with no experience. Victory Outreach representatives share how they were able to turn their lives around through finding support and faith at their homes. De-Bug representatives talk about how parolees could continue their writing, art, and other media expressions that they did while inside to stay centered, focused, and to feel heard.
Pastor Johnny LaPenias, a Filipino-Chinese minister raised in Oakland, is a minister for New Creation Covenant Ministry, and runs sober living homes in the County for those who have no other place to go. He is also the spiritual advisor for Filipino Youth Coalition. He runs these PAC meetings without any resources, which arguably serves as the only activity in the county that is about reducing parole recidivism.
The meetings, and LaPenias efforts of ensuring those returning are connected to services, and are not feeling alone, are likely going to more important then ever as a county strategy. Starting October 1st, through a state legislated mandated, the county will be responsible for roughly 2,500-3,000 former inmates from the state prison system under what is being called, “realignment.” The returning populations are those who are ending their prison commitments, would have been placed on parole, and who are coming off a charge that is non-serious, non-violent, non-sexual registration. In response, the county has to develop a game plan that would accommodate the new additions in a way that most effectively lowers recidivism. Statewide, the rate of recidivism hovers around 75%. One need not be a pastor, or have any direct feelings of concern for those returning, to know that having a smart approach to reducing recidivism is relevant to all community stakeholders. Given the economic climate, the county and state can hardly afford the revolving door of prisons and jails.
And while assessing what the actual services are, where they need to be expanded, where they need to be created, all in an atmosphere of budget cuts are important – also vital to a comprehensive plan is the people who can be the connectors. Those who are trusted by those returning, who know what they are experiencing, and who know the ever changing landscape of service providers. In short, the county may need to find a way to replicate a Pastor Johnny.
At the meeting, after the presentations by the service providers, parolees approached the service providers they wanted to connect with, or receive more information from. One of the women who approached the De-Bug table shares a journal she has started writing called, “My Journey Towards Recovery.” It starts off with, “I am a 31-year-old single mother, and I am also on parole, trying to start my life over again. I know all too well the struggles and pain that comes along with trying to get past the darkness, only to find myself farther from the light. I have made countless poor choices, and they now follow me around like a shadow.” The story, elegantly written, is an autobiography, a descriptive narrative of challenges since youth. She also shares what it took for her to believe in her own capacity to change, and ends the writing as a message to those who could relate. She writes, “I pray that my story will help at least one person struggling and feeling alone, and give them a new sense of knowledge and power to not stay stuck, but take an active role in their own lives and future’s, and asking for help when they need it, because help is out there, more so now than when I was younger.”
Her statement that “help is out there” is validated at these Tuesday gatherings. That the meetings are held literally across the street from the courthouse where attendees were convicted, sentenced, and began their incarceration journey, is appropriate. Pastor Johnny’s meeting are about redemption, about having the courage to look at a past road, and starting anew. — By Raj Jayadev