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Changing How You Think Helps The Transition From Prisoner Back To Citizen

Anke Gladnick for NPR

Raymond Tillman spent most of his adolescence and early adulthood behind bars. His last release — after three stints inside — was in 2011. When he got out, he had a lot to catch up on — like, the digital age.

"When I first came home I was illiterate to technology," he explains. "Didn't know how to turn on a computer, let alone what an email was." But he needed a job, and to get one, he'd need to be able to apply online.

A parole officer suggested Tillman go to the Cal State San Bernardino Reentry Initiative, a promising new program designed to smooth the transition from offender back to citizen. A big portion of the U.S.'s record-setting prison population is re-offenders, so re-entry centers work to get those numbers down by helping people on parole get the tools they need to function in society — so they eventually stay out of prison. Programs are like a bridge, between the world of corrections and the world of social services.

At other times in Raymond Tillman's life, he would have blown this off, but this time — and he doesn't even know why — he showed up and followed through. He took nearly every class the center offered: "Domestic Violence. Computer Literacy. Job Readiness. Anger Management. Substance Abuse. I took them all."

He remembers his first computer class, looking down at the floor for a mouse. "There was a mouse? What? Where? I'm looking around the building," he recalls, laughing. The teacher pointed to a little black device with a cord connecting it to the computer. "I'm like 'Wow!' Feel like I was a caveman."

Catching up on technology is one of the biggest challenges, says Andrea Mitchel — director of research and development at the re-entry center at Cal State. "They come out not having any knowledge of it," she says, "and then they are expected to get into the workforce. "

A decade ago, this center was just an idea Mitchel had. Back then, she was working at Goodwill and saw a booming economy. Most people had jobs, except for those who had previously been incarcerated. She thought — there should be a resource center — a place where help was "under one roof."

It took a few years, and a lot of partners to make that idea a reality. "Anybody who works inside knows that what really matters is when you get out," says Carolyn Eggleston, a recently retired professor from Cal State San Bernardino, who helped bring Mitchel's idea to the university, which currently oversees the re-entry center. "Most people who get out do want to get off the merry-go-round and so we need to have programs for them."

The center is housed in a modern, two-story building in an office park not far from downtown San Bernardino. There are several classrooms down a long hallway, each named for a prison reformer. In the classroom named for Alexander Maconochie, a prison reformer from the 1800's known as the father of parole, there's a whiteboard with instructions for a five-paragraph essay. Down the hall, there's a diagram depicting how thoughts are related to emotions, and then behavior.

"This is a respectful place," says Mitchel, as she tours us through the center. "It's really clean. I know that sounds really simple. Why would we even need to state that? But these folks aren't used to that."

Around a corner, Mitchel opens a small office, filled with clothing racks. Students — that's what program participants are called here — can choose from the rows of suits, ties and dress shoes. "Our goal is to get these folks employed, to become contributing members of society," says Mitchel, and to do that, they need to dress the part.

The program is focused on job training, but as we walk through the center, it's evident that's it's more than that. Take the entrance: There's a welcome counter, but no metal detectors or armed guards; just a small machine that scans IDs.

The lack of security is intentional, part of the open culture here. "We came up with this radical notion that we would treat people like human beings," explains Eggleston. "These are people who have done their time. If they're ready to let it go, we're ready to let it go and start a new story."

When Raymond Tillman walked through the center's doors, he felt the "family environment" immediately. His first memory of the place is an employee asking him his name. In prison, they only asked for his correctional ID number: "You pretty much forget your name, because when every anyone asks you that, you automatically give them your number."

"Even something as simple as calling them by their first and last name, it has that effect on just changing their mindset," says Cindy Redcross, who studies prison re-entry programs for MDRC, a nonpartisan research firm. "No, that's not my identity, like now, I'm a person."

Redcross sees a lot of value in programs like this one: "It's not just education or just job training," she explains, "It's really about changing how people think."

So far, the results here in San Bernardino are promising. Across four centers in the county, they've served about 6,000 students to date. Attendance rates are high, and more than half of the current students are now employed. The organization and the county corrections department told NPR they cannot give us solid data on recidivism, and of course, not everyone makes it.

But Raymond Tillman has come a long way from his days of tech fumbling. He has a full-time job, is training to be a manager, and along the way, he's earned a bachelor's degree with a concentration on IT. Looking back, he can hardly believe how far he's come.

"Couldn't even turn on a computer when I walked in these doors," he says, "now, I'm one of the best in the building."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.