March 23 2015

Twenty-one months after leaving Orange County’s central jail, I found myself in front of a dozen teenage girls at Huntington Beach’s Ocean View High School.  A gang member by age thirteen and locked up for the first time before my eighteenth birthday, I could easily relate to their struggles as young people regularly confronted with crime and violence in their communities.  In this classroom and many more, I have shared the lessons that helped me heal from a difficult upbringing and that I hope can empower them too.

I am able to share my experience with young people in my community thanks to the support and teachings of Project Kinship. Last month, I graduated from Project Kinship’s Community Intervention Worker (CIW) certification program, along with 32 other formerly-incarcerated individuals. Developed in partnership with the USC School of Social Work, this program taught me the causes and risk factors for community violence through a trauma-informed perspective.  The program is designed to give students like me—individuals who have been impacted by gang violence as well as the criminal justice system—the opportunity to learn how to proactively react to crises; to perform street mediation and rumor control; and to broker peace in our respective communities.

As a young person struggling with substance abuse and dependence, I had circled in and out of Orange County’s correctional system for nearly a decade. This time, however, Project Kinship gave me the tools I needed to navigate life outside of the correctional system.  Thanks to their supportive services, I am now sober and working as a paralegal next door to the very same courthouse where I was once sentenced.  Their innovative program not only taught me how to heal, but gave me the tools to help others avoid a similar fate as well.

With the support of Associate Clinical Professor Conrad Fuentes, on Friday, March 20, Project Kinship and the University of Southern California School of Social Work hosted the 2015 Orange County Public Safety and Re-entry Conference in Irvine, CA. Sponsored by the California Endowment, the conference convened a diverse coalition of community organizations, service providers, educators, and law enforcement agencies to discuss steps for achieving better reentry outcomes in Orange County. Steven Kim, co-founder of Project Kinship, shared critical findings from the organization’s 2014 landscape analysis on the re-entry sector in O.C. communities, a project made possible through funding from TCE and a partnership with Building Healthy Communities—Santa Ana.

According to Project Kinship’s research, Orange County’s network of reentry agencies suffers from three critical setbacks that reduce its impact: lack of coordination among different organizations such as non-profits, direct service providers, and law enforcement agencies; a lack of cohesive understanding about reentry and the training needed to meet its goals; and a lack of safeguards that ensure continuity of care. Despite their mutual commitment to helping former prisoners successfully reintegrate, a lack of coordination across agencies and community groups involved in reentry has allowed too many people to fall through the cracks. In California, nearly two out of three persons released from prison wind up back behind bars within three short years.

The many thousands of people released from California’s correctional facilities each year face unthinkable hardship in the face of challenges on the outside.  Many receive just a pamphlet referring them to health or education providers, but little in way of hands-on support, skill development, or relapse monitoring.  But Project Kinship is leading a movement to transform the support network available to those individuals dedicated to improving not only their lives, but the health of their communities as well.

As Proposition 47’s passage puts additional strain on resources, now more than ever is the time to focus on improving re-entry services in our county. Roughly 1,000 former prisoners have re-entered society since last November, and thousands of petitions for early release or re-sentencing are currently under review by Orange County’s D.A. It is paramount that we give these individuals the tools and support that they need to succeed in navigating life after prison.

I know firsthand that Project Kinship’s approach works. Through the project’s supportive services, I have successfully secured my own apartment, as well as a paralegal job at the very same courthouse where I was once sentenced for strong-arm robbery. By ensuring that people have the resources and support they need after leaving the correctional system, we can help replace recidivism with similar stories of success.

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