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

By Elissa Nadworny, 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.

Anke Gladnick for NPR

Anke Gladnick for NPR

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.

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