San Francisco Chronicle: A Door Back Into Society

By ARC Member Michael Mendoza

America is known as the land of opportunity. But opportunity is not created equal. For some, theirs is the opportunity of inferior schools, violent neighborhoods, crime and unforgiving cycles of prison and recidivism. According to a report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, when an inmate is released from state prison, that person has a nearly 80 percent chance of getting rearrested within five years. So we must ask ourselves — what can we do to break this pattern? 

When I was 15 years old, I was arrested for a gang-related offense. I was tried as an adult, convicted and sent to prison to serve a 15-year-to-life sentence. I went in a child and came out a man when I was a paroled at age 33 — a man who recognized the error of his ways and was committed to starting a new life. Before my release, I would often think about how I would be able to get a job. I knew I would be grateful for any opportunity because it would be a path to kick-starting my life, but as a felon it would be almost impossible to become employed. 

Thankfully, I was one of the lucky ones. A social enterprise provided me with a transitional job and personalized case management and the opportunity I needed to move forward. Coming out of prison, I not only needed to learn job skills but also soft skills, like how to interview and be successful in a work environment. They connected me to next-step employers who were willing to consider hiring someone with a criminal record. This was crucial, because without an intermediary to facilitate these connections, no business would be looking to hire an ex-felon like me. 

Social enterprises that provide jobs and support services to people facing the greatest barriers to employment are cost-effective and proven to work. Research from San Francisco-based REDF found that the return on investment is significant: $2.23 in benefits to society for every $1 the social enterprises spent on providing jobs. That is because the social enterprises such as the Center for Employment Opportunities, where I worked, earn revenue by selling goods or services and then reinvest their revenue to employ and support more people. 

These social enterprises also underscore that the first job they provide is not the end point, but the beginning. Together, my case manager and I celebrated every paycheck. We tailored a plan for me to build skills and remain accountable for staying on a path to growth and continued development. After building my work experience and developing my confidence, I was able to get a job in the pick-up department of a national furniture chain. After only three months, I was promoted to supervisor and was soon able to rent my own apartment and live independently. Now, I am working toward my bachelor’s degree, active in the Anti-Recidivism Coalition movement, and working with youth in the criminal justice system as a case manager at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice

Given the high rates of recidivism, I understand the widespread skepticism that people like me can rehabilitate and get back on track. Yet I am living proof that when given an opportunity, we can in fact turn our lives around. 

For me, and for many others, a job is so much more than a paycheck. By doubling down on social enterprise solutions that give people not only jobs but the personalized support to ensure they stay in and grow in those jobs, we can help address overcrowded prisons and high incidences of people who recommit crimes. The supportive jobs that social enterprises provide are doors back into society. I went from a life sentence to a life with a future, and that’s an opportunity many more people deserve that will benefit all of us.

Michael Mendoza is a case manager at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice and is working toward his bachelor’s degree.