An antidote to time served: Alameda County’s Operation My Hometown

Aug 20, 2014

Santa Rita Jail
Credit Photo by California Energy Commission

Arthur Streeter is taking me to meet an inmate who’s going to be released from jail today.

“So we’re going to pick him up and get something to eat,” Streeter tells me, “and then we’re going to go to an emergency shelter that he’ll stay at at International and East Oakland.”

He’s talking about Hayden Hindenburg, who’s been incarcerated at Santa Rita Jail for the last six months. Streeter is the program director for Operation My Hometown, and his job is to help Hindenburg get a good start outside prison walls.

Release is a challenging time for formerly incarcerated people. In California, 65 percent of people return to prison within the first three years of leaving. Usually, they recidivate within the first year, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. To counter those daunting numbers, the Federal Justice Department funded Operation My Hometown in 2011 to target inmates at high-risk of returning to jail.

Streeter is already strategizing about what he’ll do when he meets Hindenburg.

“Usually they’re hungry," he says. “He was probably awakened at three o'clock in the morning, brought to a holding cell, shifted to another holding cell, and then brought to the final place where he’s going to leave.”

Streeter tells me Hindenburg was picked up for a probation violation in Berkeley and sent back to jail.

“He had a knife on him, and it was a pocket knife, and he was violated for that. I do believe he had to do six months, which did not sound right to me that he would do so long," he says.

Streeter is not clear on the specifics of Hindenburg’s crimes, because even though Operation My Home Town is financed through the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department, it has very little to do with the courts. In fact, Streeter says he doesn’t pay much attention to the specific offenses his clients committed.

“If I was concerned about the crimes he did, I wouldn’t be able to work with them, because it would fall into a judgment class, and that is not what my position and capacity is based on," Streeter says.

What Streeter knows is that Hindenburg is in his forties and homeless. And Streeter is worried about his future.

Steps to self-reliance

We arrive at the jail around 10:30 a.m. As we walk from the parking lot to the jail lobby, Streeter points to some men waiting at a bus stop.

“You will have, on average, 75 to 100 people coming and going daily. So they’ll bring a busload of people, and then they can ship out a busload of people," he says.

It’s not clear where those at the bus stop will be heading to next.

When we enter the lobby of the jail, Streeter disappears to retrieve Hindenburg, who is waiting for him, while I wait in the lobby with family members, case workers, and lawyers.

After about 20 minutes, they emerge.

Hindenburg is wearing an oversized white shirt and carrying a plastic bag with all of his belongings. The heavy-set man follows closely behind Streeter as they walk outside.

Streeter asked Hindenburg how he feels.

“I feel really happy to be released, you know what I mean?” he asks.

But he’s tired too. He tells us that he woke up at 4:00 a.m., had a little breakfast, and has been mostly waiting since. It’s now nearly 11:00 a.m.

I ask what he did in the past after getting released from a stint in jail.

“I’d be homeless. I just go back to Hayward and fall back to whatever I was doing. Drugs, you know what I mean?” he asks. “I want to stay out of that right now. I want to see if I can get my daughter. My daughter Maria, I really love her, and ever since I've been here she’s been in CPS.”

Maria is six years old. Hindenburg says she came to visit once from Child Protective Services while he was in jail last November.

Every one of Streeter’s 14 clients has a different goal that might keep them on track. For some, it’s going back to school. For others it’s avoiding an overdose. Streeter is going to do his best to help Hindenburg meet his goal of getting his daughter back, but it will take time.

We walk back to the car. Before driving to San Leandro, we grab lunch. Then it's on to the headquarters of Operation My Hometown.

At the headquarters, where three other case managers work, Streeter runs into the manager of Dig Deep, a local organic farm that employs formerly incarcerated people.

Together, they find a slot for Hindenburg to interview for a job later in the day.

In his small office, Streeter walks Hindenburg through a packet of documents he needs to sign in order to enroll in Operation My Hometown. The Affordable Care Act now reimburses Operation My Home Town for many of the services it provides, making the program more sustainable long term.

Next, Hindenburg gets his interview with Dig Deep Farms and lands the job. Things are going smoothly. That's not always the case.

“This is extremely unusual for him to be released from jail, and then walk right into an interview that is a full time position,” he says. “Usually, it’s a process. It can take three or four weeks.”

Streeter is piecing together the steps for Hindenburg. Since he will have an income from his work at Dig Deep, he’s on the road to being able to get get his own place eventually.

But for now, Hindenburg will be staying at a place called Crossroads. It's a temporary shelter in East Oakland that also helps people get medical treatment, housing, and jobs. Streeter arranged for Hindenburg to stay there before picking him up from the jail. The handoff is quick, and Streeter and I are back on the road.

Successes and failures

While Streeter drives me back to BART, he rattles off stories of former and current clients who have had varying degrees of success. One woman he worked with got kicked out of her first shelter before getting on her feet.

“She’s back with her husband, she graduated from a two-year college, they’re ready to buy a house,” Streeter says. “I also worked with her husband. He was a career criminal.”

But, it turns out Hindenburg is not one of those successes, at least not yet. Three days after we drop him off, he leaves Crossroads and doesn't come back.

“But you know the door is always open,” Streeter says, optimistically. “If you want to live. Come on, you can do it. We can help you.”

Operation My Hometown is just three years old. Streeter tells me that of the 150 people they’ve served so far, about a quarter have accomplished the goals they established at the beginning.

The rest follow a path more like Hindenburg. That doesn’t mean they end up back in jail, but they lose track of what they set out to do and stop working with Streeter.

These men and women have spent years cycling in and out of jail with little or no support in between. The process of remedying that will likely take longer than an afternoon, but it’s where Alameda County is starting right now.