A note to our readers: the names of formerly incarcerated men and their families in this story have been changed to protect their identities.
It’s hard to tell how old William Bennett and his friend John Porter are based on looks. Bennett is about six feet tall, wears a silver ear stud, and has a signature cologne: Gypsy Musk. Porter is a little shorter. He has big eyes, a small gap in his upper teeth, and a huge friendly grin. Both of them have a determined and yet playful air about them. When they show me the kitchen they share with 12 other guys, they start the kind of banter that only two trusted friends can get away with.
“Do you both cook sometimes here together here in this kitchen?” I ask.
“Yeah, yeah,” says Bennett.
“So who’s the better cook out of both of you?” I ask.
“Me, I am,” says Bennett.
“I am,” says Porter.
“No, I am,” says Bennett.
“I’m the better cook, because I used to cook for everybody in the penitentiary. I came out here, and I cook for everybody out here. He’s not telling the truth, I always cook,” says Porter.
Bennett and Porter do their cooking in a shared kitchen that’s part of a transitional house in West Oakland. But they met many years ago.
“Well, we were actually in prison together,” says Bennett.
“We did about twenty years together,” says Porter.
Porter and Bennett went to prison for murder. Each was on drugs at the time that he shot a person. Porter served 27 years in state prison. Bennett served 31.
“I got out November 1, 2012,” says Bennett.
“I got out February 21, 2013. And I put in to go to the Options Program,” says Porter.
Options Recovery Services provides clean and sober housing for people who are either recovering from substance abuse or re-entering society from prison. The program has 10 houses in Oakland and Berkeley.
Bennett and Porter’s house in West Oakland looks a lot like all the other family-style houses in the neighborhood. It’s got a front porch, white wooden panels, and a stairway leading up to the entrance. It’s hard to tell from the outside that at any point in time, 14 to 20 men live here.
I ask Bennett what he thinks of sharing a room with someone else.
“I don’t like it,” he says. “Yeah, I’ve had cellies for so many years. Cellmates. So I just want to be in my own room and you know, just relax without people coming, opening doors, waking you. Like you can be in a nice deep sleep, and somebody opening the door, you know, just getting something, but it wakes you up a little bit, you know? Those little things. I want to just be able to just have peace. Quiet.”
The men give me a tour of the house, which is tidy and yet crowded. A chore list with over a dozen names hangs in the kitchen, and the computer, chairs, and piano in the living room are all shared.
“Yeah, yeah, this is my shelf right here,” says Porter. “I share this shelf with someone else. And you know, sometimes guys come in and they take food, but I don’t never say anything. If a guy is so hungry that he needs to steal food, you know, if he feel that he’s too proud to ask for it, you know, I don’t say anything.”
While Porter and Bennett appreciate having a roof over their heads at Options Transitional Housing, they do share a criticism of the program.
“You have two types of people that’s here,” says Bennett. “You have lifers like us that came out. We don’t have no addictions. Nothing. We’re just trying to get out here, get a job, move on to get us a place and get on with our lives. Then you have other people here that’s real addicts. So they’re liable to relapse.”
Dr. Davida Coady, the executive director of Options, disagrees with Bennett.
“I think it’s good for them to meet the people just coming off the streets,” she says. “I think it’s good for the people just coming off the streets to meet them particularly. I think having a diverse population is good for people in recovery.”
Coady started Options 16 years ago because, at the time, there were no services available to people with little money who were suffering from addiction. A lot of former lifers choose Options over other programs, because it’s one of the few places that will accept them even before they get out prison.
“Many of the prisoners tell us that they wrote to many, many organizations. Twenty…thirty…fifty. One of them told me 125,” says Coady. “And we were the only ones who said, ‘Yes, we will take you whenever you get out.’ We send them an acceptance letter, and they can take that to the Board of Parole Hearings and present that as their plan to come. Yes, it does help them get parole in many cases.”
She says that many of the people who’ve been in prison for a long time don’t have contacts on the outside or family to go to.
“Many of our people come from families where there's a lot addiction and going back there is not going to work for them,” she says.
A struggle to meet basic needs
People coming out of prison often have very little support for basic needs like housing.
“The cities and the counties don’t pay for this stuff,” says Katherine Katcher, the founder and executive director of Root & Rebound, a re-entry advocacy center in Berkeley. “I mean when you leave prison, or you leave jail, you get a certain amount of money. In prison it’s supposed to be $200 and a bus ticket and that’s it. The state doesn’t take care of your housing. They’ll put you on parole, and parole doesn’t pay for housing. Probation doesn’t pay for housing. You’re expected to pay for housing, but you don’t have the money. It just doesn’t exist and so people end up on the streets very, very quickly.”
Katcher says that the few programs that do get funding tend to focus on substance abuse.
“But what happens is that the men and women that will apply to that and get into those programs don’t belong there,” she says. “It’s an inappropriate place for them to be, and they’re taking up space from people who might actually need to be there, but they need a place to live, and they’re not able to go and get jobs or go to school, because they’re in very restrictive housing, because they supposedly have a substance abuse problem,” she says.
Some people like Bennett and Porter, who served long prison sentences, already spent decades in drug recovery programs while they were in prison.
“The burden that they have to show in order to get out from the board of parole hearings is kind of true rehabilitation and complete insight and remorse about everything that they’ve done,” says Katcher. “I mean these people are the most rehabilitated, and wise, and prepared people when they come out, because they’ve spent years and years inside, and they’ve decided that if they ever have the chance to be free again, they’re going to be grateful, and they’re going to work hard, and they’re going to give back to their communities.”
In 2013, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, or CDCR, found that people who were sentenced to serve up to a lifetime in prison were six times less likely to return to prison as people who served shorter sentences. And of about 1,000 people who were paroled after serving sentences in California of first- or second-degree murder, zero have committed another murder.
The challenge of leaving transitional housing
Bennett and Porter are both eager to get their own place. But it’s not easy. Many landlords require rental or credit histories, which someone who has spent most of their life in prison cannot show. And housing in the Bay Area is expensive. So the men need to find a steady, well-paying job before they can earn enough money to move.
As we walk out of the Options house, Bennett tells me how much he wants to have his own apartment.
“I can save a lot of money there, but it’s time to move on,” he says.
A few months later, I check in with the guys to see how they’re doing.
Bennett has moved on from Options. He’s found steady work and an affordable studio apartment in San Leandro. I go to visit him at his new place.
“Why, you’re the first one that ever came here,” says Bennett.
“Can you give me a tour?” I ask.
We go into his kitchen. Bennett has many, many Oakland Raiders cups.
“Twelve more and about 20 more in the cabinet,” he says.
“For Raiders parties?” I ask
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. And that’s my grandmother right here,” he says, showing me a picture. “She’s the one that really helped me plant a seed to forgive. And that’s my daughter. That’s when I first got out. The first time I took her out I took her to the movies. That’s one of the pictures.”
“Can you describe to me what it’s been like living in your own place? Because is this the first time you’re living by yourself?” I ask.
“Yeah, other than a prison cell,” he says. “It’s the first time ever. I was only 17. I stayed with my mom before I went to prison, so this is the first time being on my own. Freedom. It felt real good, you know, to be able to come here and close the door and not have nobody here, you know. Solitude.”
Bennett tells me that having his own space is one of the best parts of leaving prison and Options Transitional Housing.
“Waking up in my own place feels like I’m crawling into a nest, you know? It’s peaceful. It felt like a place where I could crawl into and just really sleep.”
He contrasts his new living space to prison.
“Because all these other places in prison, I haven’t been able to really sleep. Because people will either get up or, like in prison, you have some cells, and most cells have toilets inside the room, so your cellie could get up at anytime during the night and use the restroom. When he flush that toilet, that woosh. That wakes you up. And out here, people come in and out of rooms, going in their boxes and plastic and waking me up, so I was never able to sleep. And here, the only thing waking me up here? Sometimes I can hear BART, but it sounds good. I can hear the train, but it sounds good, you know. It’s a different sound, you know.”
Porter is still living at Options. Unlike his friend, he has not been able to find a job that pays enough for him to afford his own place. Options recently moved him to a different apartment in Oakland.
We meet at a nearby park, where he describes it to me.
“It’s a one-bedroom apartment, and it has five guys in it,” he says. “They use the living room as a bedroom with three guys in there. And it’s just cramped. It’s too much. I have one guy, he snores real loud, you know, and it’s just being around people, you know being back in that environment where you’re living with guys like that, you know? I was in prison for all those years, I never used drugs or alcohol, you know? I followed the rules, I got my education, I did everything I needed to do to get out of prison. You know, I don’t like coming out of prison in that controlled environment and being in another controlled environment.”
Limited housing options are a huge hurdle for people who leave prison. Section 8, for example, bans people with certain types of offenses from living in public housing. And private landlords are permitted under law to discriminate against people on the basis of their criminal records, as long as it doesn’t violate other civil rights laws.
Until there are more housing programs for people re-entering, they will have to do the best they can with what’s available.
Tune in Wednesday, August 13 for part 2 of this series.