Home with a Purpose: A History of the Safe Return Project

Phases of Development

Phases of Development 

SINCE ITS INCEPTION in the spring of 2010, the Safe Return Project has been envisioned as a Richmond-based participatory research and action initiative that would allow formerly incarcerated individuals to engage in research, organizing, and community advocacy on the issues directly impacting them. The project sought to place formerly incarcerated individuals into leadership positions and was driven by their interests and research, as opposed to providing a set menu of services. 

In the six years since it began, Safe Return has engaged in three overlapping phases of work that impacted both the participants and the larger community. This document is organized by those phases, despite some overlap between them. The first phase, team development, focused on creating a team that was equipped to engage in research and was able to work together. The second phase, community assessment and organizing, involved interviews and group meetings to engage the broader community, and an intensive survey of other formerly incarcerated residents. This resulted in the release of a report titled Speaking Truth on Coming Home, which informed the focus of the team’s advocacy work. The third phase, policy development and advocacy, describes many of the efforts to change public policy and institutional practices to remove barriers to community reintegration. Finally, this report provides an assessment of the current status of the Safe Return Project and its future.

PHASE 1: 2010-2011 TEAM DEVELOPMENT

The Safe Return project is a group of formerly incarcerated people, not just that but a family. For me, it wasn’t just a job, it became what I am here for, gave me an advantage. It really helped me find myself and helped me find my purpose.

– CLARENCE, FORMER SAFE RETURN TEAM MEMBER

The Safe Return Project was initially co-sponsored by the Pacific Institute, (a nonprofit research organization specializing in participatory action research with communities), the Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization (CCISCO), and the city of Richmond’s Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS). The sponsors anticipated needing approximately $100,000 over one year and raised the money through grants and in-kind contributions. After putting together a program, and creating an internal work plan and project goals, the sponsors began advertising in probation centers and other appropriate venues to hire a group of Community Researchers. The primary requirement for the Community Researcher position was that the individual be formerly incarcerated and able to commit 10-20 hours per week over a ten-month period. The researchers would be paid $20 per hour. By the fall of 2010, eight individuals (three women and five men) who had served sentences in federal, state, and local facilities were hired, and the first team was created.

The focus of the first phase was on team development and capacity building. The creators felt that in order for the team to be effective, its members needed to heal from the trauma of incarceration and develop connections with each other. The team met on a weekly basis for four hours, engaging in exercises designed to build trust and create a cohesive team. Participants described how over the first few months they learned to work together and received training in research and organizing skills, as well as basic life skills related to reintegration. A key prerequisite to this was paying the participants a living wage. Ensuring that participants had a means of survival was key to creating space for other types of work and engagement. 

LaVern

This picture is of LaVern looking at a computer screen.

When LaVern first heard about the Safe Return Project she thought it was a joke or that there was a typing error in the job description. The only requirement was that you must have been released from prison within the last 18 months. No college, no high school diploma, absolutely nothing else. In the 45 days since her release from a Federal Correctional Institution and return to Richmond, she had been desperately trying to find a decent job, without success. LaVern knew that her difficulty was not because she wasn’t qualified, but because having a criminal record is something no employer looks for in applicants. But apparently the Safe Return Team did. She went to the interview slightly nervous because she knew getting this job could mean everything. This job could make everything she spent her entire sentence thinking about a reality. A steady income, providing an example to her son when he was released, and a sense of purpose. 

Initially skeptical, over the course of her involvement with the project, LaVern began to feel like she was making a difference and giving something back to the community she felt she had betrayed. She had resolved to set a positive example for her only child, who was her co-defendant in the criminal case that sent them both to prison. She knew that if she didn’t change the course of her life, she would end up back in prison and worried her son would follow in her footsteps after his release. She felt a strong obligation to do everything she could to prevent anyone else from going through what she experienced during and after her incarceration. She wanted to convey the message that the experience was not one they want for themselves. She wanted others to learn from her mistakes. She always said that if she was only able to prevent one person from ending up in prison by sharing her experience and telling her story, that would be enough for her. In reality, in partnership with all of the other members of the Safe Return Team, she has far exceeded her humble expectations. She is forever grateful for the experiences, the friendships, and the team members who have touched her life throughout her time with the Safe Return project. LaVern describes the Safe Return Project as one of the most important and rewarding jobs she has ever had. 

IMPACTS

Within the first year, members began to develop a sense of trust in each other and a stronger sense of their own capacity. As this happened, individuals who initially saw Safe Return as just a job became impassioned about what they could accomplish. The team-building led the group to create strong relationships, many of which continue to this day. At the same time the collective capacity of the team was developed. Guest trainers provided workshops on trauma reduction, conflict mediation, and life mapping. In addition, the participants received 75 hours of training during the first year on research skills, which allowed them to develop a research plan and survey instrument. 

Seven months after their first meeting, the team began conducting surveys and ultimately drafted and released a report of their findings. The process of working on the report and its distribution led the team to develop relationships with community partners, such as the City Manager, members of the City Council, and non-profit service providers. The team was learning how to advocate on its own behalf, and on behalf of other incarcerated people. This happened both as members engaged in conversations about issues that impacted them, as well as a result of their just showing up at relevant events and telling their stories. The team members began to see the power of telling their stories and worked on how to do that effectively. Every member of Safe Return has talked about the power of seeing the impact of sharing their stories, and being invigorated by the possibilities provided by that sharing.

This picture is of the Original members of the Safe Return Team Jeff Rutland, Orlena Foy, LaVern Vaughn, Tamisha Walker, and Andres Abarra

Jeff 

This picture is of Jeff speaking with a man's hand on his back shoulder.

Jeff Rutland joined the Safe Return Team as a self-professed career criminal. His primary motivation was to find work to keep his parole officer off his back. He’d been home less than 45 days after doing an eight year bid, and was being threatened with a parole violation if he didn’t get a job right away. At the outset he had no other goals other than a steady income. However, as time progressed and the team started to come together and form deep personal bonds a shift happened. A shift began in his perspective about the project, as well as about life after incarceration. He became much more invested in the work, and in his resolve to stay free. He believed that if someone who had spent over half of his entire life-time in and out of penal institutions could become employed, and maintain his freedom, and give something back to the community he had terrorized for so long could do it, then anybody else could too.

Jeff transformed into someone the team came to love, someone who couldn’t hide the personal joy he felt about the impact he was having in the community he loved so much, and proud of the fact that his time with the team was the longest stretch he’d ever been free from incarceration. His transformation was inspirational and cathartic. Not only for him, but for those around him. He realized that he could, and was making a difference. 

Due to budgeting constraints for the Safe Return work he found himself in need of more income and began working with the youth in the community on a local gardening project at Urban Tilth. Again, he thrived and continued to exceed even his own expectations of being a positive force in the community, and being an example of what is possible after incarceration. Given the opportunity, people can and will change. Sometimes all that’s needed is a second chance. 

Unfortunately due to a very personal trauma regarding the death of his Mother, as well as the unforeseen diagnosis of his own life threatening health issues, his enthusiasm and participation for the work was compromised. He took a minimal leave of absence but when he returned, things were just not the same. He was not the same either, he’d lost that spark and joy he once had for the work. He pulled away, slowly but surely, from the project and from the team. This truly had a negative impact on him and the team. Eventually he gave up on the team, and on himself, which was traumatic for everyone. 

EARLY CHALLENGES

Many of the challenges in the initial phase had to do with interpersonal conflicts and the residual trauma and culture shock for people who have been incarcerated. Most of the participants had been home for a very short period of time, and described how critical and difficult it was for them to learn to trust each other and to practice non-violent conflict resolution. Most of the participants came to the project because they were looking for a job and this job turned out to be demanding, both logistically and emotionally. Although many members reported that the rewards were great, the emotional commitment required was very high and there were multiple forms of conflict. Another challenge was team continuity as some members left to pursue other opportunities. Within the first year, three members of the original eight had left. One member found a full-time job, one went back to college, and one chose to work for a relative. 

This picture is of the Safe Return team members and supporting staff Tamisha Walker, Eli Moore, Alvin Herrring, LaVern Vaughn, Jeff Rutland, and Richard Body

The team also struggled with agreeing on where to focus. Because the interests of the team were divergent, disagreements arose about where Safe Return should focus its efforts. In particular, there were strong disagreements about the team’s involvement in Ceasefire, a gun violence prevention project in Richmond and other major cities around the country (www.ceasefire.org). As discussed in the sidebar, the Ceasefire work was controversial within the team because it meant working with law enforcement. Some members of the team felt that this was not the best way to serve the formerly incarcerated, while others felt it was an important way to give back to a community where violence was all too prevalent. Although “giving back” was an agreed upon agenda within the group, the method for doing so was an ongoing source of debate. 

PHASE 2: 2011-2012 COMMUNITY ASSESSMENT AND ORGANIZING

Prior to the Safe Return team getting organized and doing their initial research project, I had very little knowledge of issues associated with reentry. I kind of knew they were there but I saw it as part of a different function of government, you know counties deal with that or the police deal with that, but over time dealing effectively and appropriately with issues of reentry became part of my job description and an important one

– BILL LINDSAY, RICHMOND CITY MANAGER

As part of their research and organizing, the team began engaging with the community through two different types of interviews: “relational interviews” and formal surveys. The team started with informal relational interviews, with each team member required to do

Johnny 

This picture is of Johnny holding a sign titled "invest in people, not prisons"

Johnny Valdepena came to the Safe Return Project in a sort of roundabout way through another team member. From the very beginning his passion for the work was evident and tangible. Johnny was involved in the criminal justice system from a very young age, and had also had previous gang affiliations and a lifelong history of addiction. Johnny came to Safe Return soon after his release and was determined to make an impact, wanting to change his life and the lives of others. His determination was rooted in his strong faith, and his belief that because of it he had been saved. He initially volunteered countless hours because he believed in what the team stood for. He also didn’t know of any other group or organization aside from his church that cared about or were doing what Safe Return was attempting to do. 

He devoted his every free moment to helping the team in any way he could, doing anything from setting up meeting places, to passing out fliers, to speaking about his experiences in and out of prison, always maintaining his belief that God could pull anyone through. He worked on all of the campaigns with the same vigor and dedication as every paid member of the team did. When the team was in the financial position to expand, Johnny was the obvious first choice. He was passionate about making a difference for those that were coming home from incarceration, yet his heart leaned heavily toward focusing on the youth of the community. He wanted to do what he could to spare the young people in our community from taking the same path of criminality and gang violence that he’d traveled. He also brought an impressive amount of experience in that area because of his outreach and street evangelism with his church family. Johnny’s faith was a continual driving force in his quest to remain alive and free. 

Johnny’s addition to the team was an important one because he had a story that needed to be heard. His powerful testimony was essential to the transformation in the lives of the young people he shared it with. His work on the Ceasefire campaign served to be the catalyst that propelled him into the life he wanted for himself and his family. Since joining the team, Johnny has gotten married, was released from Parole, voted in an election for the very first time in his life, moved his family to a safe environment that they love where his children are flourishing, and is only a small step away from becoming an Ordained Minister to further serve what he believes to be his life’s calling. Johnny was an integral part of helping Safe Return achieve many important milestones, and Safe Return helped him achieve some of the goals he talked about when he joined. 

Johnny Valdepena came to the Safe Return Project in a sort of roundabout way through another team member. From the very beginning his passion for the work was evident and tangible. Johnny was involved in the criminal justice system from a very young age, and had also had previous gang affiliations and a lifelong history of addiction. Johnny came to Safe Return soon after his release and was determined to make an impact, wanting to change his life and the lives of others. His determination was rooted in his strong faith, and his belief that because of it he had been saved. He initially volunteered countless hours because he believed in what the team stood for. He also didn’t know of any other group or organization aside from his church that cared about or were doing what Safe Return was attempting to do. 

He devoted his every free moment to helping the team in any way he could, doing anything from setting up meeting places, to passing out fliers, to speaking about his experiences in and out of prison, always maintaining his belief that God could pull anyone through. He worked on all of the campaigns with the same vigor and dedication as every paid member of the team did. When the team was in the financial position to expand, Johnny was the obvious first choice. He was passionate about making a difference for those that were coming home from incarceration, yet his heart leaned heavily toward focusing on the youth of the community. He wanted to do what he could to spare the young people in our community from taking the same path of criminality and gang violence that he’d traveled. He also brought an impressive amount of experience in that area because of his outreach and street evangelism with his church family. Johnny’s faith was a continual driving force in his quest to remain alive and free. 

Johnny’s addition to the team was an important one because he had a story that needed to be heard. His powerful testimony was essential to the transformation in the lives of the young people he shared it with. His work on the Ceasefire campaign served to be the catalyst that propelled him into the life he wanted for himself and his family. Since joining the team, Johnny has gotten married, was released from Parole, voted in an election for the very first time in his life, moved his family to a safe environment that they love where his children are flourishing, and is only a small step away from becoming an Ordained Minister to further serve what he believes to be his life’s calling. Johnny was an integral part of helping Safe Return achieve many important milestones, and Safe Return helped him achieve some of the goals he talked about when he joined. 

CHALLENGES

This picture is of Community members speaking out against a proposed jail expansion at a Contra Costa County public meeting in 2012

While the process of engaging in successful campaigns was empowering, creating the broad range of collaborations necessary for these campaigns strained the capacity of the team and provided a host of interpersonal and strategic challenges. Organizing increased the need for greater capacity to match the growing agenda of the group. What was unclear, however, was how to best bring more people in, or whether the team should grow or find some other way to engage with other members of the formerly incarcerated community. Additionally, there were challenges in finding ways to community organize that were unique to the formerly incarcerated community. The intense level of instability in people’s lives after incarceration meant that people were often moving, homeless, or in critical need of gaining employment and meeting other basic needs. This made it more challenging for the team to build and sustain relationships with these individuals, and to involve them in research and advocacy when they still had not resolved their immediate individual needs. Incarceration also traumatizes and breaks down interpersonal trust among people in profound ways that make establishing new relationships difficult and slow. These dynamics made it difficult for Safe Return to build a large network of other formerly incarcerated people who would participate in campaigns. Funding constraints also made it challenging to sustain the type of efforts that campaigns required. 

PHASE 3: 2012-2013 POLICY DEVELOPMENT AND ADVOCACY

As time went on, talking to more and more people, traveling to different cities and states to tell my story and watching a whole room of people be incredibly moved, most to tears, it really was the catalyst for me to keep pushing harder and harder. It became my mission to make sure that the voices of the formerly incarcerated were heard, that my voice was heard. I absolutely refused to give up, and I refused to go away! Working in this fashion made me feel that I was using my talent and abilities in the most useful way that would create an effective and positive impact.

– LAVERN, SAFE RETURN TEAM

The findings from the relational interviews and surveys helped inform and shape the direction of the team’s policy development and advocacy in Phase 3. The team identified four recommendations based on their findings. These were:

  1. Establish a supportive housing program in Richmond that provides medium term housing and connections to services for residents recently released from incarceration, 
  2. Remove barriers to employment for formerly incarcerated people and improve employer practices in recruiting and hiring this community, 
  3. Create a one-stop referral service for people coming home, and 
  4. Form a regular meeting of formerly incarcerated people in Richmond for mutual support in developing and implementing a personal plan for success. 

After determining that the City of Richmond was the third largest employer in the community, the team members decided they should focus on city hiring practices, arguing that if the city was truly committed to reducing recidivism, it should lead by example. As part of their campaign, the Safe Return Project spent many hours and much effort cultivating relationships and telling personal stories about the negative impact of being unable to obtain employment can have. After enlisting the help of N.E.L.P. (National Employment Law Project) to draft policy language, the team worked with a variety of partners including city officials and community groups to get Richmond to pass and implement legislation prohibiting the city from asking job applicants about their criminal history. 

This picture is of A detailed article in the Wall Street Journal on the city of Richmond’s efforts to “Ban the Box” in California

Nine months later, after the city had successfully applied ban the box to its own hiring, the Team approached the city about requiring companies contracting with the city to do the same. After getting support from local business as well as the police department, the city voted 6-1 to pass an ordinance expanding the ban to all business that had contracts with the city. Ultimately, in 2013 the Safe Return team and its allies were able to convince the City Council to pass one of the most progressive and widely discussed “Ban the Box” policies in the state of California.5 In addition to helping countless formerly incarcerated residents of Richmond, this victory also allowed one of the Safe Return team’s own members to successfully become a city employee. Finally, a detailed article in the Wall Street Journal in August 20136 was among the substantial local and national media coverage received, which helped spark more discussion of what a strong and creative Ban the Box measure on the local level could look like. 

Phase 3 also saw the Safe Return Team’s active engagement in “realignment,” a new state law intending to decrease state prison population by giving local counties more responsibility for criminal justice decisions and substantial new funding. Team members had started attending meetings on realignment in the spring of 2012. It was then that they learned that the county sheriff was proposing to use the new funds to expand the county jail. In one of these meetings they also heard the District Attorney say that he would never work with a felon. The collective outrage at hearing such a statement and the notion that more money might be used to perpetuate an unjust and failed system, galvanized the Safe Return team to spearhead a campaign to prevent the jail expansion. The team saw the opportunity realignment could offer, and how a jail expansion would squander this opportunity. A campaign, Invest in People, Not Prisons was launched to defeat the proposed jail expansion and redirect funding towards resources and services for people coming home from prisons and jails. 

The Invest in People, Not Prisons campaign was run by a coalition that included many allies from the successful ban the box campaign and expanded to engage new partners. In addition to the Safe Return team, the coalition included members of the Reentry Solutions Group, the League of Women Voters, Richmond Progressive Alliance, Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization and others. One of the early and critical collaborations was with the Latino immigrant community. Undocumented immigrants were being incarcerated at the county jail under contracts with ICE, breaking up families and communities in a manner similar to, and sometimes worse than, the incarceration that other residents had experienced. Safe Return members believed that resources should be redirected to the community to help prevent incarceration and recidivism rather than continuing to use arrests as their way out of the County’s problems. The Coalition proposed a Community Advisory Board to advise the executive committee on decision-making and developed its own proposal for how realignment money should be spent. Thanks in the part to these effective collaborations between Safe Return and its allies, in late 2012, Contra Costa County became the first county in the state to successfully prevent a proposed jail expansion. As a result, $5.2 million of the county’s AB109 funding was earmarked for community-based services and programs for the formerly incarcerated, including transitional employment, bail reform, and a one-stop reentry service center. 

IMPACTS

As the team grew in size and reputation, two team members were promoted to team leaders, responsible for managing the work of other members. Initially this arrangement was ideal both because after 2013 the Pacific Institute was no longer actively involved, and also because it offered team members an opportunity to develop new skills and have more input into the direction of Safe Return’s work. It had always been a goal to have Safe Return run by formerly incarcerated people and this restructuring moved the program in that direction. As the five initial members who’d remained active with Safe Return had grown personally and become strong advocates, they became interested in determining how to expand their reach and provide others with a similarly powerful experience through the program. Two of the team members began working on youth outreach, and all were committed to replicating and expanding the positive impact they now knew they were capable of.

Two years into a project that was intended to last a single year, the Safe Return team was beginning to gain recognition for its success. Both the Ban the Box and the Invest in People, not Prisons campaigns helped city and local agencies gain exposure to Safe Return. Many people who had never talked to a formerly incarcerated person were now working with members of the team on a regular basis. Many of the team members were now well-known and respected for their advocacy skills. The organization was leading some crucial campaigns that affected those who were incarcerated while also raising broader questions about criminalization and equity. 

CHALLENGES

In 2013, both the Pacific Institute and Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS) separated from Safe Return. These separations were amicable and understandable. The Pacific Institute staff member that had carried the Institute’s work with Safe Return had left, and Pacific Institute wanted to return to its primary focus on air quality and environmental concerns. Shortly after the Pacific Institute left, ONS also departed due to a desire to focus more on gun violence prevention and fallout from its Ceasefire involvement. At the time, the Safe Return team was getting more involved in Ceasefire work, despite some members’ reservations, and ONS was no longer involved in this work. 

The departure of both the Pacific Institute and ONS left Contra Costa Interfaith (CCISCO) as Safe Return’s only remaining official sponsor, a challenge to viability discussed further below. The change in leadership and organizational structure created anxiety among the team members. As much as they wanted to have increased responsibility, the loss of two of the three founding agencies made the future direction of Safe Return seem unsure. This was really felt after a key staff member left, and given his focus on team development and the high level of trust he had built, his departure was particularly hard on team morale. This individual’s replacement was more focused on political strategy than team rapport, which meant that the project became more explicitly focused on campaign development

2014-PRESENT CURRENT STATUS & FUTURE DIRECTIONS

We changed a lot of policy, changed community, we might think people know what barriers are but really people don’t know the injustices that people with criminal justice records face.

- TAMISHA WALKER, SAFE RETURN DIRECTOR

Tamisha Walker, who joined the team at its founding in 2010, currently guides the mission and vision of the Safe Return program and its Collective Impact Leadership Institute, an annual 10-week leadership development training that launched in July 2014. The training is open to formerly incarcerated individuals and emphasizes community organizing, media and communications strategies, and personal transformation. Each cohort includes up to 25 formerly incarcerated individuals, who meet mid-July through early October. Of the 25 persons who participated in the last Institute, 19 graduated. Many of the graduates continue to stay involved with Safe Return work and all of them gain skills and tools that will assist their transitions to life outside. Each institute begins with roughly 30-40 attendees, including family members and allies that want to access the trainings as well. Safe Return prioritizes the voices of the formerly incarcerated in this space but doesn’t exclude anyone form participating. The institute is only one of Safe Return’s base-building strategies. Over 100 formerly incarcerated residents, their family members and allies have gone through the trainings. Additionally, Safe Return is currently working with People Improving Communities through Organizing (PICO) to develop a curriculum that will be used to train formerly incarcerated leaders and staff on community organizing and policy change.

This picture is of Tamisha Walker, Safe Return Project Director

Despite these recent achievements and the impressive track record documented in this report, the Safe Return program faces challenges in its efforts to raise the funds and other resources needed to thrive and grow in today’s fiscal climate. The loss of its two former organizational partners and the tendency of most funders to emphasize direct services, rather than organizing, advocacy, and personal transformation, have been particularly challenging. 

Considering this, it is impressive that several team members continue to volunteer with Safe Return, or to work extra hours out of a deep commitment to the work and a desire to give back to this program that has done so much for them personally. Recently, one individual who has been volunteering for the past several years and one graduate of Safe Return’s leadership Institute were hired on a part-time basis. They have already participated in a substantial amount of tool building and are engaged in several advocacy efforts of Safe Return. Formalizing their involvement is allowing them to be even more effective in their efforts and may also signal a potential for new cohorts of Safe Return teams in the months and years ahead. 

Finally, Safe Return team members continue to speak to communities and organizations locally and around the country, about both the program and the policy and other system level changes it is working to realize with and for those coming out of incarceration.