Contract Education Helping Parolees Transition Back to Work Through Caltrans Parolee Work Crew Program

Helping Parolees ‘Learn How to Work Again’ 

Parolees face many decisions immediately after being released from prison. After incarceration, they must figure out how to re-enter society, and finding work is one of the many challenges they face.

Deanna Krehbiel and Eddie Rubio with the San Bernardino Community College District (SBCCD)  know this well. For the past seven years, they have been operating a transitional job re-entry program for ex-offenders, teaching them the skills needed to find and keep a job. Participant learning happens mostly on the job, through the Caltrans Parolee Work Crew Program.

“To go back into society, without any assistance really is very difficult for them,” said Krehbiel, Interim Executive Director of Economic Development, Corporate Training & Technology at SBCCD. “This program is really to help them learn how to work again. It’s a paid transitional employment program, so it helps them financially, as they’re coming back into society.”

This work is unusual in the Contract Education space, where workplace training typically involves delivering instruction to incumbent employees at a business site – or via Zoom since the COVID-19 pandemic hit last spring. In fact, Krehbiel says, SBCCD is the only college district that is providing Caltrans transitional work crews training for parolees, which falls in line with their focus on serving marginalized populations and individuals with barriers to employment.

“We feel this is an excellent way to help our community,” she said. “We’re helping individuals re-enter our communities in a healthy pathway, reconnecting with their families, assisting with full-time employment, and contributing to the economic development of our community.”

Krehbiel points to the economic benefits for Californians, too. For each person incarcerated in California, she says, it costs $79,000 a year to incarcerate them. But “if we can invest a little bit and help them obtain employment and help them become sustainable…not only are we changing their lives…but we’re saving taxpayers a huge amount of money.”

A Look at the Parolee Re-entry Program

The Caltrans Parolee Work Crew Program began in July 2013, when the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) contracted with SBCCD to operate two work crews as part of a transitional program for high-risk parolees. Caltrans funds CDCR, which in turns contracts with SBCCD to run the program.

It’s a competitive program – the waiting list is long – that accepts parolees who are fully committed to turning their lives around. Recidivism data indicates that while participating in the Caltrans Parolee Work Crew Program and obtaining partner wraparound services, only 3 percent of the program participants go back to prison, Krehbiel said. In a recent three-month period, nine participants were placed in full-time employment.

Participants report to work at 6:30 a.m. and are transported to tend to beautifying California’s highways. Five days a week, they pick up trash and litter, remove weeds, trim and clear trees, fix broken sprinklers and clean sewer drains. A lot of learning happens on the job, while they are out in the field, Rubio said. Supervisors find teachable moments to deliver lessons in communication skills and message delivery, among other soft skills needed to succeed in the workplace.

Participants meet their conditions of parole by attending mandatory classes, such as anger management, substance abuse and career development, offered through program partner Cal State San Bernardino Reentry Initiative (CSRI) . Participants have the option to utilize one day of the week to take these classes and/or job search.

When participants are near the end of their 90 days (the 90 days do not have to be consecutive, the program could stretch into as long as five months), program staff begin to write letters of recommendation, share employment leads and help participants with resume-writing and interview skills. Each program participant receives a suit to use for interviews and goes through interviewing preparation.

Industry Training Skills That Set Contract Education Apart

A major advantage of SBCCD administering the Caltrans Parolee Work Crew program is that participants have training opportunities beyond the on-the-job skills they gain through serving on the work crew. Upon available funding, SBCCD leverages programs from other grants and contracts to assist participants with training  for careers such as  welding, warehouse logistics, and entry-level construction. Participants earn industry-recognized certificates that help them find jobs in a career that pays above minimum wage – and they make a valuable connection with a community college, giving them the confidence they need to continue their education in the future.

“This is what sets us apart from our peers out there,” Krehbiel said.

Krehbiel and Rubio have managed to keep the program running safely through the COVID-19 pandemic. While the primary focus of the program is equipping parolees with workforce skills, their work also includes helping them address issues in other areas of their lives that may serve as barriers to long-term employment by referring them to partners who provide wraparound services.

“We look at it as more of a holistic approach, much more than just employment and placement,” Rubio said. “It’s more helping them deal with whatever issues they’re going through. Our program gives them that training to slowly work themselves into the community.”