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Monterey County Jail inmates seek a better path to future at job fair

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Posted: Friday, January 29th, 2016

Via The Monterey County Herald:

Salinas >> Manuel Cortez spent Thursday morning motivated by the prospects of landing a job, as soon as he gets out of jail.

Cortez was among about 50 male inmates in Monterey County Jail who met with employers and nonprofit groups at a job fair designed to get inmates on the right track while still behind bars. A labor union, businesses, a veterans group and a drug rehabilitation nonprofit set up tables around the perimeter of a room in the jail’s Work Alternative Program.

Inmates were lined up four and five deep to get a chance to talk to professionals about their futures.

“Basically I’m here to get help for when I get back in society,” said Cortez, who has worked as a handyman. “This opens the doors for us.”

Looking directly at the seated inmates, Sheriff Steve Bernal said they weren’t necessarily bad people and that they deserved a second chance.

“You are a great bunch of guys, but we don’t want you coming back here,” Bernal said. “You guys are the change and we want you to have the tools to stay out of this place.”

One of the tools is sobriety. A large portion of the inmates on hand Thursday were in jail either because of drug charges or for crimes committed to support their addictions. That’s why John Bokanovich, the director of recovery services at Sun Street Centers, an addiction recovery program in Salinas, made a point of talking to inmates about recovering from addiction if they want any hope of making it outside.

“I’ve been a frequent flyer here,” Bokanovich said of the county lockup. “The power of addiction is so strong that we offer to pick up inmates directly from jail before they have time to hit the streets.”

Addiction is also what is landing many of America’s combat veterans in jails. Self-medicating from the horrors of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, many young men can’t get work or are unaware of services available to them. While veterans make up only 1 percent of the nation’s population, they represent 8 percent of incarcerated men, said Ryon Hoffman, a case manager with the Veterans Transition Center of Monterey County.

“They’ve experienced combat traumas or just can’t make the adjustment from military to civilian life,” said Hoffman, who had a table set up for inmate veterans at the job fair.

“They are self-medicating that pain, but drugs will break them down until all they have left is their base components.”

The first thing the VTC tries to do is get vets off the streets and out of the drug environment. Veterans have come into Hoffman’s office under the influence, but they know and want help to find sobriety, a roof over their head and a job.

“We don’t want to leave anyone behind,” Hoffman said, adding that the VTC is posting a 95 percent success rate in getting vets in housing.

One of the busiest tables was Work Ready, a company offering temporary work in Salinas. Rebecca Santana, the Salinas branch manager, said a good day’s work goes a long way in helping former inmates understand they do have opportunities.

“Everybody deserves a chance to work,” she said. “It makes them feel they are contributing, and that’s half the battle.”

Charles DaSilva, the sheriff’s office’s programs manager and one of the architects of the job fair, comes from the prison system where he said many inmates are so beaten down by the time they get there they lack all confidence in ever being employable.

“They come from horrible families, horrible situations,” DaSilva said. “They’ve never been told they can do it.”

DaSilva spent the morning walking around the room, greeting inmates, laughing with them and directing them to different tables. He said he often asks them what they wanted to be when they were kids, what they wanted to do in life.

“They’ll tell me and I ask them why they can’t do that now,” DaSilva said. “They build off that motivation. We are very passionate and they feed off that.”