A California-based program provides newly released long-term prisoners with a chance at a new life.

BY ISABELLA GARCIA  FEB 6, 2020

After serving 24 years in prison, Pamela Thompson was freed with no money, no cellphone, and no awareness of how to navigate the new world she’d just been released into.

Without the necessary resources and tools to succeed, newly released prisoners such as Thompson are set up to fail. Without support, many of them find themselves back in prison—or worse. Recently released prisoners have the highest recidivism and mortality rates of U.S. prisoners. 

A study from 2014 found nearly 80% of newly released prisoners were arrested for a new crime within five years of their release, more than half of them by the end of their first year out. Within the first two weeks of being released, returning citizens are 12.7 times more likely to die than people of the same age, sex, and race who have never been incarcerated, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The study theorizes that most of those deaths can be attributed to drug overdose.

Fortunately for Thompson, she had a Ride Home.

The Ride Home Program, founded in 2013, is a California-based program that offers free reentry services to people being released from long-term prison sentences, starting with a pickup outside of the prison gates. Clients of the program are guided through the first steps of reentry, such as finding housing, submitting paperwork, and securing employment, by the reentry counselors who pick them up. The program is run by the Anti-Recidivism Coalition—a California-based network of services for formerly incarcerated people—so the counselors are able to connect each client to a myriad of existing services, including case management and job training, that will continue to support them for years to come.

Newly released people can receive these services one of two ways: through an application to the Anti-Recidivism Coalition or by being a client of the Three Strikes Project.

Started in 2012, the Stanford Law Three Strikes Project helps to overturn unjust sentences under the state’s “Three Strikes” law that sentences people who have already committed two “violent or serious” crimes to a mandatory 25 years to life. In some cases, people have received 25 years for drug possession, or for shoplifting a pair of socks. 

When Michael Romano, director of the Stanford Law Three Strikes Project, noticed the dearth of personalized and immediate reentry services for many of his clients who had already spent more than 15 years in prison, he created the first iteration of the Ride Home Program. The program then partnered with the Anti-Recidivism Coalition in 2013. Whether a client applies for the program or is a client of the Three Strikes Project, Ride Home prioritizes serving those who have been in prison for 15 years or more, and show a commitment to changing their life.

In the past seven years, the Ride Home Program has helped “several hundred people,” Romano says. In 2016, the Ride Home drivers were honored as “Champions of Change” by the Obama White House and extended their services across the nation to prisoners who received executive clemency from the president, as requested by then-President Obama. Since the change of administration, Ride Home has scaled back to only serving California prisons with six drivers, funded by private individuals and foundations.

Carlos Cervantes, the Ride Home Program Director and the program’s first driver, says that every pickup has the same “blueprint,” or sequence: take the newly returned citizen for a meal, then to a store for clothes and toiletries, followed by a visit with family—if they have any—and lastly set them up in transitional housing. While the outline remains the same, each ride is tailored to the client’s specific needs.

“What’s not in the blueprint is that every person is different,” Cervantes says. “Every person has their own story, every person has their own challenges.”

Some clients are ecstatic about their release while others are severely anxious, Cervantes says. Some have mental health challenges or are flight risks once they are dropped off at their mandatory transitional housing. The drivers must be nimble, compassionate, and experts themselves in reentry—that’s why they are all formerly incarcerated people.

Before bringing on Cervantes, Romano did the pickups. But not having been incarcerated, he struggled to relate to all of the obstacles his clients face during reentry. Also, he didn’t know the unspoken rules of etiquette and behavior in prison. Both Cervantes and Romano say prison has strong racial divides, especially when it comes to eating together. For example, if someone of one race touches a plate of food, a person of a different race can’t touch it. Romano learned that first hand while trying to eat family-style after a pickup with one of his clients of a different race. 

Carlos Cervantes, right, with Pamela Thompson in a store buying new clothing after Thompson was released from 24 years in prison. Photo from Anti-Recidivism Coalition.

That’s when Romano looked for someone who had been in the criminal justice system to take over the pickups and found Cervantes at the Anti-Recidivism Coalition. Cervantes knew the boundaries, as well as the unspoken rules. He also understood the feeling of standing in the grocery store, looking at a wall of deodorants, and being overwhelmed by choice—something one doesn’t get to experience when incarcerated. 

That’s why when he picks up people like Thompson, he knows to anticipate those exasperating moments. When Cervantes took Thompson to the store to get new clothing, she had been wearing prison-issued clothing for over two decades.

“I didn’t know what size I was or any of that,” Thompson says. So Cervantes had a life coach from the program meet them at the store, she explains. “[The coach] was so great because she could look at me and tell what size I was.”

Even with the support of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition’s services, reentry is a frustrating process.

Shortly after being released, Thompson visited the unemployment office to fill out paperwork—on a computer.

“I didn’t know how to work the computer, so I had a meltdown,” she recalls, sharing how she cried for 20 minutes, too embarrassed to ask for help because she didn’t want to tell anyone that she just got out of prison. “That was my first barrier that I faced.”

Romano refers to those moments as micro-obstacles—the everyday tasks that require skills many civilians take for granted. While the obstacles themselves may be small, like choosing which bread to buy or getting used to motion sensor faucets, they can feel like never-ending moments of failure that can derail the progress of reentry.

“After that day I learned a very valuable lesson: If you don’t know something or you feel uncomfortable with something, speak up,” Thompson says. “We’ve been silenced for so long in the prison system without a voice, so it’s time to speak up now.” 

Thompson is able to share her experience with her own pickups now. It’s been just over a year since she’s been released, and now she’s helping others. She has a full-time job at another reentry service and does pickups with Ride Home on the weekends.

“When you’re afforded the opportunity to go and pick somebody up, their face when you see them is priceless,” Thompson says. “It gives them hope to know that this could one day be them.”

While Romano notes that the program hasn’t “solved the riddle on how to best support people leaving prison,” the program has multiple success stories such as Thompson’s that show personalized and attentive reentry works much better than the norm: handing a recently released person a bus ticket and expecting them to get by on their own. “It’s really a drop in the bucket, and we hope it’s an inspiration to others,” Romano says.