On Saturday my team met with Norma Robles Gillette, Executive Assistant of Homeboy Industries. Our assignment is to pick a story angle on re-entry, and Homeboy is the largest gang intervention program in the United States. Re-entry is a hot topic now because our project advisor Celeste Fremon explained how supporting prisoners is expensive in general, and more specifically, according to Los Angeles Times (May 24, 2011), “The court gave the state two years to shrink the number of prisoners by more than 33000.” While people wrongly jumped to the conclusion that prisons would release prisoners willy-nilly into communities, the more logical and probable result of this ruling will be that the state will have to figure out how to reduce recidivism, or re-entry.
One of the main difficulties with re-entry is that many prisoners have a hard time adjusting to their newfound freedom. For many, all they know is the gang life. It’s easy and likely that they will violate their parole just by hanging out with family or friends. Many have a difficult time finding work with police records, tattoos and a lack of education. Homeboy Industries is stepping up to the challenge to help homeboys stay out of prison. It offers tattoo removal, a slew of classes (I’m sad I will miss the “Dance To The Groove” class, but it meets Tuesdays from 3:30-4:30.), therapy, counseling, career development and more. Norma shared several success stories of ex-prisoners who work for Homeboy or hold jobs in the community. Homeboy has an on-site bakery (We walked away with gratis bread.) and Homegirl Café and Catering.
This story may not be for everybody. There are people who have no compassion for anyone associated with gang life. When asked if she ever had to defend Homeboy to naysayers, Norma nodded her head immediately, but responded that the amount of criticism has lessened over the years. Some people think helping ex-prisoners is a waste of time and money, while others would argue that to not help would be a bigger waste of resources. Celeste told us that California has the highest recidivism rate in the country.
Homeboy has inhabited its large, yellow, modern-looking building for four years. The café is busy every day – even on weekends when Homeboy is closed – and the gift shop was bustling when we were there. In June of this year, Homeboy Diner opened in City Hall, and Norma said that Homeboy is fielding offers for more locations. Norma also spoke about a standing ovation Father Greg Boyle, the founder of Homeboy, recently received from law enforcement at a speaking engagement. This, she said, was something new because police officers (but not all of them) had not always been supportive of Homeboy in the past.
When we film this Thursday, there is a yoga class at 3:45 and a physical training class at 3. I might focus on some aspect of physical movement. Maybe it helps with anger management? I will e-mail Norma now and ask who teaches the yoga class. Volunteers who are part of the re-entry program teach many of the classes. On Thursday we have interviews set up with four men who are part of the program, and Norma is searching for a woman who will speak to us as well.