One of Pablo Gaxiola’s first regular jobs was making his bed in jail. Now, Gaxiola works with the Santa Clara County District Attorney, the sheriff, and the presiding judge as part of a top-level team helping individuals transition from cell block to success.
It’s a long but worthy road. As a San Jose kid, Gaxiola was surrounded by gangs and drugs. By 20, he was behind bars in San Quentin. In 2014, Gaxiola was given an opportunity to change his life. He walked into the County of Santa Clara Reentry Resource Center. The one-stop shop that supports currently and formerly incarcerated county residents, referred him to the New Opportunity Work (NOW) Program at Goodwill of Silicon Valley. Along with his fellow participants, Gaxiola started with three months of part-time, on-the-job training such as warehousing or manufacturing. He learned resume preparation, job interview techniques, and went into therapy to change his destructive behavior.
Over five years, Gaxiola worked his way up to become NOW’s Reentry Program Manager. His new goal: helping people who get out of jail and prison to stay out. “My reach is expanding,” Gaxiola said. “I can step up and stand up for people who can’t speak for themselves.”
One in three American adults have some sort of criminal record. In 2018, the Council of State Governments, Justice Center and the National Conference of State Legislators reported there are 15,000 legal provisions that limit occupational licensing opportunities for people with criminal records. Add to that the social stigma that a criminal record carries, and finding a job becomes a monumental task for a monumental population.
It’s worth it to us all that they beat the odds. Incarceration is expensive and disproportionately affects our vibrant minority and immigrant population. It costs about $70,000 a year in this county to have someone in jail. About half of the tens of thousands who serve their sentences at the county’s two correctional facilities identified themselves as Hispanic/Latino. Many walk out of jail and into the Reentry Center looking for a better way.
They can find it through people like Katie Curry. After battling alcoholism for more than 20 years, five of those spent in and out of jail, Katie visited the Reentry Center. She received temporary housing, a job through Goodwill of Silicon Valley, and was enrolled in a class at the Reentry Center offered by San Jose City College geared for clients to become alcohol and drug recovery peer mentors. Curry graduated last spring and was hired by Caminar, a program of the County of Santa Clara Department of Family and Children’s Services that connects reentry clients to resources. Sober now for almost three years, she is working full time, managing a women’s transitional housing unit, and attending San Jose City College to become a Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor.
County-funded programs are effective, but employing millions of individuals released from jails and prisons in the U.S. each year requires partnering with private employers. To create job opportunities. Tim Herlihy, owner of sheet metal machine shop Creative Manufacturing Solutions Inc. in Morgan Hill, is one local employer who is committed to doing his part. Herlihy believes that a criminal record should not be a deal breaker when hiring. “You shouldn’t be judgmental on the front end,” he said. “You’d be surprised at the work ethic of some of these guys.”
Gaxiola, Curry, and many others are walking out of jails with a deep desire to rejoin their communities and the workforce. We all have a stake in making sure they are successful.
Javier Aguirre is the director of the Santa Clara County Office of Re-entry Services. Jeff Rosen is the Santa Clara County District Attorney.