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The United States has the largest prison population in the world, and a big part of that is re-offenders. One way to get those numbers down is to give people on parole the tools they need to function in society. In San Bernardino, Calif., there is a promising effort to do just that. Here's NPR's Elissa Nadworny.
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Raymond Tillman spent most of his adolescence and early adulthood behind bars. His last release, after three stints inside, was in 2011. And when he got out, he had a lot to catch up on, like the digital age.
RAYMOND TILLMAN: When I first came home, I was illiterate to technology.
NADWORNY: One of the main things he needed to do was find a job, but all the job applications were on something called the Internet.
TILLMAN: I didn't know how to turn on a computer, let alone (laughter) what an email was.
NADWORNY: Enter the Cal State San Bernardino Reentry Initiative. It's like a bridge between the world of corrections and the world of social services. A parole officer suggested Tillman go there. At other times in his life, he would've blown this off. But this time - and he doesn't even know why - he showed up, and he followed through. He took nearly every class the center offered.
TILLMAN: Computer literacy, job readiness, anger management, substance abuse - I took them all.
NADWORNY: Tillman remembers his first computer class, looking on the floor for a mouse.
TILLMAN: There was a mouse. I was like, what? Where? I'm looking around the building. No, this thing right here. I was like, wow. I felt like I was a cave man (laughter).
NADWORNY: Catching up on technology can be a major challenge, says Andrea Mitchel. She's the director of research and development at Cal State's reentry center.
ANDREA MITCHEL: They come out not having any knowledge of it, and then they're expected to get into the workforce.
NADWORNY: A decade ago, this center was just an idea Mitchel had. Back then, she saw a booming economy. Most folks had jobs, except for those who had previously been incarcerated. She thought there should be a resource center - a place where help is all under one roof. It took a number of years and a lot of partners to make that idea a reality. Now this center is considered a national model.
MITCHEL: This is a respectful place. You know, if you look around, it's clean. And I know this sounds really simple. And why would we even need to state that? But oftentimes, these folks aren't used to that.
NADWORNY: Mitchel gives us a tour of the center. It's a modern two-story building in an office park not far from downtown.
MITCHEL: This is a typical classroom. You know, it looks just like...
NADWORNY: There's a whiteboard with instructions for a five-paragraph essay. And down the hall, there's a diagram depicting how thoughts are related to emotions and then behavior. Around the corner, Mitchel opens a small office.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR UNLOCKING)
NADWORNY: It's filled with clothing racks.
MITCHEL: We have suits. We have shoes. We have ties. Our goal is to get these folks jobs. Our goal is to get them employed to become contributing members of society.
NADWORNY: Yes, this program is focused on job training, but as we walk through the center, it's evident that it's more than that. Take the entrance. There's a welcome counter, but no metal detectors or armed guards - just a small machine that scans IDs.
(SOUNDBITE OF SCANNER BEEPING)
NADWORNY: That's intentional. It's all part of the open culture here.
TILLMAN: From the first moment I walked in the door, you could just feel the family environment.
NADWORNY: Raymond Tillman's first memory at the center is an employee asking him his name. In prison, they only asked for his correctional ID number.
TILLMAN: And you, like, pretty much almost forget your name because when someone asks you that, you automatically give them your number.
CINDY REDCROSS: Even something as simple as calling them by their first and last name - it has that effect on just changing their mindset to, no, that's not my identity. Like, now I'm a person.
NADWORNY: Cindy Redcross studies prison reentry programs for MDRC, a nonpartisan research firm. She sees a lot of value in programs like this one.
REDCROSS: It's not really just education or just job training.
NADWORNY: Culture, Redcross says, is really important because a good program challenges participants to change how they think. So far, the results here are promising. Across four centers in the county, they've served about 6,000 students to date. Attendance rates are in the high 80s, and more than half of current students are now employed. They said it's too early to give solid data on recidivism.
Of course, not everyone makes it. But Raymond Tillman has come a long way from his days of tech fumbling. He has a full-time job, and he's training to become a manager. And he now has a bachelor's degree with a concentration in IT.
TILLMAN: Who would've thought? I couldn't even turn on a computer when I walked through these doors.
NADWORNY: Now, he says, he's one of the best in the building. Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, San Bernardino, Calif.
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