"It's hard for someone coming out of the system to think that someone is actually going to help, and it was shocking to me to see people who were actually willing to," he said.
The anger-management classes he took began to work: He started opening up, talking about his issues and working on himself without even realizing he was.
After six weeks, he got a spot on a Caltrans trash pick-up crew through a special contract the program had with the state. The work was hot, tough, and took up a huge portion of his day, but that was a good thing.
"I had to get up early and work all day, and when I got home all I wanted to do was take my boots off, take a shower and call it a day," he said of the three months in that job. "It kept me inside; it kept me from being out there doing the same stuff that got me in (prison). I got back on my feet and showed my people — my family — that I could have a job and not be out on the street, gang banging or selling dope."
He got recertified in hazardous waste management and worked in it for three years, all the while doing talks at schools about gangs and violence. To his surprise he got a job as a case manager at the re-entry program, a gig he much prefers to working with hazardous waste.
Now he's doing well, he said. He's a certified domestic-violence counselor, he recently bought a house in East Palo Alto and he's got a family.
"I'm one of them; that's what I tell the guys who come in," he said. "'I'm the same as you. I'm just trying to help you get through it the same way I did.'"
Cabrera's case is a model for how the program should work. It's designed to get prisoners coming out of the system back on their feet by providing job training, transitional housing, substance-abuse treatment, support groups and help formulating a plan to re-enter the job market. During the program's initial three and a half years, which ended in 2010, only 30 of 205 participants went back to prison, a recidivism rate of 14 percent compared to the statewide average of 67 percent in 2010.
But the program had been funded by a $3.5 million state grant, and any hope of getting funding for it again was frozen by California's fiscal crisis. So on Oct. 4, 2011, the East Palo Alto City Council authorized the police chief to use $198,000 in funds from Measure C — a parcel tax that supports the police and programs preventing violence — to reinstate the re-entry program.
Since then the program has been up and running, serving one former prisoner at a time. But the landscape of re-entry is changing in East Palo Alto as the Public Safety Realignment Act, California's plan to ease the squeeze on overcrowded state prisons by jailing more criminals locally, takes effect and violence among teens has increased.
To top it off, even as the program and the police try to adapt to these circumstances, they're grappling anew with budgetary issues.
The idea for the re-entry program was developed by East Palo Alto community activist David Lewis. Himself a former inmate, Lewis advocated providing services to help rehabilitate newly released ex-convicts, while treating them with empathy and dignity.
The approach fit snugly with former East Palo Alto Police Chief Ron Davis' community-oriented policing strategy. Davis sought to address the problems at the core of crime and violence — rather than fighting only their symptoms — by building better relationships between the police and community members, particularly the formerly incarcerated.
The ground-breaking program was the first instance in which the California Department of Corrections contracted with a local police organization for re-entry services. Davis believes it was also the first local police-run re-entry program in the state.
Detractors of the program said that re-entry was not a local issue but rather the responsibility of the state, Davis recalled recently. Some people felt fearful or uncomfortable with the idea of bringing parolees into the community or believed that focusing on re-entry was a distraction from the core responsibility of policing in a city already understaffed.
"If, as a police chief, one of my primary missions is to work with the community to make it safer, the idea that I would abdicate responsibility or involvement in something that we already know can largely impact victimization and safety is like saying, 'I can be your mechanic, but I can't touch your engine,'" he said. "If you're really going to get to the heart and soul of making a community safe, you have to have some input on re-entry."
Davis said attacking the symptoms of violence by "mass incarceration" can damage the fabric of the community — families often lose their primary source of income or are broken apart, in many cases leaving the responsibility of child care with extended family or foster care. These factors can further exacerbate the problems communities have with gangs and violence.
As part of the re-entry program, an East Palo Alto police officer became an official parole re-entry officer. The officer conducted home visits to recent parolees to let them know about the re-entry center, the David Lewis Community Re-entry Center, named after Lewis following his death in 2010.
Longtime community activist Robert Hoover, 82, is the director of the program. He said the basic thing that makes his work effective is the interest and support he and his case workers give each individual.
"If people feel like you understand their situation and are empathetic and supportive of them and can help them figure out a way to have a better life, generally they respond," he said. "That's been my thing for 50 years — being supportive, understanding, loving and caring and using every resource I can to support them."
Since 2011, when he took over as director, he's helping ex-prisoners with drivers' licenses, transitional housing, job training and counseling for violence and substance abuse.
It seems to be working. Out of the 115 prisoners who have participated since the center reopened in 2011, just nine have gone back to prison — an 8 percent recidivism rate.
Helping to rebuild the community by equipping ex-convicts to become productive members of society has always been the program's focus. At least, that was the plan until about a year ago, when power struggles between or within gangs in East Palo Alto set off a pair of violence surges. During the second spike, eight people were shot in as many days, including one shooting that left two teens injured and 16-year-old Jose Quinonez dead.
Hoover said the shootings made him take a hard look at the people involved in violent crimes in East Palo Alto and forced him to consider changing who the program served.
"The young people that are caught up in the juvenile justice system — those are the ones that are really creating havoc in the community," he said. "It wasn't the people coming out of prisons who were involved."
The program needed to become proactive and diversionary, aimed at preventing the next generation of potential criminals — or those already in juvenile justice system — from being locked up as adults.
Hoover said he had a terrific model in Homeboy Industries, an East Los Angeles-based organization that has been supporting at-risk youth involved in gangs for 25 years. He described it as a one-stop shop with legal, educational and job-training programs, employment services and opportunities, and mental health and substance-abuse counseling — even tattoo removal.
But without the resources or manpower to run an operation of that scale, Hoover partnered with two other East Palo Alto organizations already engaged with at-risk kids — Live in Peace and Youth Community Services — and a group of men and women who had been in prison, known as the OGs (which stands for "original gangsters"). They decided they would offer classes focusing on violence prevention and awareness; case management modeled after the re-entry center's program; mentorship; and stipends that would serve as incentives for vocational training or education.
As a pilot for this plan, the coalition in June began working at Sequoia Community Day School, which serves high school students from the Sequoia Union High School District who had been expelled. Many of them have been recently incarcerated, and some of them are combating substance-abuse issues. It was kids like these that Hoover said had the highest chance of being caught up in crime and violence in East Palo Alto.
The school, which has about 30 students, covers basic academic courses but also focuses on developing what its principal, R. Marshall Burgamy, calls "emotional intellect." Staff tries to get students to express themselves and develop respect for themselves and those around them while chipping away at the behaviors they adopt to cover up pain or feelings of inadequacy, Burgamy said.
"It's masking behavior — to act out to get attention, to act out to mask what they don't know and what they're not doing. In a small class you can work with them, isolate students and make them the focus," he said. "For some this is the first real academic rigor they receive."
Some of the school's methods may seem unorthodox. Using funds from a $35,000 grant from the Sequoia Healthcare District, three psychotherapists visit the campus two days a week to give the kids individual and group therapy, and the staff is trained to lead 18-minute meditation sessions twice a day to help the kids focus on their personal and emotional development. Burgamy said it's been very successful.
The next step is where Hoover and his community partners come in. Eugene Jackson, a veteran cage fighter, coaches kids in weight-lifting or basketball, while musician Justin Phipps teaches those interested in music.
"It's what we call a hook — something the student's interested in, something he feels good about doing. It opens up the layers that have been put over something that has happened at home or from bad choices. There's a lot of layers of defensiveness — a lot of masking behavior — and what we're doing is cutting away the layers of the masking behavior," Hoover said.
But part of the idea is to give the youth positive role models and mentors like Hoover — who also runs the East Palo Alto Junior Golf Program, which teaches youth how to play and offers them guidance on everyday issues. The adults will sit down with the students, listen to them and try to formulate a reasonable plan for their future.
Burgamy said the program has met with reasonable success. Last year 42 percent of the 72 students who went to the school either graduated or showed enough personal and academic growth to be accepted back into mainstream high schools.
"Of course, 42 percent begs the question of the other 58 percent," he said. "But there are other measures of success that have to do with personal growth — if they believe in themselves and take responsibility for themselves then that's a success too."
Hoover believes that starting early with kids like those at the school will help get them on the right path and keep him from seeing them later in the adult re-entry program.
Over the next year he hopes to take the model for what has been done at Sequoia Community Day School and use it at other schools in the district, hopefully serving as many as 100 students.
"I would say our time and energy in terms of (re-entry) staff time and whatnot is probably going to be more like 60 or 70 percent on this young group," he said. "Our experience over the years is guys in for 10, 15, 20 years are done. They are through — they don't want to go through any of that stuff."
People who have been in the system for that long have lost most or all of their connection to the people that contributed to getting them in there in the first place, he said. With no connections and no infrastructure to get back into crime, it's easier for them to stay clean.
But it's not a given. Davis said he still believes rehabilitation programs are important for them — a lack of opportunity or the risk of substance abuse can easily put people back behind bars.
"They might not be out there slinging weight and being in charge of stuff, but people still have to survive," he said. "You need to get clean and sober living accommodations, get an education, attain a GED, help get prepared for the job so that now the opportunity matches their thought process which is: 'I'm done. I'm done, and I've got some help.' If it's 'I'm done and I've got nothing,' then maybe 'I'm not done.'"
But opportunity isn't always easy to come by in East Palo Alto, where according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate is 13.7 percent.
That's part of the reason why Cabrera sees a work program like the one he participated in as an integral part of the re-entry program. The program helped keep him on the right path and out of trouble, but it also gave him work experience and something he could put on his resume.
But the work programs like the one Cabrera was a part of, which was funded by a $1 million grant from Caltrans, aren't cheap, and even with work experience, ex-prisoners face the hiring bias inherent in being formerly incarcerated, Davis said.
He envisions a program in which businesses could contract directly with the re-entry center for services like sanitation or landscaping in order to have a clear line of accountability until the businesses build enough trust in the ex-prisoners working for them to hire them on permanently. The issue, he said, is coming up with the funding, something for which he sees hope on the horizon through the state's Realignment Act.
In 2011, Governor Jerry Brown signed the act, AB109, to respond to a Supreme Court decision that mandated state prison populations be cut by about 25 percent. The results of the bill included diverting 100,000 future inmates to county jails instead of being incarcerated in severely overloaded state prisons.
The plan obviously places considerable weight on county systems, but legislators have given the state's 58 counties $1 billion annually to support realignment. The idea is that the money will support rehabilitation programs to fight California's 67 percent recidivism rate — the worst in the country.
According to a study conducted by Stanford University, about $90 million flowed into the state's probation services in the first year alone, and Davis, Hoover and City Manager Magda Gonzalez hope to see East Palo Alto's re-entry center receive a chunk of this money. The study specifically mentions Day Reporting Centers like East Palo Alto's as one of the most promising options for reducing recidivism.
Davis said he thinks realignment has the potential to be one of the most effective criminal justice reformation processes in the last 50 years, in part because it forces each aspect of law enforcement to look at the bigger picture of the impacts of arrests, recidivism and rehabilitation.
"So if I (as local police) put 10,000 people in jail, that's someone else's problem with regards to what that means to the cost of incarceration and everything born from it like overcrowding," he said. "Now (with realignment), there are no silos in the system, and all these levers affect each other and an increase in incarceration has an impact on the county and the state."
Davis said that too often prison is used as a default mental health institution or what is essentially an expensive substance-abuse rehabilitation center.
"Incarceration is a very much needed tool. Some people need to go to jail — there's no softening that," he said. "But does it have to be so many? Absolutely not."
"The fact that treatment to get someone off drugs might cost $7,000 a year whereas putting them in San Quentin might be $60,000 a year is ridiculous and it doesn't work," he said. "They come out of treatment with a greater chance of being sober; if you're coming out of jail — I don't think so."
But Hoover said realignment may mean some prisoners are released early on parole or to community supervision, and so far he doesn't know what the numbers of returning inmates will be or what demographics they'll represent. Davis said that he estimates that 25 percent of the inmates coming under county control will probably come from East Palo Alto.
Davis said San Mateo County will have around $1 million to give to organizations like the re-entry program each year, but negotiations for the release of those funds have stalled, and Davis asked the council to extend the program's Measure C funding while the department waits for realignment and county funds to be released.
But, Davis, the principal negotiator and fundraiser in these talks, left the department Nov. 8 to take a job as director of the U.S. Department of Justice's Community Oriented Policing Department, a move that couldn't come at a worse time for the program.
"That was a shock," Hoover said. "I knew at some point someone would make him an offer he couldn't refuse. He was the one guy in the whole city administration who really understood the importance of re-entry and being supportive of people — helping them to get their lives on track and out of the criminal stuff."
Between Davis leaving and uncertain funding prospects, Hoover said he feels like things at the center are up in the air right now.
During a recent meeting at the David Lewis Community Re-entry Center's University Avenue headquarters, Davis and Hoover sat at a table under an oversize photo of the center's beaming namesake. They joked with clients and listened to what kinds of things they would like to see out of the program. All of them were former prisoners — several of them outreach workers for Operation Ceasefire, another police-sponsored program that aims to reduce violence by offering people involved in gangs the services that would provide them alternatives to their lifestyles.
As the meeting wore on, sirens passed. As it concluded, Davis stepped out of the room to take a call.
"This is a reminder of why we need these types of services," he said as he returned.
Only blocks aways, three men had been shot — one of them a minor.