SAN QUENTIN STATE PRISON -- People leaving prison face daunting employment prospects, but a new kind of job fair may have boosted some prisoners' chances at a sustainable future.
San Quentin State Prison played host Saturday to about 60 "green" employers, advocate groups and job-training centers, many of them from Alameda County. The idea, organizers said, was to build relationships between employers in need of affordable, enthusiastic labor and those leaving prisons, a group that has been hit particularly hard during the recession.
"We kind of based this on the Van Jones ethic," said organizer Beth Waitkus, who runs the prison's Insight Garden Program. "Everybody should have a chance to succeed in the new green economy." Jones is a former green jobs adviser to President Barack Obama.
Oakland was represented at the event by Jones' Green For All organization and many employers. The city struggles with a high crime rate and frequently wins recognition as a model city in the green movement.
Inmate Kevin Williams, 39, grew up in East Oakland and said the event was inspiring not only for the opportunities it provided, but for the message it sent to inmates that people on the outside care about their well-being.
"For anybody to come in here, give their time, that's a special person," Williams said. "This is prison, man. It's the last place you want to be. If you don't change when you meet people like that, it ain't never going to happen."
In a sentiment many inmates shared, Williams said he was grateful for the chance at a fresh start promised by the event's turnout of employers.
Laura Bowman Salzsieder, prison community resources manager, said the event was a symbiotic one for two stigmatized groups: former inmates, marginalized for the mistakes of their past, and eco-activists, considered in some circles to be part of a fad.
"I hope this will give the guys a chance to peek out the door and see what's out there. And I hope these groups will come back," Bowman Salzsieder said.
The fair was held in a section of the prison reserved for inmates with 10 years or fewer on their sentence -- a group "that can see the light at the end of the tunnel," according to a volunteer.
The employers in sustainable agriculture and landscaping and those in construction appeared to be most popular among the hundreds of inmates in attendance.
Turner Group Construction, which often employs former inmates and has been working on a green affordable-homes project with the Oakland Community Land Trust, set up a booth and saw long lines of prisoners hoping to find out more about job opportunities.
"We met a guy getting out Tuesday," co-owner Len Turner said, "and we're going to give him a job if he can do what he says he can do."
However, Turner added, many of the jobs in green construction require special training to which inmates have not had access, a problem he said will need to be addressed.
Dominique Apollon is a leader of the California ReEntry Program, which helped organize the event with Waitkus.
"I wish you could bring video cameras in here," Apollon said, looking around the mess hall filled with inmates moving from exhibit to exhibit. "I think this scene would surprise a lot of people outside, and would change a lot of minds. It would upset a lot of stereotypes as far as (the inmates') desire, their determination to make a better life."
Contact Sean Maher at 510-208-6430.