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'Beacons of Hope' 

Humboldt State's Project Rebound builds a prison-to-college pipeline

About the last thing on Tony Wallin's mind when he arrived at Humboldt State University in 2018 was becoming one of the mainsprings behind a new club — let alone a new campus program — for students whose lives had been irreparably changed by their experiences with the criminal justice system, students like him.

click to enlarge Mark Taylor, left, Tony Wallin and Eric Clark, far right, at the Humboldt State University campus - PHOTO BY DAVE WOODY
  • Photo by Dave Woody
  • Mark Taylor, left, Tony Wallin and Eric Clark, far right, at the Humboldt State University campus

He hadn't come intending to get involved. In many ways, he was looking for an escape — a fresh start far removed from his hometown of Sacramento, where he still bumped into people who knew him back when he was using and selling drugs. What he wanted was to be in a place surrounded by nature, where no one knew his name and he wouldn't run into his past on a street corner.

While Wallin says he was immediately taken with the region's rugged coastline and redwood forests, that sense of place didn't translate into the halls of campus. Hanging over him was what he describes in a 2019 Osprey article as a heavy fog — the vestiges of his time behind bars.

"I didn't see any other students with tattoos on their face and neck. I'd been incarcerated, " Wallin says. And, even with an associate degree already in hand, he began asking himself: "Do I really belong here?"

So the journalism major began seeking out some sort of assistance for those struggling with what comes after incarceration. While he came up empty-handed, Wallin did find open doors at the offices of Associate Director of Admissions Steven Ladwig and Sociology Department Chair Renee Byrd, both of whom encouraged him to take the lead in filling the void.

Resisting the idea at first, Wallin instead decided to write about the lack of resources for HSU's student newspaper The Lumberjack. Then, he says, it became clear to him: "I can write the story and start a club."

A serendipitous meeting with fellow student Franklin Porter, who — like Wallin — was vested in reforming the criminal justice system, helped the Formerly Incarcerated Students Club gain a footing on campus. And, together with a small cadre of members, they set the foundation for HSU's Project Rebound.

Those efforts, Wallin says, happened to coincide with HSU President Tom Jackson's arrival, creating what he describes as "a perfect storm" for starting the local program, which officially launched in October of 2020. Wallin says he and Porter "bombarded" Jackson with constant visits to talk about bringing Project Rebound to Humboldt.

"We needed campus buy-in, we needed stakeholders and it totally worked," Wallin says. "From the beginning, he was supportive and wanted to see the program get adopted."

Thirteen students are now enrolled — ranging in age from 25 to 61 — including two who once faced life in prison.

"Reflecting on the first year of Project Rebound, I am proud of Frank and Tony because of their determination to launch a program that mirrors our values as a university," says Peter Martinez, director of Admissions and Project Rebound's executive director. "Because of their advocacy, numerous departments across campus stepped up and continue to collaborate, working tirelessly to support Project Rebound. We will continue to expand the program in the coming year and provide more resources to students who want to increase their opportunities for success through education."

While new at HSU, the Project Rebound program dates back 1967, when late San Francisco State University professor John Irwin — who himself served time for armed robbery before becoming an expert on the U.S. prison system — set out to push back on the revolving door that too often sees people reoffend after being released with little support and few opportunities.

Then, as it still does, the criminal justice system disproportionally affected the nation's most marginalized communities, often ensnaring those who grew up amid intergenerational traumas of poverty, addiction, unemployment and incarcerated loved ones, leading to the suspensions and expulsions that create what's known as the school-to-prison pipeline.

And those disparities have grown even more acute over the last four decades with an exponential increase in the nation's prison population, fueled in many ways by the war on drugs and harsh mandatory-minimum sentencing laws, which not only incarcerated more people but kept them in prison longer — in some cases, for life.

According to the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, Black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men and Latinx men are 2.5 times as likely. Along similar lines, Black women are more than 1.7 times more likely to be incarcerated than white women and Latinx women are 1.3 times more likely. The bureau does not provide the same breakdown for Native American men and women, as the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative notes in estimating that their incarceration rates are double that of their white counterparts. By extension, children of color are more likely to have a parent in prison.

At the end of 2019, the federal Bureau of Justice reports, 539 of every 100,000 adult U.S. residents were serving sentences in a state or federal prison, with 1,446 of every 100,000 Black adults incarcerated, compared to 263 per 100,000 white adults.

Acting as an antithesis, Project Rebound's premise is simple: Change lives through education rather than punishment to break the cycle of mass incarceration by providing pathways for those who have been incarcerated to obtain college degrees using a compassion-based approach that not only benefits the graduating students and their families but society as a whole.

And it's proven successful.

Over more than 50 years, hundreds of students have earned degrees through Project Rebound, outpacing their fellow California State University classmates in not only grade point average but graduation rates. Since 2016, 87 percent of Project Rebound students have secured full-time jobs or gone on to graduate programs after earning their degree.

A diverse group, the majority are the first in their families to attend college and around one-third are parents with young children. Many grew up in low-income neighborhoods with under-funded schools and a lack of early intervention programs.

And while the state's recidivism rate hovers around 50 percent — meaning about half of those released from prison end up re-offending — none of the program's participants have returned to jail or prison due to a new conviction in the last five years, according to Project Rebound's 2021 annual report.

"Project Rebound constructs a life-affirming alternative to the school-to-prison pipeline and the revolving door of mass incarceration, thus increasing social mobility for generations to come and fostering a safer, healthier, and more prosperous future for California," the report states.

All that success comes with a $4 million annual budget — a combination of state allocations, grants and campus-based matching funds — for a program currently serving around 450 students, having undergone a major expansion in recent years, growing from the original San Francisco site to 14 campuses up and down the state, including HSU. That equates to an annual cost of just under $9,000 per student.

By comparison, the average cost of incarcerating someone in a California prison is around a $100,000 a year.

click to enlarge Eric Clark, left, shares a laugh with fellow Project Rebound student Mark Taylor, far right, and program coordinator Tony Wallin. - PHOTO BY DAVE WOODY
  • Photo by Dave Woody
  • Eric Clark, left, shares a laugh with fellow Project Rebound student Mark Taylor, far right, and program coordinator Tony Wallin.

"Everybody makes mistakes, everyone grows and everyone deserves a second chance, or third or fourth. Being a human is hard, it's harder than anything else," Wallin says. "We, as a society, are so quick to label someone a felon or drug addict or convict, as if that is all we will always be. Humans are fluid and always changing. This isn't to say we aren't held accountable, but it shouldn't be from a punishment model that doesn't work. It should come from a loving, kind and caring place."

By the time he arrived at HSU, Wallin had already trudged a tough road in life. As a child, he says he struggled to find his fit. His mother is from Japan and his father, who is from the states, had his own struggles with addiction and incarceration. When he was 13, Wallin came upon two things that straddled those worlds: heroin and Buddhism. One would send him to prison; the other helps sustain him to this day.

Wallin says he was still in the "mind state of walking the yard" when he walked out for the last time and was put on a bus to downtown Sacramento in what were now the ill-fitting clothes he wore when he arrived at prison, having gained 40 pounds during his confinement. From there, Wallin had to make his own way to his mother's apartment.

"I was so terrified of being in public, like everyone was staring at me. I literally couldn't button the pants I was wearing; I couldn't button the shirt I had on and I had a box that was labeled with my reference number," Wallin says. "It was like a fever dream."

Determined to seize what he knew was a second chance, Wallin says he found himself overwhelmed, scared and battered by nightmares from what he'd seen and experienced in his time behind bars.

After suffering a near fatal relapse within a week, Wallin awoke to find his mother weeping at his hospital bedside. In that moment, he says, he understood in a way he never had before that his choices weren't just impacting him, they were impacting others.

"It was like I needed prescription glasses my entire life and someone put them on me and now I could see," Wallin says.

He checked himself into rehab and later moved into a half-way house where Wallin met people who were sober and going back to school. So, he says, "I followed suit."

From there, he made his way to the North Coast.

Now, as HSU's Project Rebound's program coordinator, Wallin is able offer what he needed but was missing when he arrived on HSU's campus, helping those still adjusting to the world outside of a prison cell tear down barriers to their success and — perhaps most importantly — providing a support system for those who may never have had one.

"I was doing this because I wanted a safe, welcoming place for people with my shared experience," says Wallin, who recently graduated from HSU and is now pursuing a master's degree. "Sadly, it isn't as unique as we think it is."

That backing has made all the difference for HSU Project Rebound students Mark Taylor and Eric Clark, whose lives — like Wallin's — diverged down paths that brought them to prison for reasons ultimately rooted in the basic human need to find a place where they belonged.

Both use the same turn of phrase when describing the program's impact, "It's meant the world."

From the outside looking in, there was a time when Clark might have seemed to have everything going for him. At 18, he was attending to the University of California at Los Angeles but felt lost — literally and figuratively — in what he describes "as a city within a city" with "no direction and no purpose."

A former high school basketball star who lived for the game, Clark says he suddenly found himself a little fish in a big pond without the support of his former coaches, who'd helped keep him on the straight and narrow. His sole purpose in going to UCLA was to make the basketball team so when the walk-on spot he'd secured was pulled at the last moment, Clark was crushed. He dropped out soon afterward.

Adrift and self-centered, saddled with student debt, Clark made a decision that would forever alter the course of his life, joining his brother in a smash-and-grab robbery.

"I was looking for acceptance," Clark says. "I don't like to use upbringing or race ... but I didn't know where I fit in. I didn't feel accepted on campus at UCLA."

The robbery went terribly wrong and a woman was killed. Clark wasn't in the store when it happened — he was in the parking lot, waiting in a truck to load up the stolen merchandise. He didn't even know what had unfolded, having fled when he heard sirens. But Clark was sentenced to life in prison under the felony murder rule, a legal doctrine that allows anyone involved in a crime that results in another's death to be charged with murder.

For the first 15 years or so, Clark walked the prison walk, explaining that while he's not a violent person by nature, prison is a very violent place. Then, Clark says, he hit a point where he was ready to change.

"I decided that being that guy in prison constantly getting in trouble was not the guy I wanted to be," Clark says.

After being certified through a Department of Corrections program, he spent the next several years as an alcohol and drug counselor while serving his sentence, working with fellow inmates at different prisons, which also provided him with "an opportunity to change my focus and my direction."

When a spot came up at Pelican Bay State Prison, Clark volunteered to go and enrolled in the College of the Redwood's outreach program, which led to a meeting with Wallin, who'd come to talk about HSU's Project Rebound.

"He and I chatted about the possibility of me going to school there and it became almost a real thing, because I was headed to the parole board at the time," Clark says, adding that he felt like he was being offered more than an opportunity. "It was almost as if they wanted me. ... It was what I needed coming out of that life of incarceration."

Now a junior, he plans on using his psychology degree to further the counseling work he began in prison, saying the pathway to higher education that Project Rebound provides not only creates the means for social mobility but sets the stage for formerly incarcerated people to contribute to the betterment of society. For him personally, that means an enhanced ability to help others with their treatment.

"I think it also gives each one of us the opportunity to be an example to other individuals who are going through incarceration to advance their goals and dreams in a way that wasn't there previously," Clark says.

Taylor agrees. A senior majoring in social work, he's currently a life coach at Pelican Bay, where his past helps him connect with the men. While many describe the Crescent City institution as a place housing the worst of the worst, Taylor sees a place where "they send the most traumatized."

"Incarcerated people are some of the strongest people you will ever meet in your life," he says, adding that many bear the scars of never addressed adverse childhood experiences that occurred long before they ever found their way into a prison cell.

Taylor says he began hanging out with gang members just before he turned 15, a time when he was dealing with a lot of trauma, including his father abandoning his family when he was 5 years old and the aftereffects of living with an abusive stepfather.

After an unsuccessful stint in the Marines in an attempt to straighten his life out, he began a downward spiral. At 23, then fully entrenched in the gang lifestyle and mentality, he fatally shot a man he'd considered a friend but who Taylor felt hadn't done enough to help a fellow gang member who'd been killed. He was sentenced to 26 years to life in prison.

Like Clark, Taylor's path to redemption did not occur overnight, but he began talking college classes and, 12 years after arriving in prison, received the first of six associate degrees. When Taylor called his mother after the graduation ceremony, he heard in her voice something he hadn't in a long time — pride. In a 2020 interview with Pelican Bay Unlocked, a podcast produced by men in the prison, he describes it as a "pivotal moment."

"Then I kinda realized, this is what makes life worth living, these triumphs that I was experiencing on that day and also the struggles you go through to get to these triumphs, and then I realized that's what I took from my victim's family," Taylor says.

That day, he shed his gang affiliations and, though not always easy, immersed himself in self-help classes and furthering his education, surrounding himself with others who were doing the same.

"I believe the fastest way to end mass incarceration in our country is to begin mass education in our communities, as well as in our prisons," Taylor says.

On track to graduate in the spring of 2022, Taylor says he wants to use a trauma-informed approach in working with both at-risk youth to help them develop the coping skills necessary to avoid a pathway to prison and currently and formerly incarcerated individuals to help them, too, change the course of their lives.

"I am really just trying to contribute to society in order to atone for my past," he says.

There was a time when neither of the now 50 year olds — who each served more than two decades in prison — thought they would see the outside world beyond the confines of a prison yard. But recent changes in state law brought opportunities for their parole.

In Clark's case, the broad application of the felony murder rule was scaled back, allowing individuals like himself, who weren't even present at the time of the killings, to have their convictions vacated. He was left with attempted robbery on his record, which carries a sentence of less than seven years.

Taylor's chance came in the form of legislation that opened up parole hearing eligibility for those serving indeterminate sentences for crimes committed before they turned 26. It was, he says, a "rigorous process," with multiple hearings, psychological evaluations and a complete dissection of his past, as well as his efforts to redeem himself.

He was released in September of 2018. Clark would follow two years later.

But walking outside a prison's gate is just the first step in a long readjustment process that can be fraught with challenges. Not only is there the overwhelming shift to suddenly being in charge of their own lives after years of having every aspect of their days controlled — all while dealing with trauma from what they experienced on the inside — but also the pressure of adhering to strict probation and parole restrictions with the threat of returning to prison hanging over their head. Then there's just the basics — finding a landlord who will rent to someone who's been incarcerated and an employer willing to give them a chance.

"We are set up for failure instead of success when we are released," Wallin says. "Shouldn't it be the other way around, so we can contribute meaningfully to our communities?"

Shaun Brenneman, chief probation officer of the Humboldt County Probation Department, says "it is not surprising that people struggle to succeed when released from prison or jail" with so many, in general, having a difficult time finding affordable housing, access to mental health care and a living wage job.

"Periods of incarceration are incredibly disruptive to a person's life. This is often necessary for community safety; however, it clearly breaks existing ties to housing, employment and social supports," he says in an email to the Journal. "Further, the incarcerated community has its own social norms and values, which dictate a set of values and behaviors. When a person is released, they have to reestablish all those baseline needs, often with very little at their disposal, and those social norms established in prison are often contradictory to what is appropriate in society."

However, Brenneman says a program like Project Rebound "can address this struggle because it provides a community of support, a pathway to a living wage in the form of a degree and, perhaps most importantly, hope and purpose."

With an application-to-alumni continuum of support, Project Rebound backs prospective students and those accepted into any of the participating CSU campuses through every step — from applying for admission and filling out financial aid paperwork to securing housing and providing academic support — all while offering a place to find a sympathetic ear from someone who's walked in their shoes.

And no one is just turned away for not meeting admissions standards. With the motto: "We don't say 'no', we say 'not yet,'" Project Rebound is there to walk them through the process, providing mentoring and advise on how to become eligible.

"So many of us thought school wasn't an option, that it wasn't built for people like us, that we didn't have a seat in the classroom," Wallin says, noting Project Rebound is about changing that narrative to "we all do."

While each Project Rebound campus has the same goals and mission, the HSU program takes advantage of the region's postcard-ready location, with barbecues, hikes in the redwoods and kayaking trips — a process Wallin describes as "Humboldtification," giving Project Rebound students a safe space to socialize outside of the classroom.

"Project Rebound has really helped me navigate the process," Taylor says. "I wouldn't be going to HSU without them. ... The support network with Project Rebound and other activities, it really sustains me and enriches my life."

As an example, he points to a time he spent three hours trying to turn in a final assignment. When Taylor went to prison, the internet was just gaining a foothold and Google hadn't even been founded. So, entering college amid distance learning proved to be a unique challenge. Before getting out, Taylor says he'd never even sent an email, let alone attached a document.

So he picked up the phone and reached out to fellow Project Rebound students for help. "It's those little things that make a difference," Taylor says.

Wallin agrees.

"I have a couple of mentors from PR at other campus that I can call at any time and say, 'I'm struggling' ... and I have such a huge network of people I can talk to about my problems but not just my problems, my accomplishments, and other PR members can do the same," he says.

With promoting community and civic engagement part of Project Rebound's goals, Wallin says HSU's Project Rebound program is involved in outreach efforts across the campus and the region. He notes the great work done by Judge Abby Abinanti and the Yurok Tribal Court system in using a "compassion and community-orientated approach," including reentry programs that provide a wide array of services from housing and treatment to support in making sure tribal members meet the requirements of their release. As part of that, Wallin says Project Rebound is working with the tribe to include information about the program in welcome letters sent to currently incarcerated tribal members in preparation of their return home.

On the prevention side, Wallin says HSU's Project Rebound is also involved with mentorship programs for at-risk youth, as well as the county probation department, and he serves on a committee working to develop a treatment program for youth who will be returning to the county's jurisdiction when the Department of Juvenile Justice closes in June of 2023.

That involvement led to a new Project Rebound workshop that begins this fall, with formerly incarcerated staff members coming to teach a 10-week empowerment course with kids in juvenile hall with the hope of opening their eyes to what is possible in their future

"It is one thing to hear such things from a probation officer or a therapist but another from someone they can see a portion of their lives in," Brenneman says. "Many of these young people don't have members of their family who have been to college, so it can be a very daunting, abstract concept. Having someone who may have come from a relatable experience talk about their journey can make them understand it is possible for them as well."

Wallin says he's really excited about the opportunity for the PR students to be "able to interact, mentor and give hope to the youth currently in the hall."

Starting HSU's Project Rebound during the pandemic made for a difficult inaugural year, Wallin says, with outreach over the phone no substitute for meeting prospective students face-to-face, where they can see a "living example, of, 'I walked in your shoes and you can do this, too.'"

But Wallin is confident the program will only emerge stronger on the other side.

"It's providing hope, and for those people, too, to act as beacons of hope," he says.

Kimberly Wear (she/her) is the Journal's digital editor. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 323, or kim@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wear.

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Kimberly Wear

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Kimberly Wear is the assistant editor of the North Coast Journal.

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