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One man's vision: A Way Out for parolees

TURLOCK -- Steal Thomas Guillory's car and he'll still let you sleep at his house.

The 62-year-old has brought more people into his four-bedroom north Turlock home more often than his wife or son can remember. But the need, Guillory has found, is larger than fresh linens and laundry.

Guillory has started A Way Out Community Development, a Stanislaus County-based nonprofit organization, to teach nonviolent ex-offenders job skills from carpentry and seamstress work to Microsoft Office. Backed by a local counselor and church, some small businesses and a vice president of Wells Fargo, Guillory wants to bring job training to people whose particular skill sets landed them in prison.

Released convicts "need a second chance to get their life together for their families, their community," Guillory said. "Why punish them twice?"

Guillory, wife Iona and son Cullin saw that second punishment firsthand when a cousin who had been incarcerated moved in five years ago. Thomas and Iona woke up one morning and the cousin was gone, along with their 1995 Oldsmobile Royale. He was picked up shortly thereafter and went to prison after being convicted on a raft of charges.

When he got out, the Guillory door was still open.

"We don't have a lot of finances, but we have a lot of love," Iona said.

The second time around, the cousin seemed serious.

"He even started going to church," Cullin said.

He had more than a year of healthy living with the family when he disappeared again, this time with cash, jewelry, stereo equipment, even some of the grandkid's toys.

"He took everything that wasn't nailed down," Cullin said.

Father and son couldn't understand it. They sat in the garage watching television, smoking, swatting at flies.

Why?

"Then it just came to me," Thomas said last week, sitting in the same garage. "He couldn't get a job."

Everywhere the cousin applied, he faced the same question: "Are you a convicted felon?" Every time the cousin had to list job skills, the page ran blank. The job kiosks at Hollywood Video and Blockbuster video stores automatically rejected him.

46% of prisoners graduated high school

The cousin's story is hardly unique. More than 650,000 convicted criminals are released from state and federal prisons every year, according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics. Two-thirds of them will return to prison after three years on the outside. All told, 46 percent of prisoners have a high school diploma or equivalent, and most leave prison without education or voca- tional training, according to the Re-Entry Policy Council.

Improving those statistics has become a national priority. The Second Chance Act passed the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in August with praise from both sides of the political aisle. If made law, the bill would create a national re-entry resource center and set aside grant money for nonprofits such as A Way Out, and state-sponsored, family-based re-entry programs.

There are some avenues toward success for parolees in California, said John Porras, unit supervisor at the Modesto parole office.

Twice a month, every other Thursday, the Parole and Community Team meets at the Modesto Gospel Mission. About 20 trade schools, counselors, nonprofits and other programs regularly meet 50 to 60 parolees in need of help. There's training available in trucking, refrigeration, welding, electronics and other jobs. Schools and employers who hire ex-offenders are eligible for tax credits and other incentives, Porras said.

"Education is the key to success," Porras said. "If a person has that hope, that internal drive to get ahead, they'll do well in school and break the cycle."

When he worked in Merced, Porras saw one parolee start at Merced College on $500 a month in grant money. When he left Merced, that individual was working toward an electronics degree at California State Univer- sity, Fresno. But stories like that, he said, are the exception rather than the rule.

"For these guys, the easy way is committing another crime," he said. "It's hard for these guys to get up every morning and go to school."

'Everything a parolee needs'

If Guillory has anything, he has a story of hard work.

He started picking cotton in Texas at 9 years old and stayed in the fields until he was 20, when his family moved to the Bay Area. After becoming an airline mechanic, he seriously injured his back in a United Airlines shop and has been on workers compensation since. It was that downtime, he said, that set him on a course to professionalize his open-door policy.

Guillory says he can inspire that same work ethic if all the services a parolee needs -- from education and job training to counseling and child care -- are under one roof every day of the week.

"We're trying to set up one basic shop," he said Tuesday. "Everything a parolee needs with no excuses."

Program expenses will come from state and federal sources supplemented with fund-raisers. The program will take as many as it can, he said.

Three years ago, he came up with the idea for A Way Out. Roland Hollins, a counselor at Progressive Missionary Baptist Church in Modesto and a member of the group's board of directors, said the business plan calls for "carpentry, sheet metal, sewing -- every town needs a seamstress or tailor -- basic education skills and GED training for parolees, computer training -- both hardware and software -- and counseling will be provided, from depression to anger management, unemployment, family counseling, abuse. Then there are a lot of other avenues we're still discussing."

Guillory called a board of directors meeting in his dining room last week -- the idea having spread from the garage.

Hollins has worked on designing much of the program. Alzora Baker and Steven Brown of Wells Fargo are putting together corporate sponsors and fund-raisers. Curt Leonard, a local businessman familiar with startups, is in charge of operations.

The group envisions one-stop training centers in neighborhoods up and down the valley, starting in Modesto.

"I want to do something in this life," Guillory said. "I want to help people. This is a field that needs work. Everyone deserves another chance."

Bee staff writer Michael R. Shea can be reached at mshea@modbee.com or 578-2391.

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