“My entire life led up to this work,” Barbara Richards says. She’s speaking with me over the phone, and her voice warms with passion. “From the messages my family gave me to life experiences—I committed my life to this work.” She’s referring to Project 180, a not-for-profit organization that helps empower inmate reintegration into communities. “There is a larger pool of talent than anyone is aware of,” Barbara says. “They may be experienced in management, sales, and other transferable skills. There is significant energy and expertise locked away.” Project 180’s major initiatives comprise financial literacy training, workforce reintegration and preparation workshops, and residential rehabilitation.
Kathy Durfee, the CEO of TechHouse, taught in the CEO Workforce Education Program last week. When I ask Barbara how it all started, she pinpoints an exact moment. “It was on my way home one day,” she says. “I was listening to the radio, and I heard that for every black man, there are five black men in prison or jail; and for every Latino man, there are three Latino men in prison or jail.” She had to pull over to the side of the road to digest the information. It was soon after that she began volunteering at the San Francisco County Jail. “Don’t you feel intimidated?” I ask her. “Going into a jail? That seems frightening.” “Now, I’m far less worried about intimidation inside of a jail than on the street! But back then, when I first drove up to the jail gate in southern San Francisco, and I saw those two huge towers, and I thought about all the people who had been driven through there and who couldn’t leave—I thought, I can’t do this. I’m a scrawny white woman from the suburbs.” She laughs. “So I turned around and I left, and I went to a grocery store. And I pushed around a cart for a bit, and I told myself, Okay, I can do this. If I can do this, I can do that. And I went back to the jail.” “This archetypal image of the prisoner as the monster—this is a real misconception,” she explains. “Some people do need to be locked away and kept from interacting with us. But we have criminalized a disease: addiction.
Most people who are inside are dealing with that disease. It’s a very tangled web.” The goal is rehabilitation and re-integration of a tremendously underutilized workforce. To achieve this aim, Project 180 serves as a stabilizing and educating force alongside court rehabilitation programs and counseling. “This isn’t simple,” Barbara says. “But it isn’t rocket science, either. We all need a stable place to live, food, and shoes on our feet. We need people who care about us. … At Project 180, we provide the stability of a home with expectations that individuals live a particular way. While more ‘mainstream’ people might consider this home normal, those who have endured the chaos of being in and out of prison for years would have their first experience with stability in a long time.”
Donations are critical to helping inmates reintegrate into our workforce. Right now, each donation will be matched up to $20,000. You can donate here (the page will redirect) and tag the donation with “Gloria Schwartz Matching Fund.”