Spectrum: A Journal on Black Men,Volume 2, Issue 2, Summer 2014
Renford Reese, Ph.D., Professor, Political Science, Cal Poly Pomona
Founder/Director, Prison Education Project

The Summer Youth Reintegration Academy

The Prison Education Project, the Reintegration Academy, and the Summer Youth Reintegration Academy are California-based programs that were designed to create a prison-to-school pipeline.  This paper examines the Summer Youth Reintegration Academy for system-involved black male youth in South Los Angeles. This program immersed participants in academic, life skills, and career development modules for five weeks.  The overarching philosophy of the program was to immerse the participants into a pastoral college campus environment, away from the cluttered distractions of the inner city, and expose them to an array of educational and career opportunities. This paper will discuss the genesis of the program, the content of the program, and the outcomes of the program.

I would like to first contextualize my immersion into scholarly research on young black men over the past decade.  In each of my two books on black males, I elaborated, in detail, on the mulitiple challenges they face on a daily basis.  The Summer Youth Reintegration Academy was in part, An attempt to address the problems that I examined over the past ten years. In American Paradox: Young Black Men (2004), I discussed how over a half-century since Ralph Ellison wrote the classic book Invisible Man, black men have been trying to become visible, to get the attention of the world. An intense quest to become seen, heard, and respected has manifested itself in rebellious and counterproductive behavior. Whether it is the baggy pants, the bandana, the braids in the hair, the earring, or the tattoo, black men have desperately strived for visibility and recognition. Perpetual gang warfare and an overemphasis on living a glamorous lifestyle have derailed many young black men from being productive members of society.
In my work I examined how young African American males have unwittingly accepted one model of black masculinity and how the acceptance of this “tough guy” model has detrimental consequences on an entire generation of young black males. The book’s thesis was supported by a survey I conducted of 756 African American males from the ages of 13-19 in Los Angeles and Atlanta, two of America’s largest metropolitan areas. Los Angeles and Atlanta were chosen because of the challenges that young black men faced in each city. This survey attempted to gauge the attitudes, perceptions, and knowledge base of young African American men regarding black public figures. One component of this survey was a Realness Scale that I constructed. Along with this survey, interviews were conducted with a cross-section of young black males to find out why they, or many of their peers, have embraced the gangsta-thug persona. The results were fascinating.

Although the primary focus of this book was on the young black male’s acceptance of the gangsta-thug image and their enthusiastic embrace of society’s stereotypes, this book also examined the harsh realities of the system. One would be naive to dismiss the historical impact of discriminatory policies and the systemic perpetuation of stereotypes in U.S. society. Hence, this book examined the internal and external influences on the black male identity.

I learned, through letters from inmates, that hundreds of black males in the California prisons had read American Paradox: Young Black Men. As a result, I arranged to lecture in Centinela State Prison and the California Institution for Men about the book’s theme--the causes and consequences of the young black man’s enthusiastic embrace of the “gansta-thug” persona.  In these prisons, I found creative brilliance, intellectual curiosity, and a system that had deliberately incarcerated a generation of young black men for mostly nonviolent crimes. The more research I did on the racial disparities in the criminal justice system and the consequences of the failed War on Drugs, the more outraged I became-- realizing that America continues to embrace noble principles but ignoble practices. The blatant disregard for social justice in the U.S. criminal justice system prompted me to write a second book on young black males.

Prison Race was written primarily for those members of the public--including lawmakers--who might be unaware of the damage wrought on U.S. society by decades of counterproductive criminal justice policies. In this text, two fundamental questions were addressed: Why have lawmakers embraced counterproductive criminal justice policies? What have been the consequences of these policies? “Prison Race” is a double entendre. Over the past three decades, there has been a move toward incarceration, and one group in particular has been impacted by discriminatory and unjust corrections policies driven by the promises of politicians to “get tough on crime.”
Multiple human rights violations exist within the walls of the nation’s overcrowded prisons. Inmates are subjected to substandard health care, sexually assaulted, warehoused and punished without opportunities for rehabilitation. Prison Race candidly examines prison conditions in the United States. It also explores, among other issues, the business of prisons, including the positioning of prison-guard unions as influential interest groups, the proliferation of prisons, and the role of prison labor in a cycle of capitalistic exploitation. This book integrates survey data and interviews with inmates, parolees, correctional officers, and others to examine one of America’s most shameful creations, a “Prison Race.”

Consider the consequences of zero-tolerance policies imposed on many young males in schools.  Because of these stringent policies, black youth are incarcerated for fighting, using profanity, being in possession of drugs or weapons on school grounds, and/or unruly behavior.  Compare the punishment of these teenagers to that of the white Texas 16-year-old who killed four people in a drunk-driving episode and received ten years probation and sentenced to stay at an exclusive California drug treatment facility instead of the 20 years in prison that prosecutors had demanded (Jonnson, 2013).

Ethan Couch had a .24 blood-alcohol level and Valium in his system when he crashed his car.  His in-court defense was a concept called “Affluenza,” which means that because his family was affluent he was never socialized to follow the same rules as others in society (Hennessy-Fiske and Muskal, 2013).

In the appendix of Prison Race, I discussed a proposal of a Reintegration Academy for parolees that would bring participants to a college campus for ten weeks and immerse them in academic, life skills, and career development training modules. Five years after proposing this concept, the program was launched. Since 2009, we have been able to host cohorts in 2012 and 2013.  We had 20 male participants in the 2009 cohort from ages 18-25, 28 male and female participants in the 2012 cohort ages 18-30, and 26 male and female participants in the 2013 cohort from ages 18-55.  Each of the cohorts contained a diverse group of participants: Latino, African American, White, and Asian.  
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's Southern Region screens all potential participants for the Reintegration Academy.  Once the program begins, the participants are on campus one day per week for four hours. On the first day each participant receives a meal card and a gift card (to purchase business-casual clothes).  Participants came to campus one day per week for four hours.  They were exposed to academic forums and introductory lectures and career development workshops.  In the fifth week, participants received a laptop computer, at no cost to them. In the eighth week, all participants are registered into Mount San Antonio Community College and are assisted with completing financial aide forms. During the ninth week, the program hosts a job fair for the participants--inviting 25 local employers to meet, greet, and interview participants. At the graduation banquet, each participant receives a certificate of completion. The Reintegration Academy helps to create a prison-to-school pipeline.  The Summer Youth Reintegration Academy was borne from this program.

In March 2013, a grant proposal was submitted to the California Community Foundation’s BLOOM initative.  BLOOM (Building a Lifetime of Options and Opportunities for Men) seeks to provide a rich array of opportunities for crimal justice system-involved  black males from the ages of 14-18. Each participant is or has been under the supervision of the Los Angeles Probation Department.  The California Community Foundation and an advisory board consisting of professionals and community leaders developed this initiative in 2011. BLOOM invests in community-based organizations that provide academic and/or vocational advancement opportunities.
The proposal for the Youth Summer Reintegration Academy (YSRA) was directed towards the Educational/Vocational Advancement component of this RFP, which is meant to support efforts that facilitate academic advancement for youth resulting in pursuit of post-secondary education.

The Youth Summer Reintegration Academy brought 16 system-involved African American males between 15-18 years old to a university campus and a community college campus for a five-week intensive enrichment program in the summer of 2013.  Participants were immersed in academic, life skills, and career development modules during this five-week period. The youth were screened and referred to the YSRA by the Los Angeles Probation Department.  I had one meeting with probation administrators as well as a question and answer session with the parents before the program began.

The youth participated in sessions two days per week for five weeks.  Participants were picked up at one of the Los Angeles County Probation Offices at 7:30 a.m. and returned to this location at 4:00 p.m.  Participants were given a $50 gift card to purchase khaki pants, along with a Reintegration Academy polo shirt.

Each program session consisted of the following four modules:
Academic Orientation Module:  Expose participants to various academic majors
Campus Exploration Module:  Participants explore the campus during dinner breaks
Vocational Education Module:  Expose participants to various vocations
Career Development Module:  Personality Inventory, Resume Building, Communication Skills, Interview and Job Searching Skills, Social Networking Skills

Full Article Published in May 2014 See the Youth Summer Reintegration Academy