Center for Employment Opportunities program helping local felons find work expanding

Program saving San Diego County taxpayers money

SAN DIEGO - It is hard enough to land a job in this economy and even harder with a criminal record. What started out as a pilot program to help local felons find work is now expanding after a year.

The Center for Employment Opportunities, or CEO, has helped 125 released inmates in the past year. Now, the center is looking to reach more. 

On Wednesday, some spent the day working to clear grounds in Chula Vista, where the city is planning to build a community park. 

It is hard manual labor and it is only minimum wage. For many of them, it is their first honest job.

Robert Willis, 24, was one of them.

"My dream job? I messed that up," he said. "When I was a kid, I wanted to go into the military. I wanted to be in the Air Force and fly planes."

Willis has a past that is written on his face in the form of a teardrop tattoo. At age 16, he had everything gang life had to offer.

"Partying, drugs, guns… just everything to screw up a young kid's life," he said.

He has been locked up twice for bringing a gun during a gang fight. 

"So-called 'OGs', original gangsters, coming home from prison, telling you war stories and it's glorified," said Willis. "You're a young kid and you don't have anything to look up to, so you see that as being cool."

When prisoners get out of jail, they receive $200 from the state. In the best case scenario, they could get a job the day they get out.

Like everyone, they would have to wait two weeks to get paid, so all too often, they look to crime to get money. 

"It's too easy to go back," said Willis.

That is where CEO comes in. The center offers post-prison job training, transitional work and helps line up career opportunities.

Someone who has been locked up in San Diego County has nearly a 70 percent chance of being locked up again. CEO is helping reduce those odds by 22 percent. 

Marshall Gamlin, 50, spends three days doing the transitional work with Willis and two days a week searching for a job.

"I've seen a lot of people that got arrested that came right back," Gamblin said.

He was recently released from prison after 11 years and hopes to find a job in computer sales.

"I'm too old," he said. "I can't afford to go back to prison."

District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis helped push the program through and was on hand for news of its expansion. 

"I care because I'm part of this community, and when someone makes a bad choice, we have to teach them how to make good choices," Dumanis told 10News.

It seems to be a powerful program. Former members of Bloods and Crips – rival gangs –were working together and helping each other to clear the grounds.

"It's putting money in my pocket," said Willis, who was referring to the program. "It's helping me gain more experience in the working field."

If Willis can get hired and keep clear of prison, it will save taxpayers $45,000 a year.

"My dream job? I would like to be a manager at a retail store," he said. "I can't dream big anymore because I kind of shortened my chances."

The program just might help Willis achieve his new dream of managing a shoe store.

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