Life after prison: Master guitar maker decides to tell his story

Robert VincentWhen leaving prison, should you tell the story of your incarceration or keep it a secret? And how long do you wait before you do so?

It took master guitar maker Robert Vincent 10 years to tell his story. Now that he’s done it, he’s glad he did, but doubts remain about the effect it could have on his guitar business. So far, however, people’s reactions have been positive, and the story of how prison changed his life serves as an inspiration.

Reason for incarceration

Vincent was incarcerated after an unfortunate incident early in his adult life.

“I got involved in an altercation with another group of young men. One of the men in my group pulled out a gun and shot a man in the other group,” he says. “One young man lost his life. I got charged with second-degree murder along with the triggerman and was sentenced to 16 to life. I entered the prison system when I was 21 and was released in 2005.”

After serving 3-1/2 years at Pelican Bay, Vincent was transferred to Deuel Vocational Institute in Tracy, Calif. There he continued to be involved in an arts program, but what Tracy had to offer changed his life.

One day the teacher of a guitar making class asked for help, because the men were having trouble spraying lacquer on the guitars, and before incarceration Vincent had been an automotive painter. After spraying a few guitars, Vincent decided to build one himself.

Guitar making became a passion

A year later, well known luthier and teacher Kenny Hill gave Vincent a book on the design elements of classical guitar. “It struck a chord with me. I dove in and started studying as much as I could – whatever I could get my hands on,” he says.

Vincent went on to complete about 30 instruments inside prison. He donated several of them to an auction benefitting a local charity, as well as to another event sponsored by PBS in Sacramento.

“That gave me a head start. My instruments were on the market and people were interested in them,” Vincent says.

Meanwhile, his prison job assignment was to work in the arts program. He took care of the equipment and maintained the workshops spaces and started to teach the inmates guitar building. Kenny Hill would come in four times a year to critique the guitars that were being made and offer instruction and advice.

Vincent learned much from visiting artists

Working in the arts program brought him into contact with the many artists – painters, printmakers and ceramic artists – who visited the prison. “Dealing with the artists helped me grow as an artist. All of them were helpful and encouraging,” he says.

Vincent’s work in the arts program and being able to create classical guitars changed his life.

“I wasn’t just isolated for 16 years with yard talk. Because the program was so popular, the (prison’s) public relations officer would bring in tours, local politicians and college students,” Vincent says. “Communicating with other people besides guards and inmates was a tremendous opportunity for me.”

Involvement in the arts also gave his two sons – one was five and the other two at the time Vincent was incarcerated – a reason to be proud of their father. When they visited him every month, the conversation often turned to the arts. Now his older son is a practicing artist and the other a woodworker.

Harry Belafonte orders guitar for Carlos Santana

In addition, his guitars gained such a great reputation that Harry Belafonte commissioned him to build a guitar for Carlos Santana.

Arts program made it all possible

“I thought about what happened to me in the first place and wanted to better myself so that it would never happen again. I don’t know if that would have been possible without the arts program,” he says.

Upon release in 2005, Vincent went to work in his brother’s wrecking yard business and began to purchase the equipment and materials to start his own guitar making shop, which he now operates out of his garage in San Diego.

His guitars are for classical guitarists who play concerts and sell for about $7,000 each. It’s a small market, and his dealers take a major cut, so he characterizes himself as a starving artist but one with few expenses. Still he’s doing what he loves and has made a name for himself.

Finally ready to tell his story

And now, more than 10 years later, he’s ready to tell his story.

“My guitars have been pretty successful, but for years I never mentioned that I learned in prison. I was eager to tell the story, but it wasn’t perceived so well by a pretty well known dealer my first year out. So I quit telling the story after that until this year,” he says.

In fact, in the past he did speaking engagements at conferences and colleges under the agreement that there would be no Internet information mentioning his name.

“For 10 years I would Google my name every month or two to make sure my story wasn’t out there – somebody else’s version of it,” he says. And then one day, a persistent reporter from San Francisco’s KQED radio station called wanting to report his story. And it was published in June.

“I decided it was finally time to get the story out there, and it felt really good,” Vincent says. He called his dealers in New York and Los Angeles. They didn’t care about his background and were supportive.

In fact, he hasn’t experienced anything negative but is still a bit unsettled. “I don’t know whether I’ll live to regret this, but it’s a huge relief to tell the story,” he says.

Should others do the same?

“It’s a personal decision. And I really don’t know the answer to that yet,” he says.

 

Blackstone Career Institute changed life of former inmate

Michael Harris, legal administrator/paralegal, Saldivar & Associates, PLLC, Phoenix.

Michael Harris

The thousands of hits we’ve received – and continue to get – on the article we wrote about Blackstone Career Institute three years ago indicates the appeal of the paralegal correspondence course it offers to those in prison.

It fact, it can change their lives, as it did for Michael Harris, who was incarcerated in Arizona and is now a legal administrator/paralegal at Saldivar & Associates, PLLC in Phoenix. And he’s just one example.

At any given time, more than 1,200 incarcerated students are participating in the Institute’s Correspondence Paralegal Program for Inmates. The old-fashioned paper-based course – no Internet is required – has been delivered to more than 1,800 institutions since the program began in the late 1970s.

Using time in prison to one’s advantage

But back to Harris. When he was sentenced to three years in prison, he was determined to make good use of the time.

“My wife and I made a strategy of how we were going to make this time work for us. I had never been able to return to school to finish a degree but wanted more education,” he says. “So I researched to find a school that would give me something worthwhile and offer a chance to do it through correspondence.”

Although Harris, like many others, had originally signed up for the monthly plan payment, an inheritance his wife received soon after his incarceration helped him pay off the cost of the course in one lump sum, which made things easier. If you pay on a monthly basis Blackstone only sends out the materials once it receives payment, but if the tuition is paid in full at the beginning, the books for the entire course are sent in the initial shipment.

Completing coursework

Of course it depends on the person and his or her background, but Harris said he only read five to 10 pages per day and developed a test strategy in which he went through the course work marking the answers to the practice questions. It took him a total of 24 months to complete the course, a bit more leisurely than he could have done it.

“I went through 16 books for the paralegal course. You could easily do one a month very comfortably,” he says.

Making money in prison

Not only did he set himself up for a career once released, Harris also used the skills he gained to make money while incarcerated. He found that several fellow inmates, including himself, needed to file for bankruptcy, and he helped them do it, work which, he says, kept him really busy.

His selling proposition: “By being in there (in prison), I could get the Federal court to waive the filing fee. I would tell guys to give me $200 and I’d get the $335 filing fee waived.”

The bankruptcy filing business even got him the support of prison employees.

“Prison officials were curious about what I was doing so they’d kind of peek in and say, “Hey what’ve you’ve goin’ there,” and I’d explain it. Most of the guards were in financial distress and would start asking me questions, and I’d refer them to online resources. Doing work for them would have created potential conflicts of interest, so I didn’t go there, but through their curiosity they were supportive,” he says.

What did the course mean for Harris while he was in prison”

It meant that it wasn’t wasted time. While everyone else was counting the days, I was using the time to my advantage,” he says. “It was also very instrumental in keeping my marriage together because in my absence my wife knew I was doing something that was going to benefit us all in the end.”

Prison experience makes better paralegal

And what did it mean once he got out?

Harris had worked for a law firm before he went into prison but at a lower than paralegal level, so the Blackstone paralegal certificate gave him credibility to get a better job.

Because he works in a firm that specializes partially in criminal law, Harris’s prison experience gives him insight that others in his firm don’t have.

“I’m able to connect with the client in a way that the attorney can’t. I’ve been there and done that,” Harris says. “When clients are in custody and I meet their families and I say I’ve been there, they say, “No you haven’t.” But when he finally convinces them that he has, they know he really understands their situation.

Advice for others

His advice for those still incarcerated:

  • Structure your time and make it work for you.
  • As felons we’ve been selling ourselves our whole lives. Most of us are quite the characters. Take that skillset and turn it into an asset instead of a hustle.
  • Get engaged in your community and network through nonprofits. Put yourself out there and make yourself available to others and it’s amazing what comes back when you do that.

If anyone else has taken the Blackstone Career Institute’s Correspondence Paralegal Program for Inmates, we’d love to hear from you. Please add your comments below or contact us directly.

 

Vanderbilt students design Triple Thread Apparel to train ex-offenders

Lead printer William Williams prepares a screen to print custom T-shirts. (Photo by Chris Cole.)

Students at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., have created a business to help give job skills and experience to the ex-offenders they share a home with.

Their home, Dismas House, a unique halfway house which may be the only one of its type in the nation, was created nearly four decades ago by a former university chaplain to bring students and ex-offenders together. He believed that both groups have much in common as they begin to embark on new lives.

While Dismas House has been around for a while, its business was created more recently. In fact, it was just a few years ago that Kyle McCollom was returning to his dorm after sharing an evening meal with the residents – a meal where the discussion centered on how difficult it is for ex-offenders to find employment. As he walked past a student wearing a custom T-shirt, he had the sudden inspiration to create a T-shirt company that would employ Dimas House residents. Others were enthusiastic about the idea.

“At the time I wasn’t living at Dismas House, but I decided to move there to learn from the guys how a workforce development enterprise could help them,” McCollom says. “I don’t know their world. I don’t know what they go through every day. Ex-offenders often have trust issues, because they’ve been promised so many things. I needed to gain their trust, and one of the ways I could do that was to move into the house.” He ended up living there for eight months, and during that time worked on preparations for the Triple Thread T-shirt company.

Like most new ventures, it wasn’t easy. And like many new ventures one of the greatest challenges was raising enough capital. The students did that by a two-month Kickstarter campaign, which brought in $11,000, a grant from the Corrections Corporation of America and another grant from the Clinton Global Initiative, which gave them the money they needed to buy their first equipment.

Triple Thread was officially launched on Sept. 10, 2010, when 300 people came to celebrate the new business and its initial employees. Since then, more than 30 Dismas House residents have been trained to work in the business. Ex-offenders stay for a period of three to six months at Dismas House, and during that time, some of them work part time at Triple Thread with the understanding that they’re spending the rest of their day looking for employment that will sustain them once their Dismas House residence is over.

While employment at Triple Thread is usually finished when the ex-offenders leave Dismas House, the company’s first employee, William Williams, is still around as the lead printer and a partner in the endeavor.

Although the original marketing plan for the company’s T-shirt sales targeted colleges across the nation, efforts have since been switched to Nashville and the city’s nonprofit organizations, schools and businesses. Mail orders, however, are coming in from places like Austin and St. Louis, and a new online design program will allow customers to create designs electronically.

The response of the Nashville community has been incredible, according to McCollom. “The concept of using a sustainable source of revenue to solve a social problem is very appealing,” he says. “It makes Dismas House as a nonprofit a more enticing opportunity for foundations. We’re saying invest in our nonprofit, and we will have returns year after year, and by increasing revenue we’re increasing opportunities for employment. We’re very thankful for the help that the Nashville community has given us as investors, customers and supporters.”

Perhaps other organizations working with ex-offenders may want to explore the idea of setting up a screen-printing business. The PanZou Project in North Miami, Fla., runs one to help rehabilitate gang members and ex-offenders, and there may be others doing the same.

If you’re considering creating a custom T-shirt business to provide employment for ex-offenders in your local area, check out the American Screen Printing Association. This association is actually a for-profit business, but it offers a series of free how-to articles and videos on its website covering a wide variety of topics ranging from how to set prices to technical issues encountered while printing. Once you establish a business you can join the organization for free and be listed in its online directory.

Those really serious about launching a business of this type, however, can save themselves time and headaches by hiring someone with a background in the screen-printing industry. Kyle says he wasted a lot of time trying to teach himself the business by watching YouTube videos, but nothing beats a general manager who knows what they are doing.

For more information on Triple Thread, check out http://triplethreadapparel.com. To learn about the PanZOu Project, go to www.panzouproject.org, and to find information on the American Screen Printing Association, visit www.screenprinting-aspa.com.

 

I Have a Bean created to hire ex-offenders

I Have a Bean employees show off the coffee they are so proud of in their roasting plant.

 

At Jails to Jobs we’re always on the lookout for employers who are ex-offender friendly, but it’s rare to find a company established with the express purpose of hiring them. During a search through the Twitterverse looking for like-minded people to follow, we discovered Second Chance Coffee Co. of Wheaton, Ill, a company whose mission is just that.

It all began in 2005 when Pete Leonard, one of the company’s founders and current CEO and roast master, led a mission trip to Brazil to help build a church. There he discovered the best coffee he had ever experience. Inspired by the fact that the farmer who grew it was able to make such incredible coffee by roasting the beans over an open fire using rudimentary equipment, Leonard decided to teach himself how to roast coffee on his Weber gill.

At about the same time, his brother-in-law was arrested and imprisoned and upon release couldn’t find a job. That, along with getting to know a volunteer at a Chicago halfway house, and a desire to expand his coffee roasting business compelled Leonard to create Second Chance Coffee Co.

In 2007, Leonard and his partners incorporated, rehabbed a commercial building into a micro-roasting plant and designed a software-controlled coffee-roasting machine to create coffee with exceptional quality sold under the “I Have a Bean” brand. “It usually takes two years to learn how to roast coffee,” Leonard says. “It only takes 30 minutes to learn how to operate our machines, but it will still take two years to learn all that’s going on behind the scenes. People can learn the fundamentals but produce perfect coffee the first time they roast it.”

With the facility in place, he began to hire what he calls “post-prison” people through his partner’s halfway house connection. All of his employees are ex-offenders. In fact that is a requirement of the job. “We look at people’s references and at FBI background checks to make sure they’ve been in prison,” he says. “In this economy all kinds of people are looking for work. Some of them apply who haven’t been in prison. They need to check that box.

They also need to be part of – or a graduate of – a post-prison program, which could be anything from AA to drug rehab or any of the available city or state post-prison programs.

From the 35 post-prison employees who have worked at Second Chance Coffee Co. over the past few years, a few stand out. “Our very first roaster, Jim, a former drug dealer in Chicago who was in prison for 19 years, now has a family and is working for a large utility company, making $85,000 per year managing mechanics,” Leonard says.

Another employee, John, is a part owner of the company. “He has done an enormous amount of work for us. He’d been a six-figure white-collar earner but worked for us for a number of months for free. His contribution was far in excess of what we’ve been able to pay him, so we gave him part of the company,” he adds.

And we can’t forget the coffee itself. I Have a Bean is now at 11 Whole Foods Markets in the Chicago area and was the No. 1 selling coffee – out of 90 different types – at the four stores where it first was sold. Most sales come from the company website, however, with the coffee roasted to order and shipped out that day.

The formula must work. Second Chance has doubled its business every year and is expecting continued growth. To handle that growth, Leonard plans to create 50 plants across the nation. “Organizations dealing with post-prisoners are begging us to open roasting plants in their communities,” he says.

Based on his calculation, Leonard says that if each roasting plant hires 21 full-time and another 20-part-time employees, he’ll be the biggest post-prison employer in the world. “We want to be an example to every other company that they can take a risk and employ those people who have checked the box. There doesn’t have to be any difference in quality if employees have been in prison or not.”

For more information or to order some Ethiopia Harrar, Colombia Antioquia Don Rigo Estate, Mexico Ojo de Aqua Decaf or other coffee visit www.ihaveabean.com.

 

Dave’s Killer Bread is inspiration for ex-felons

Dave at work making Dave's Killer Bread.

I’m convinced that there are ex-offender success stories all around us. You just have to be on the lookout for them.

It happened to me the other day at Safeway. I was in the bread aisle trying to decide what to buy, when a bold wrapper like I’d never seen before caught my eye. The words “Dave’s Killer Bread” screamed out from the shelf. My first thought was maybe this was made by an ex-offender or maybe it’s just “killer” good. As it turns out, it is both.

First about the bread. The loaf I bought, Powerseed, is all organic, full of fiber, slightly sweet – thanks to the inclusion of three types of juices – and contains countless seeds, a better mixture and more of them than I think I’ve ever seen in commercial bread.

The bread is impressive, but the guy who developed it is even more so. Dave Dahl spent a total of 15 years in four trips to prison for crimes of theft and dealing methamphetamines. Although he was trained in computer aided drafting/machining while incarcerated and thought he would continue that career upon release, the poor food in prison inspired a desire to work in his parent’s bakery business once again, as he had when he was younger.

Dave longed for tasty wholesome bread just like that baked by his father, a Seventh Day Adventist who pioneered sprouted wheat breads and was determined to change the world by encouraging healthy eating through the products he sold at his neighborhood bakery in Portland. That bakery later became NatureBake and was sold to his son, Dave’s brother.

Once released from his last prison stint in late 2004, Dave decided to rejoin the family business with his brother and was put in charge of bread development. The result is Dave’s Killer Bread. The company now makes 17 different types of breads, all organic and mostly low fat and high fiber. The tag line, “Just Say No to Bread on Drugs,” will give you an idea of just how far baker Dave has come.

His bread is sold at stores in Oregon, Washington, California, Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Nevada and can also be mail-ordered online at http://www.daveskillerbread.com.

In addition to making great bread, Dave has made it a point to help others like himself. From a handful of employees, the company has grown to about 240 workers, 30 percent of whom are ex-felons.

And my story just shows that there are job leads and ideas in places you’d least expect – like the aisles of a major grocery store. Where are you going to find yours?