California looks to increase ‘gate money’ to help people adjust to life after prison

In our ongoing coverage of America’s criminal justice system, we explore what’s called “gate money." That's the small sums that some states give to people when they walk out of prison. Advocates argue this money is too little to help people during those crucial days. As part of our series “Searching for Justice,” William Brangham looks at a California plan to dramatically increase this assistance.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    We return now to our ongoing coverage of America's criminal justice system.

    Tonight, we explore what's called gate money, the small sums that some states give to people on the day they walk out of prison. Advocates argue this money is often too little to help people during those crucial first days and to keep them from falling back into a life of crime.

    William Brangham is back now with a look at a California initiative to dramatically increase this assistance. It's part of our series Searching For Justice.

  • Thanh Tran, Returning Citizen:

    I wake up in my bed some mornings, and I look around like, where am I at? I'm like, oh, God.

  • William Brangham:

    That you can't believe that you're out.

  • Thanh Tran:

    I can't believe I'm out.

  • William Brangham:

    Twenty-eight-year-old Thanh Tran was released from San Quentin Prison in May, after more than a decade behind bars for armed robbery.

    He was raised in foster care and says he first joined a gang at age 12 looking for some semblance of a family. He's been locked up on and off for most of his life.

  • Thanh Tran:

    Like, I have more memories in prison than on the outside.

  • William Brangham:

    When he got out, he was handed what's called gate money. He, like all returning citizens in California, got the same amount, $200.

  • Thanh Tran:

    Here's 200 bucks on prepaid card. Good luck, buddy. Don't come back. And that 200 bucks, what that paid for was a meal at Jack in the Box for me and my partner and $80 worth of gas, because we know how much gas cost nowadays in California.

    And then, at the end of that, I was like, well, I got about 60, 70 bucks left to try to figure out my life for the first time ever.

  • Person:

    So, this was Christmas 2012.

  • William Brangham:

    Tran was fortunate, because his sister, Tuvo (ph), let him move in with her and her wife, and she helped him get his I.D.s and a used car.

  • Thanh Tran:

    And even with the support I had, I struggled. I struggled so much that, even at this point — like, you see me in this house right now, but I'm moving tomorrow. I have to check into a transitional house, because I can't afford rent.

    And this is with the support I have. Now imagine all the people who don't have that support.

  • William Brangham:

    Right. You're kind of one of the lucky ones.

  • Thanh Tran:

    Right. I'm extremely lucky. And yet I'm struggling. And it's like, these are the two options we're leaving people. You can be lucky and struggle to get out, or you can be unlucky and go back to prison.

  • William Brangham:

    The amount of gate money given out varies by state. Colorado gives $100. Alabama gives $10. California's $200 is the most in the nation.

  • State Sen. Sydney Kamlager (D-CA):

    That $200 was the same amount in 1973.

    So, you're asking someone in 2022 to use 1973 dollars to live in a 2022 age with 2022 expenses.

  • William Brangham:

    California state Senator Democrat Sydney Kamlager a bill this year to raise California's gate money to nearly $2,600. That's the average monthly cost of living in California, according to MIT's Living Wage Calculator.

    But in legislative negotiations, that money was cut in half to $1,300. If signed into law, Kamlager's office says it would cost the state about $42 million a year.

    What would you say to someone who thinks, $1,300 is a lot of money, and these people may have done awful things that got them landed in prison in the first place, and I'm uncomfortable with the idea of giving them that much money?

  • State Sen. Sydney Kamlager:

    I think, if you are asking folks to do their part, to rehabilitate, to reenter society, to be successful, and then you give them no financial support, even for a month, even for a month, is it really their fault alone that they end up back in prison?

  • William Brangham:

    About two-thirds of the more than 600,000 people released from prison every year or rearrested within three years.

  • Stanley Richards, The Fortune Society:

    We invest billions of dollars to build jails and build prisons and incarcerate people. We don't make the same investments to make sure that, when people finish their time, that they have a fighting chance to reintegrate into society and to build a new life.

  • William Brangham:

    Stanley Richards was once incarcerated, but later rose to a leadership role in New York City's Department of Corrections. He now works at a group that helps returning citizens. He says, increasing gate money won't solve all their problems, but he says, even if it helps some, it makes economic sense.

  • Stanley Richards:

    So in New York City, it costs us about $500,000 to incarcerate a person for a year. And it's our tax dollars that pay for that.

    Imagine if we took a fraction of that to invest in reentry. We could fundamentally change who goes in, how many people go in and significantly reduce that number.

  • William Brangham:

    Forty-seven-year-old Allan McIntosh was one of those people who cycled in and out of prison. He's been out just a few months now after serving 24 years for a weapons charge.

    He says this last conviction came after he was released back in the 1990s, given $200, but little else. He bought a bus ticket.

  • Allan McIntosh, Returning Citizen:

    I can remember buying a pair of shoes because I had flip-flops on from a guy that was at the bus station. That cost me like $30. So now I got $140 to live on with no direction.

  • William Brangham:

    He says he soon fell back on old habits and got convicted on a gun charge.

  • Allan McIntosh:

    From the moment you get out, you're already scrapping with $200. So you're not thinking, your mind is not focused on doing the things that you need to do.

    That's what I was about to say. That looks like Savannah.

  • William Brangham:

    Now, out for a second time, he's married to his high school sweetheart, Davina (ph), and he's found a new source of support, an organization known as CEO, the Center for Employment Opportunities.

    It gives people coming out of prison three payments totaling about $2,700 and expects them to hit certain goals, like drafting a resume or finding a job.

    McIntosh, who is now the property manager at this Oakland housing complex, says his first assistance check was for $750.

  • Allan McIntosh:

    The first $750, I spent on a wardrobe because I have a job now, so I got to look presentable. So that $750, I put towards getting clothes.

  • William Brangham:

    Including what you're wearing right now?

  • Allan McIntosh:

    Including what I'm wearing now. This was one of the first outfits I bought.

  • William Brangham:

    Nice. It looks good.

  • Allan McIntosh:

    Thank you.

  • William Brangham:

    Sam Schaeffer is the head of CEO. They work with about 8,000 returning citizens each year in 12 different states. They have provided this assistance to over 10,000 people.

    Sam Schaeffer, Executive Director, Center for Employment Opportunities: Those three payments are meant to be that booster that helps someone in those really difficult first three months when they're coming home, those three months where they will probably face some of the steepest barriers to reentry. It gives them an ability to get back on their feet, support themselves and their family.

  • Thanh Tran:

    It's the only home I have ever had. So, it's let's like, damn.

  • William Brangham:

    It's moving day for Thanh Tran. Even though he also got help from CEO, rent is still expensive. So he's moving out of his sister's place in Sacramento to a transitional house that's closer to his job at a nonprofit in Oakland.

    Tran's two sisters and little nephew came to help.

  • Rasheed Stanley-Lockheart, The Ahimsa Collective:

    Your room is going to be back here.

  • Thanh Tran:

    Yes.

  • Rasheed Stanley-Lockheart:

    A totally brand-new kitchen.

  • William Brangham:

    Rasheed Stanley-Lockheart served 18 years for armed robbery and was released in 2020. He's now a director at The Ahimsa Collective, a group which owns several houses like this and helps people like Tran reenter society.

  • Rasheed Stanley-Lockheart:

    How do we try to prevent crimes or recidivism from happening? And that's by helping people heal. Hurt people hurt people. So why take somebody who's hurt and put them in a hurt environment, as opposed to helping them heal, so that this doesn't happen again?

  • Thanh Tran:

    People coming out, they need some training wheels. They need someone to help kind of guide them through before they can start pedaling on their own.

    You don't just throw a little kid on a bike and say, go for it. So I feel like it's essentially the same thing.

  • William Brangham:

    For now, California's gate money is still set at what it was 50 years ago. The legislation to raise it is on Governor Gavin Newsom's desk.

  • Thanh Tran:

    All right, you all drive safe. I'm going to slide back inside.

  • Person:

    All right, love you, brother.

  • William Brangham:

    In the meantime, people like Thanh Tran will rely on the support of nonprofits and their families as they try to start their lives over again.

  • Thanh Tran:

    All right, you all drive safe. All right.

  • William Brangham:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham in Northern California.

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