"A.S.P.I.R.E.": More than a program, to inspire those who have set foot in prison in SM.

A.S.P.I.R.E.
Photo courtesy of A.S.P.I.R.E.

For men and women who have been in prison, getting out and rejoining society is not easy. They face stigma and a myriad of obstacles, so innovative and appropriate programs have been key in the rehabilitation and reintegration of these individuals in the best way with the communities, such is the case of A.S.P.I.R.E.

The A.S.P.I.R.E. model, which is the Jail and Reentry Services Program in San Mateo County, seeks to provide access to services and programs to inspire re-entry and empowerment for those formerly incarcerated.

San Mateo County Sheriff Carlos BolaƱos is a firm believer in this program, believing that public safety is based on the strength of communities. "And that strength comes from its people. 

Deputy Sheriff Alma Zamora has been an integral part of the A.S.P.I.R.E. Program as she advocated for the expansion of programs available to inmates at Maple Street Correctional Center to men housed at Maguire Correctional Center. 

A.S.P.I.R.E.
Photo courtesy of A.S.P.I.R.E.

An immediate benefit of his decision was the first graduation of a Maple Correctional Center inmate from Five Keys High School.

"The most important words at A.S.P.I.R.E. are the first two: Access To. Our job as public servants is to put in place programs and services that best support inmates in San Mateo County. We are responsible for providing effective programs and services," said Melissa Wagner, program services manager.

He added that "inmates have the hardest job," because they are the ones who must have the courage to change. "And, if they have the courage to try to improve their lives, then we must have the programs to help them, which in turn will help our community."

The Sheriff's Office offers 27 programs to its inmate population. Among them are educational and vocational programs, which deserve separate mention.

Five Keys High School provides California-certified diplomas. Thus, men and women can earn them using credits they have earned if they were previously enrolled in any school in the country. 

If they are released from prison before completing their education, they can continue their education at the Five Keys High School community center at JobTrain in Menlo Park or at any of the Five Keys community schools in California. 

In addition, an advantage of Five Keys High School in JobTrain is that they provide on-site daycare, so mothers of young children will not have to worry about their children while they are in school to make a better quality of life for their children.

Of note, the Sheriff's Office will launch English Language Learner (ESL) classes in January 2022, in partnership with the San Mateo School of Adult and Career Education. 

ESL supports the Sheriff's Office vision of preparing inmates for full re-entry into their communities and helping them gain the skills necessary to obtain jobs that will allow them to remain in the community and provide for their families.

In addition to that program, there is the Culinary Arts and Hospitality program and the Pre-Apprenticeship Construction program, both of which give inmates the opportunity to gain professional and practical experience in key Bay Area job sectors. 

Inmates who begin these programs while in custody can complete the program at JobTrain in Menlo Park, who can then be sought out by area employers.

The Sheriff's Office employs bilingual case managers who assist inmates throughout their incarceration, assess their needs and develop a program plan while in custody. 

Prior to release, these managers work with inmates on a re-entry plan that includes social needs, treatment referrals, access to social benefits, connections to community programs, and mentoring. 

In addition, inmates, once released, can receive assistance through Community Legal Services of East Palo Alto (CLSEPA), a partnership available through Menlo Park's JobTrain. 

CLSEPA assists clients by arranging job interviews for people with criminal records, expungement of records when they are candidates, and assistance with immigration status, in addition to many other types of legal services.

Participation in the programs allows inmates to earn incentive visits. Those at Maple Correctional Center can have face-to-face visits - behind the glass - with their loved ones. 

Thus, women with young children who participate in these programs, including parenting classes, are entitled to in-person visitation with their children. However, this privilege is temporarily suspended due to COVID-19, and will return once the restrictions are lifted.

"In San Mateo County, jails are not seen solely as a place of punishment. Jails are a place where men and women can access services and programs to inspire re-entry and empowerment, and prepare for a better return to their community and loved ones," the sheriff's office said.

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