Kevin Poppen offers excellent job search advice from prison

Kevin PoppenAlthough we are regularly contacted by people in prison, it’s rare to receive a letter that offers the kind of advice we received from Kevin Poppen, who is currently incarcerated at Growlersburg Conservation Camp #33 in Georgetown, Calif. And what we learned from him can go a long way towards helping those who are incarcerated prepare for their lives on the outside.

We heard from Poppen after sending him a copy of our book, Jails to Jobs: Seven Steps to Becoming Employed. He wrote to thank us for the book and encourage us to include what he refers to as a “reentry journal” in our next edition. And it’s such a good idea that we certainly will but don’t want to wait until then to share it with our readers. We decided to interview him by mail to see what other ideas he has.

Create a reentry journal

The idea to create a reentry journal came to Kevin Poppen when he was in solitary confinement. (He’s been incarcerated for 17 years.) Here’s the story, in his words:

“About four years ago, while sitting in administrative segregation (solitary confinement), I would daydream for hours and hours on end about what I was going to do when I got out of prison. For five months straight, I sat in a concrete box 24 hours a day, was allowed to leave the cell only once every three days for a five-minute shower. I spent five months staring at a wall creating budgets (all with arbitrary numbers, as I had no way of researching anything), playing out whole scenarios in my head about what I would do, where I would go, what I needed to accomplish and what might get in my way.”

One day Poppen grabbed a notebook and started randomly writing down his thoughts into what he describes as a “dream journal.” It even included a floor plan of what his future house would look like. At one point his sister sent him a box from Amazon that included a nice leather-bond notebook. About the same time, Poppen began to read Jails to Jobs: Seven Steps to Becoming Employed and three other job search books that we recommend. And he started to record useful information in his journal.

How his journal is organized

Poppen has several pages in the front of his “Re-entry Journal” for brainstorming. This section includes random thoughts, ideas, addresses and whatever. The rest of the journal is broken down into sections – housing, employment, nonprofit and social service info, and a detailed to-do list for once he begins his new life.

Where does he get his information? “Although some of the info came from the four books, but a lot of contact information and ideas I have in my journal came from years of slowly collecting. One inmate on the yard may have an inmate resource list of available services, another may have lived at a particular transitional housing location, another may have the address of a nonprofit that sends books to inmates.

“One good book I remember helping quite a bit at the time was published by Root & Rebound. (The organization’s Roadmap to Reentry provides legal information to those leaving prison.) Another way I’ve compiled info over the years is through inmate legal newsletters and magazines, such as Prison Legal News, California Lifer News, and newsletters from the Initiate Justice and the Anti-Recidivism Coalition.

Deciding what info to include

Poppen narrowed his topics down to the three things necessary for survival – food, shelter and clothing. And what one needs to obtain these things – employment.

Examples of what he included in the different categories:

  • Food – physical and website addresses for nonprofit organizations, government agencies, churches and food banks.
  • Shelter – contact info for transitional housing/sober living residences, Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) info for Section 8 housing options, etc.
  • Employment – Turnaround packet instructions, job search websites, temp agency addresses, and info on how to conduct advance Google searches and use LinkedIn and zoominfo. Also resume ideas, interview questions, a strengths/weaknesses assessment and other useful tidbits picked up from the books he read.
Further preparation

In addition to compiling the information in his Reentry Journal, Poppen is creating a to-do list. That way he can hit the ground running when he gets out.

Here’s a list of the things Poppen plans to do immediately upon release:

  1. Check in at the parole office.
  2. Visit the DMV to obtain an identification card and make an appointment for a driving test.
  3. Visit government agencies to see if he qualifies for assistance (food stamps/general assistance).
  4. Check in with residence (sober living home or transitional living residence).
  5. Go shopping for work clothing.
  6. Start job search.
Change your mindset

While a reentry journal and to-do list will form a roadmap for reentry action, those leaving prison will also need to examine their attitudes, according to Poppen.

“Their heads need to be in the right place. Whatever behaviors or ways of thinking that got them incarcerated in the first place must be ironed out. Do this first,” he wrote.

“Some serious introspection needs to be exercised. I have yet to meet someone in prison whose real problem was the crime they committed. The problem is the underlying factors that caused the behavior in the first place. All the rest is a waste of time if someone isn’t prepared mentally and emotionally. The first step to prepare for reentry is to figure out the real reason one was incarcerated. And then seek help.”

Once that is taken care of, those preparing to leave prison need to assess what their needs are. “Then I would network, network, network. Learn how to write professional letters, and go on a letter writing campaign. Write every nonprofit that deals with inmates. Ask for referrals, and write some more,” Poppen wrote.

At the same time, they should write everything down in a journal and prepare a turnaround packet. “If they don’t have enough content for a turnaround packet, dedicate some time each day (while still incarcerated) to work on the things they need to do to fill out their checklist,” he wrote.

Poppen recommends keeping a day planner to record the dates when people write letters and the dates any responses are received. Write a short synopsis of the content of the letter and its response. That way people can remember what they’ve done and tracked their own progress.

Final advice

And there’s one very important final thing to do, Poppen writes. “Anxiety should be addressed. It’s common for inmates to experience anxiety when thinking about and trying to plan for the future. This seems especially so the longer they have been incarcerated and the closer they get to their release date.

“It’s important they know that this is normal. They need to just put one foot in front of the other, and it will all work out. Being prepared is the best defense. It builds confidence and adds something to the equation.”

Reentry simulation educates participants on what it’s like to come out of prison

Reentry simulation

Participants in a reentry simulation in Roseburg, Ore., perform the tasks required to begin their new lives.

Want to know what it’s like to leave prison and begin to reintegrate into society? Is it possible to really understand the difficulties and challenges involved? Now at least people can get a basic understanding of the process by attending one of the reentry simulation programs popping up around the country.

Each program, whether offered by a church, nonprofit or government agency, is a bit different but all have the same goal – to walk in the shoes of those in reentry. And it’s much more difficult than anyone could ever imagine.

Participants take on new identity

Reentry simulations replicate in an hour or two what returning citizens must accomplish during their first month back in society. Participants take on the identity of someone who was incarcerated and are given information on their offence(s), living situation, work details, if any, and anything else they need to know. They also receive a list of tasks to complete.

The events take place in a large meeting room lined with tables. Each table is supported by a volunteer who represents a service that the reentry participants will need to access. These include probation, the court, an employer, treatment, DMV, housing, job training, social security, transportation and a community support organization. Volunteers are given instructions on how to serve the people who come to their table and told to not be accommodating.

Participants must go through the various tasks, and if they can’t complete them, they’re out.

What actually happens in a reentry simulation

Christy Grammon is executive director of True North Star Ministries in Roseburg, Ore. and now also organizes reentry simulations. She talks about her first experience.

“I was Amber. I had a part time job, six bus tickets, $200 in cash, a couple of things to pawn and was in transitional housing. Although I didn’t have a state I.D., I had a social security card,” she says. “You had to have a bus ticket to get services. I had six tickets for that week. There was a bus terminal to buy more.”

She went through a few of the initial tasks. “Then I picked a card at the treatment table that said I didn’t pass and had to have treatment. By then I was running out of time, and I had to get to my job. There was a long line at my job to fill out the entry paper work. So I decided to leave work and to go the probation office, but I didn’t have a bus ticket. So I was out the first week.”

Experience can make participants shocked and angry

Daniel Dinan, sales manager at DNS Call Centers in Roseburg, Ore., was a participant in Grammon’s reentry simulation. Like many others, the experience made him shocked and angry.

“Participants were saying, “Oh my gosh, this is what really goes on? Why are we doing this to people? Why do we make it so difficult?,” he says. “It’s a mixture of frustration. A mixture of disgust for why we treat people like this. People were thinking ‘Look what we’re missing in our community. We’re creating a cycle for this to continue, and I’m part of it.’”

Dinan,  reflecting on his experience, says, “You understand that there’s a problem, but you don’t understand how difficult it is. Once you live in their moment, you walk in their shoes, it’s very powerful.”

Do your own reentry simulation program

Anyone interested in doing a program for their company or organization can check out the website of the United States Attorney’s Office of the Northern District of West Virginia. It explains the agency’s reentry simulation program and allows anyone who would like to do their own program to download the materials they will need.

Those interested can also contact Grammon, who is considering conducting her reentry simulation programs throughout the U.S. “Invite us to come train you. We need to equip every state to do this. Even the Rotary Club and the chambers of commerce. And I’d like to see the larger businesses do it for their staff,” she says. Grammon can be reached at