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Ex-con finds help to change his life

Program helps give hundreds a 2nd chance

Francisco Varela, a success story for the Prisoner Re-Entry Partnership program, works at the Southern Arizona VA Health Care System.

Francisco Varela, a success story for the Prisoner Re-Entry Partnership program, works at the Southern Arizona VA Health Care System.

Francisco Varela says he once made a living stealing cars and renting them to “friends” to raise money for drugs.

With a screwdriver, he could get a vehicle on the road in 15 seconds, he said.

He fed himself by making “meat runs” – stealing from grocery stores without ever getting caught.

Varela, 35, a U.S. Army veteran, said drugs were the focus of his life for several years, but that changed with the help he got from the Prisoner Re-Entry Partnership.

The program, a collaboration among public and nonprofit agencies here, helps ex-cons get jobs after prison.

It began its fourth year here in March.

The U.S. Department of Labor is funding similar Prisoner Re-Entry Initiatives in at least 20 states.

Primavera Foundation, the lead agency for PREP here, is helping nonviolent inmates in some of the same ways it helps the homeless reintegrate into communities.

Similar to its work with the homeless, PREP helps former inmates return to productive lives, said Joy Wilcox, advocacy coordinator at Primavera.

The recidivism rate of PREP clients here is 13 percent, compared with the national average of 44 percent for ex-cons, she said.

About 500 men and women have completed the program in its first three years. About half are women.

In January, 62 clients were newly enrolled in the program. About 100 others are in varying stages of their rehabilitation through PREP. The program is capped at 200 clients a year.

Sex offenders and people convicted of violent crimes are not permitted in the program, Wilcox said.

Varela, a PREP success story, served 18 months for burglarizing a car. He said the incarceration taught him a hard lesson.

When he got out in 2005, he decided to try to regain custody of his son, now 10.

In 2006, he said, he showed up at Primavera’s day labor program looking for work and heard about PREP.

He was accepted as a client. Today he lives in a two-bedroom apartment and works in the kitchen at the Southern Arizona VA Health Care System, “putting out food trays” and washing pots for $7.45 an hour.

The housing is subsidized.

His job is provided as part of the VA’s compensated work program.

It helps homeless veterans who’ve been in treatment for addiction or behavioral health issues learn job skills and how to keep a job.

Varela said his focus is on his son. Recently he obtained custody of the boy from Child Protective Services, the state’s child welfare agency.

PREP has local support from a high-ranking member of the Tucson Police Department.

John Leavitt, an assistant Tucson police chief, spoke at a recent community event about the program.

He said it helps ex-cons rejoin society and “creates a sustainable business model for landlords.”

“PREP can help lower (property owners’) marketing costs by introducing them to a stream of potential renters,” Leavitt said.

“If their experience in the next two or three years is they make money on these clients, the business community will respond by supporting a program that makes money, creates value,” he said.

He and Primavera staff met with “some of the largest rental management companies” here to encourage them to rent to PREP clients. He said the companies control about 15,000 housing units.

“Primavera seems to have an approach that works. It’s phenomenal what Primavera is doing,” Leavitt said.

“From any viewpoint, our community needs these people to succeed. This program offers the best hope of their success.”

Wilcox said 100 percent of PREP’s funding comes from the U.S. Department of Labor and it is “therefore an employment-based program.”

The goal is to get ex-cons into the work force as contributing members of society, paying taxes and buying services.

Over the four years of the project here Primavera will receive $2.4 million for Project PREP.

Mark Salcido, 46, supervises PREP’s mentor program. Its 90 or so volunteer mentors help ex-cons stay focused on their goals.

In April, Salcido said, he will mark two years out of incarceration. He was a federal government administrator for 17 years, he said, before a drug arrest changed his life.

Salcido served 10 months in the Pima County Jail on a drug solicitation charge and then got a fresh start from PREP.

He got a job as a restaurant cook and also received a bus pass.

Later, while in an electrical apprentice program, he decided to change his career path.

Salcido got hired by Old Pueblo Community Services, another partner in PREP, to work as an apprentice in the PREP mentor program and now he oversees it.

Clients of the program have served an average of two and a half years, mostly for drug crimes, fraud or prostitution, Salcido said.

Most are in their mid-20s to early 50s. Some have been in prison more than once.

All are looking for work and a place to live. They hear about the project, he said, through the state Department of Corrections, parole officers and by word of mouth at inmate halfway houses.

Varela, who enlisted in the Army at 19, served nearly four years. He was trained as an engineer to blow up mines and bridges, he said.

After service in Germany and Kuwait, he went back to school but turned to drugs and ended up homeless and addicted.

“I was trying to fill a void,” he said. “First I’d (take drugs) on the weekend to party. The party turned into every day and then into addiction. I gave up hope.”

His early life was rough, he said.

“My mom abandoned me (to my grandmother) when I was 9 months old. My dad was murdered for drugs” around the same time, he said.

He doesn’t know if his mother is still alive.

Recently, however, he completed eight months at his job at Veterans Affairs.

The subsidized housing is provided by a local nonprofit, Comin’ Home, which helps homeless veterans get off the streets.

The support of the rehabilitation program for homeless vets and of the staff at Comin’ Home has helped him put addiction behind him.

“I’m doing this for my son,” he said.

Salcido said helping ex-cons such as Varela become productive helps the community.

“We’re trying to get across that this population is not something we put away and forget about,” Salcido said.

“We care as a society about homelessness, about people dying in the desert. This population is no different than any other population.

“We’re responsible as a community for helping each other. By helping them, we’re helping ourselves.”

“When we help them find jobs, there’s less crime. Your neighborhood is safer.”


PREP client services

• Goal setting

• Mentors

• Jobs leads with employers willing to hire felons

• Bicycles for transportation to work

• Bus passes

• Tool for work

• Cash to get a driver’s license

• Money to attend a job training program or college classes

• Money for books for school

• Referrals to local agencies for housing and other services


Partner agencies

Old Pueblo Community Services: provides mentors

YWCA: provides clothes to women ex-convicts

Pima County One Stop: provides job search and re-employment services

DK Advocates: provides case managers to PREP clients

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