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Formerly incarcerated individuals find mental health solace in unusual setting

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Posted at 1:14 PM, Apr 06, 2023

COMPTON, Calif. — Irene Arce isn't proud of her past. She served time for armed robbery, grand theft auto, and assault and battery.

“I don’t believe in that way of life. And I haven’t for a long time. You know, it’s time to make a change," she said.

Approximately 77 million Americans, 1 in 3 adults, have a criminal record. At any given time, 2 million people sit in prison. Every year, nearly 600,000 are released, but within three years, more than half of them are arrested again.

Gina Boyer, a program manager for Second Chance San Diego, said there are different paths to success outside of jail.

“People, I think, equate success to going back to work or going to school, getting a job. We’re not really addressing some of the other root causes of the dysfunction in their lives," she said.

Second Chance San Diego is among the growing number of programs nationwide that combine job training with support for healing.

Alma Backyard Farms sits on the edge of Compton. Its small staff consists of those with criminal records.

Richard Garcia, the farm's co-founder, wanted to grow produce in a well-known food desert. But he also wanted to show how it looks when those reentering society are given the space to do so with grace.

“Time hasn’t really stopped in the outside world, and I think we overlook kind of the gentleness with having to help people adjust,” Garcia said.

Arce is more than a decade removed from her past. She still attends therapy and support groups. Even on a day when wind gusts hit 30 mph, she seeks peace on the farm.

“I'm not ashamed to admit that I need therapy. I'm not ashamed to admit that sometimes I need to be in a therapeutic setting. Sometimes I need to just shut my brain off and I need to just do something positive,” Arce said.

California is blazing a path for many. The state just received clearance to provide those who are set to be released with benefits and a care package funded by Medicaid. Under federal law, Medicaid can’t be used on those in jail. California is the first of 15 states to apply for a waiver. It will help roughly 200,000 people annually.

But the farm is its own example of an evolving understanding of a massive community. There will always be paths from Compton to the coast. There will always be paths from one’s past to peace.

“I can just take a walk through here. I can prune something. I can harvest something. And that will instantly help change my around and impact my mood,” Arce said, “To hang on to hope, even if it's with your last finger, you hang on to hope. You know, hope will work itself out for you.”