Joel McCarter, a graduate of the Quentin Cooks program at San Quentin State Prison, stands in front of Smoke Berkeley on May 28, 2019. He says one of the most difficult aspects of transitioning after incarceration is learning patience. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)
“Yesterday, it was a madhouse … I walked in and I went, ‘OK, I think I’m gonna leave,’” Joel McCarter says, laughing, about the Memorial Day rush.
“And I grabbed him, and I said, ‘No! You can’t go,'” says Tina Ferguson-Riffe, owner of Smoke Berkeley, which she calls a “little grandma joint.”
McCarter is resting his elbow on the waxy red gingham tablecloth at one of the few tables in the barbecue place. In quarters that tiny, it’s impossible to maintain much distance, and Ferguson-Riffe says McCarter is like family to her and her son, Sean Hagler, who helps run the place.
Working at Smoke has given McCarter a vital economic lifeline since he was released from San Quentin State Prison in 2017. Studies show recently released inmates have record unemployment rates, especially in the first few years. When McCarter came out after nine years at San Quentin, a lot had changed — he was in his 50s and, thanks to the tech boom, Oakland got a facelift that made his hometown unrecognizable to him. Having skills that could help him get work right away was key for his family.
McCarter met Ferguson-Riffe through Quentin Cooks, a culinary program where students learn kitchen skills and earn a ServSafe Food Handler credential. The hope is that they’ll find work in the food service industry after they're paroled. And McCarter did: first at Homeroom, a macaroni and cheese spot in Oakland, and now at Smoke, where for the last few months he has been doing everything from washing dishes to ringing up customers to wrangling the smoker, “Big Bertha.”
“I just want to work. I just want to be a part of society. I want to show people at San Quentin that, ‘Hey, there’s more out here.’ That you still can come out here and live, and have a productive life,” McCarter says.
Bosses Who Don’t Care About Your Prison Past
Ferguson-Riffe and Hagler say that hiring formerly incarcerated people involves a significant level of commitment on the part of the employer. But, if business owners are willing to embrace that, they can play a pivotal role in easing the challenges former inmates face when they’re learning to be employees again.
“When people come to work and they are formerly incarcerated, a lot of them just aren’t ready … it takes time to sink in that they have a job; they have responsibilities,” Ferguson-Riffe says, adding that they don’t always know to call if they’re going to be late or sick. “And these are things that we end up training them (on).”
In late May, he and the Smoke crew attended a graduation dinner hosted by the most recent class of Quentin Cooks. McCarter was one of four former, and now released, Quentin Cooks to come and cheer on the new graduates.
“Coming back to talk to them and let them know that, ‘Hey, there’s opportunities out there. [There are employers who] don’t care about your past. And as long as you’re willing and able to work, there’s a job for you,’” McCarter says. “That gives everybody hope.”
Knowing That I Was Free
When McCarter got out of prison, he no longer recognized his East Oakland community: bike lanes, tent villages, people casually walking on the sidewalk after dark. But the biggest adjustment, he says, was having his personal agency back.
“Just knowing that I was free — it took me a minute to adjust to that. Because I was waiting, believe it or not, for someone to tell me, ‘Hey, dinner time … hey, you can get off your bunk now,’” McCarter says. “It took me a minute to get back into the lifestyle, and not looking over my shoulder waiting for someone to get jumped or stuck."
The first night after his release, he had a welcome-home dinner with his family, including his niece and nephew, who he hadn’t been able to get to know while he was incarcerated. Now he is making up for lost time — with them and his own wife and their 3-year-old daughter.
Even paying bills seems like a luxury to him now.
“The (responsibilities) I thought I didn’t want, I’m dealing with now, and I’m having fun dealing with it,” McCarter says.
Back at Smoke, Ferguson-Riffe said they recently found out that their landlords have sold their building, and they’re supposed to be out before August. They’re committed to finding a new location and keeping McCarter on, but don’t have leads yet.
Swift real estate deals like this are another new phenomenon — like the bike lanes and tent villages — that McCarter is going to have to weather. But after all he has been through, he says, “I have faith I’ll be OK.”