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Second Chance Month

Formerly Incarcerated Individuals Are Giving Hope to Those Imprisoned in California’s Criminal Justice System

By building a community of formerly imprisoned individuals and providing resources, ARC is demonstrating to people impacted by incarceration that second chances and redemption are possible.

Sam Lewis is executive director of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition. (Photo courtesy of Anti-Recidivism Coalition)

Since it was founded in 2013, the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC) has grown from a peer-support network of a couple dozen people to an organization that serves over 10,000 currently and formerly incarcerated individuals across the state of California. With programming ranging from housing assistance to job training and mentorship initiatives, ARC is working to end mass incarceration in California and ensure that people can thrive once they go home. 

ARC has also experienced great success in leading the passage of numerous California criminal justice reforms over the past decade. By embracing the beliefs that those directly impacted by the justice system should be the ones to transform it and that currently and formerly incarcerated people should be treated with dignity and respect, the organization has helped pass 33 pieces of legislation.

Arnold Ventures sat down with Sam Lewis, executive director of ARC, to discuss his organization’s work, his own experience with the justice system, and why we need to do a better job providing second chances for people involved with the justice system. This interview is part of an ongoing Second Chance Month series highlighting leaders working to provide opportunities for redemption, rehabilitation, and restoration for those with a criminal record. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

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Arnold Ventures

Tell us about your work at ARC

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Sam Lewis

We provide all of the services necessary for people who are returning home from incarceration. We do this by providing resources, including everything from therapy, rehabilitative programming, access to careers, jobs, housing, and opportunities to build a more just and fairer legal justice system. Through our advocacy work, we’ve managed to pass 33 pieces of legislation, including three statewide initiatives in conjunction with other organizations in the state of California.

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Arnold Ventures

How did you come into this line of work, and what brought you to ARC?

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Sam Lewis

My pathway to ARC begins with the fact that I was incarcerated. I was a teenager in Los Angeles when Los Angeles was considered the gang capital and the murder capital of the nation. This was during the height of what we now call the crack epidemic in our inner cities. I was 16 years old, and by then I had been shot twice, stabbed once, my mother’s house had been shot up, and I was deeply immersed in a gang culture. When I was 18, I committed a horrible crime and was sentenced to life in prison. 

When I entered prison, I was a high school dropout who could barely read or write. I didn’t have hope for a pathway to a different future, at least not from where I stood. My daughter, who was born a month after my arrest, became an impetus for my desire to change. About seven years into my prison sentence, my daughter came to visit me. I got to hold my daughter for the first time in a prison visiting room, and I got to bond with her. 

And that made me want to change. It didn’t happen overnight. Twenty-four years later, I was released by the Department of Corrections after nine parole board hearings. I walked out wanting to change how the system worked. I wanted to show young people like me caught up in gang culture that there is a different pathway. When I came home, I didn’t know how to make that happen, but I knew this is what I wanted to do. And I met the right people that introduced me to the right people. 

At first, I started helping people find jobs. And then I was introduced to Scott Budnick, who was just starting ARC. About a year and a half after ARC was started, I joined as its first life coach. I’ve been with the organization almost eight years now and have been the executive director for close to three years.

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Arnold Ventures

Your story features a lot of people willing to support you and give you another chance after your return from incarceration. What does providing second chances to people involved in the justice system mean to you? What kind of support is most important to provide to people so they can have another chance at being successful?

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Sam Lewis

I think one is just having people who believe in you and who want to see you succeed. For me, I have my mom, and my mom always told me to pursue my education. I think that was part of what helped me. It’s important for people in our justice system to know that there’s another pathway, that redemption is possible, and that there’s reason for them to have hope. ARC gives them hope by not just telling them there is a pathway, but that we’ll walk with them down that pathway to find a second chance and demonstrate that redemption is possible. Having formerly incarcerated people go into prisons (to conduct programming and speak about their life after release) throughout the state of California creates the hope. 

I believe we’ve been so successful because our advocacy work is led by our membership — formerly incarcerated people — and we speak from the lens of lived experience.
Sam Lewis executive director, Anti-Recidivism Coalition
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Arnold Ventures

Where do you find the biggest challenges to accomplishing your mission? 

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Sam Lewis

Because the system that we’re trying to change has been around for so long and because it’s such a vast system, I think the greatest barriers that I’ve found are resources. For example, our pre-apprenticeship program has now placed over 250 people into union jobs and has a 71% placement rate. It cost about $250,000 per cohort, and we’ve had 14 cohorts of roughly 20 people each. This is just for LA County and Orange counties. This is just a drop in a bucket. Securing the resource and partnerships to scale that across the state of California is something that is a huge barrier. 

Another example of what resources can do well involves our hope and redemption team, which formed in 2017. California at the time had 34 prisons, and we got grant funding to provide rehabilitative programming in nine of those prisons. The programs were so successful that the state of California then funded us over three years, $10.5 million to provide these programs in all of the state’s prisons. These resources allowed us to be able to expand and provide these programs to all people that are in the California Department of Corrections. 

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Arnold Ventures

You listed an impressive list of legislation that ARC has helped pass in California. Why have you been so effective? What kind of coalitions and arguments have helped push through these reforms?

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Sam Lewis

I believe we’ve been so successful because our advocacy work is led by our membership — formerly incarcerated people — and we speak from the lens of lived experience. One of our bills that we passed not too long ago had to do with Miranda rights for juveniles. The people who led the advocacy work to get this passed were some of our members who as juveniles were actually forced to confess to crimes that they hadn’t committed, because they didn’t have the protections of Miranda rights. 

They sat in front of legislators and said, I was interrogated for 14 hours, and I just wanted to go home. I said what the police officers wanted me to say, and later I was exonerated.” These lived experiences clearly demonstrate that our youth need to have the same protection as adults when it comes to Miranda rights. The lived experience, testimony, and advocacy of our members who were formerly incarcerated has driven our success in passing reforms.

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Arnold Ventures

Your example of juveniles being afforded Miranda rights seems like a commonsense issue. Why do you think we have so many policies in place where most people, if they knew about them, wouldn’t support them?

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Sam Lewis

California is different from many states, in the sense that now that we have this really robust advocacy community and so many more people are aware of the various laws that affect our communities. But imagine, oftentimes, laws are passed by a policymaker, a state legislator, or a state senator, based on his or her opinion. It’s a piece of paper, but people rarely stop to look at what is the impact of the human beings. For example, even with the case of the Central Park Five, New York still doesn’t have a Miranda rights bill for juveniles. How do you allow that to happen to our most vulnerable population? I think, awareness, and also the willingness of those who have lived through it and have the experience to step forward is the key to change. We need people to say, I’m willing to put myself forward and share with you what my experience has been because we need change.”

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