One man’s fight against recidivism in Santa Clara County
Johnny Lee Clarke trains inmates in computer network systems. At the program's conclusion, graduating students receive a certificate from Cisco Network Academy and an apprenticeship with CityLab partners. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

    For Johnny Lee Clarke, preventing former inmates from returning to jail is personal.

    Clarke, 59, spent six years in federal prison for hacking into bank accounts and writing $22,000 in bad checks when he was 24. He turned his life around and endeavors to do the same for others.

    Through his company CityLab Professional, Clarke teaches technical training at Elmwood Correctional Facility to 32 men and women 12 weeks prior to their release. His wife, Loree Davila, acts as the company’s chief of staff and runs its state-certified apprenticeship program. 

    Clarke’s goal is to prevent recidivism and give inmates hope for a better future.

    “The key is when no one comes back,” he said. “When no one comes back, that’s when I know I’m successful.”

    Johnny Lee Clarke and Loree Davila teach computer networking classes to inmates at Elmwood Correctional Facility. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

    CityLab Professional provides education in computer network systems to incarcerated individuals while they’re in jail and after their release. At the end of the program, graduates receive a certificate from Cisco Network Academy and an apprenticeship with CityLab partners such as USR Builders. In addition to a job, former inmates receive help with housing and mortgage qualification through Bank of the West.

    Clarke said a lack of employment and housing tops the list of reasons for recidivism. He regularly meets with tech companies trying to leverage jobs for his students.

    The classes provide inmates with skills, confidence and motivation, helping them successfully re-enter society, Clarke said.

    “When you see yourself on the other side of this wall and you understand there is so much more of value you can take with you this time, maybe it keeps you from coming back again,” he told his students during San José Spotlight’s visit to the jail. “You have the credentials of Cisco behind you. You have a basic understanding of how things work. Adjust your trajectory to another place, the freedom side of this wall.”

    Johnny Lee Clarke develops a rapport with his students. His goal is zero recidivism. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

    Inmate Jessica Le said the program is helping her be a better person.

    “I have a daughter, 8, and I’m tired of coming in and out of jail,” Le said. “You can learn from your mistakes. Like Johnny said, ‘It doesn’t matter what you did in the past, it’s what you do about it now.’”

    Chelsea Carrillo, who has a 2-year-old daughter and 9- and 10-year-old sons, said this class is important to her because she’s struggled with recidivism.

    “Learning this stuff and knowing I have a possible future where I can provide for myself and my kids is huge,” Carrillo said. “If I had that, I wouldn’t keep coming back to jail because I wouldn’t have to resort to things that brought income that were not legal.”

    Clarke said for him, teaching is a calling. He said his mother and brothers taught him to dream and not give up. And he’s driven to be an example to his children.

    He and Davila have visited the jail twice a week since mid-December. They suggest students seek work installing smart home appliances with Best Buy’s Geek Squad or start their own Geek Squad for Walmart. 

    “If you can learn to do it, you have value to the community,” Clarke told his students. “The tech world accepted me, and it will accept you. It’s not about where you were yesterday, it’s about can you get the network working right now.”

    Inmate students at Elmwood Correctional Facility learn vocational training in Clarke’s class. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

    Jennifer Brook, rehabilitation officer at the Elmwood jail, said the class helps students become employable and builds their self-esteem. Continuing the class outside of custody provides them with a support system, she added. 

    “You know what’s waiting for you,” she said. “And you know there’s opportunity.”

    Resident Officer Chuck Otakpor said he can tell Clarke has a passion for teaching at the jail.

    “When you believe in something that you’re doing, students absorb it,” he said.

    Inmate Jeffrey Drake said the class is motivational and a step in the right direction.

    “It’s inspiring to hear from a teacher who has the same background as us and has made it,” Drake said. “It’s like a light at the end of the tunnel.”

    For many, the program gives them something to look forward to.

    Terrence Arnold said he appreciates Clarke and Davila sacrificing their time to teach in the jail.

    “Being that I’m in jail, not too many people have the opportunity to have this level of training,” Arnold said. “It keeps me sharp and gives me prospects. So, when I get out of here, I have something to look forward to.”

    Clarke said he can feel his student’s excitement.

    “This is what it’s all about,” he said. “The goal of this class is to give them the confidence to stay on the other side of the wall and give them the tools and the resources to do that.”

    Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

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