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Behind the Scenes: Life after San Quentin

  • Story Highlights
  • Chris Shurn served four years in San Quentin Prison
  • Shurn earned a GED and nearly completed an associate degree in prison
  • He made $9 per hour as a courier and hopes to return to college
  • "Every day of my life, with or without work, I feel vulnerable," says Shurn
By Stan Wilson
CNN Producer
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In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents and producers share their experiences in covering news and analyze the stories behind the events. CNN's Soledad O'Brien and Stan Wilson visited San Quentin for "Black in America" and will have an update this July for "Black in America 2."

Chris Shurn in San Quentin

"I want to have everything that an average American would want," said Chris Shurn who served time in prison.

OAKLAND, California (CNN) -- Chris Shurn walked out of San Quentin Prison last June after serving nearly four years of hard time for possession of crack cocaine and a weapon charge. He joined the many men paroled each year in Oakland, California, where the recidivism rate is more than 50 percent.

When our documentary team first met Shurn inside San Quentin in 2008, he considered himself one of the lucky ones. At 21, he entered prison with a fourth-grade education, but left with a GED certificate and was only a few semesters short of earning an associate degree.

Shurn told us there were few role models around him as a kid. He said his father left home before he entered the first grade, his mother was a crack addict and he was surrounded by a lot of violence. Ironically, San Quentin is where Shurn met the kind of role models he said he needed to break the cycle of incarceration.

His hard work and determination to change caught the eye of Everett Highbaugh, lead case manager, for a program called Project Choice. Twice a week, Highbaugh goes into San Quentin with the goal of transforming men like Shurn from drug entrepreneurs to business entrepreneurs.

Upon his release, Shurn replaced his dreadlocks and prison uniform with casual attire and a neatly manicured haircut. He said he felt relieved after the harsh conditions of prison life, but said he struggles every day in his Oakland neighborhood to resist the temptations of making easy money by selling crack cocaine.

"I want to have a family. I want to own a house. I want to have everything that an average American would want; a good-paying job, a career," he said.

'Black in America 2'
This July, Soledad O'Brien investigates what African Americans are doing to confront the most challenging issues facing their communities. You'll meet people who are using ground-breaking solutions in innovative ways to transform the black experience.
July 22 & 23, 8 p.m. ET

But the odds are against him. Nearly 1 million black men are behind bars, an especially crippling blow to black communities, where the Bureau of Justice Statistics projected that for black males born in 2001, the future likelihood of a prison incarceration experience was about 1 in 3. They leave behind communities filled with fear, broken families and a generation of vulnerable children.

After Shurn left San Quentin, Highbaugh was in contact with him twice a week and helped him land a part-time job at Goodwill Industries. At Goodwill, Shurn spent 30 hours a week in a labor-intensive job, stacking goods and preparing them for shipment.

"I remember reading a lot of these very same books in prison," said Shurn as he was busy working.

He was grateful to have a job, but frustrated because it paid so little, $10 an hour. That job lasted only a few months.

When we caught up with him in January 2009, he had been unemployed for a while. As he sat in Oakland's Oracle Arena watching the inauguration of President Barack Obama, he wondered how he was going to help support his girlfriend and her daughter and earn enough tuition money to continue working toward his degree.

Shurn has moved a few times, but is still hoping for success, still fighting against long odds, particularly in a severely debilitated job market. He's hopeful that his hard work and the skills he learned through Project Choice will be a much better alternative than making easy money on the street -- a certain pathway back to prison.

"Every day of my life, with or without work, I feel vulnerable," said Shurn. "Instead of waking up every day and going to a 9-to-5; I used to wake up and go outside and sell some drugs and have my money for a whole week."

"It crosses my mind, but I got to a point where I'm disciplined and don't need to venture into it."

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A few months ago, Shurn was hired to do maintenance work. The job pays $12.45 per hour and could become full-time with healthcare benefits.

He says his goal is to build a résumé so future employers will take a chance on an ex-convict who's trying to recover from a mistake that cost him four years of his life.

All About San Quentin State PrisonAfrican-American Issues

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