San Quentin prison doesn’t seem like the type of place to find your passion, but don’t tell that to Collette Carroll. Not only did the Clayton woman fall in love with her husband Roland Peck while the two were volunteer singers at the prison more than 14 years ago, she found her lifelong goal: helping the men incarcerated there make a smooth and healthy transition back “out” when the time came.
Carroll and Peck started the California Reentry Institute, a program both inside and out of the prison, that assists ex-convicts with their transition back to society. And late last month, another one of Carroll’s dreams was realized when she opened the 2nd Chance Boutique, a new and gently-used clothing and accessory store that supports CRI and the soon-to-open Roland’s Place, a home for recent parolees enrolled in CRI.
“This is like a dream come true for me,” Carroll says from behind the counter at the bustling boutique, located at the corner of Clayton and Dekinger Roads, near Safeway.
The only blemish on the accomplishment is that Peck wasn’t there to see her success; he passed away two years ago.
But Peck’s loss only fueled Carroll’s passion into helping the men of San Quentin.
“Believe me, this is the last thing I ever thought I would do with my life,” says the petite blonde with a lingering Australian accent. “I never had anything to do with jails or anything when I was growing up.” She came from a “good family” in Sydney, where her father was construction director of the Sydney Opera House. Carroll herself has a background in business administration, and has a business as an administrative assistant to clients in the Bay Area.
But she says that from the minute she walked into the doors at San Quentin, she felt a sense of hope. “I knew that there were a lot of good men here, even if they themselves didn’t know it yet.”
Working with other prison programs, CRI helps men prepare themselves for the rigors of life on the outside. The minimum two-year program focuses on not only practical matters like finding work, but self-work as well.
“Probably 90 percent of the work we do before the men get out is on themselves,” she says. “The main thing we teach is personal accountability.”
That’s something that Alton McSween learned the hard way, when he was turned down for admittance into CRI because he was not adhering to the rules of San Quentin.
His transgression wasn’t that egregious — he was running a football pool. But Carroll stood firm, a trait she is known for along with her generous spirit.
“I had been reprimanded once for running the pool by the institution, but that didn’t stop me,” McSween says. “But it was Collette who made me realize I needed to stop if I wanted to better myself. And that’s what she’s all about, helping people find their better selves.”
Smooth transition out
McSween was serving a three-strikes sentence of 25-years-to-life when he met Carroll and Peck. The crime that brought down that sentence was petty theft, following two residential burglary convictions years before. Under Proposition 36, McSween was able to appeal his sentencing. A judge resentenced him to seven years, and as McSween had already served 12 years, he was released in April of this year without parole.
Carroll was there to pick him up from BART. The first people he met were at Options Recovery, people he knew from inside San Quentin from the ARC (Addiction Recovery Counseling) program there
“I was truly blessed,” he says. These days, McSween is studying to become a certified substance abuse counselor, and has been offered the house manager position at Roland’s Place.”I was truly blessed,” he says. These days, McSween is studying to become a substance abuse counselor, and has been offered the house manager position at Roland’s Place.
“I wouldn’t be doing this without CRI,” he says. “No one has more integrity than Collette.”
Carroll says that the three main things that parolees need when they are released is a place to stay, employment and a community. To that end, her “guys,” as she calls them, are already on their way. She also gives them a bag of other essentials, including new bedding and a cell phone.
McSween, an ex-NFL football player, is known as “Coach,” and he’s been instrumental in helping Carroll get the 2nd Chance Boutique up and running.
He has been aided by James McCartney, another recent parolee with woodworking skills and a “great work ethic,” says Carroll. Both men will move into Roland’s Place when it opens, as likely will the seven “graduates” of CRI’s first class, after the ceremony in December.
“I could not have done this without Collette,” says McCartney, called “Mac” by this friends and now-ad-hoc family. “I had never even seen a cell phone, and before I went to prison I barely knew anyone who owned a microwave. Things have certainly changed.”
His work is evident around the boutique, in the gleaming hardwood floors he helped install, shelving and even an intricately carved chess set for sale — something he made while still in prison. The merchandise reflects the care Carroll gives her “guys,” as it is all hand-picked. Products range from a $5 clothes rack to $400 shoes and clothing items. Purses, jewelry, scarves and even artwork are also available for purchase, all of it high-end at a bargain price.
“The merchandise is either donated, or bought with money we have received in donations,” says LaVenture, who does much of the “shopping” for the inventory online.
The boutique started as a partnership between CRI and the Concord-Clayton Sunrise Rotary, which is helping to gather donations, provide exposure and assist in finding jobs for men from the CRI program. Carroll hopes it is the first of several local business ventures, and she plans to open a custom cabinet shop and a landscaping business, all staffed by CRI graduates.
“Mureleen Benton, who was then-president of the Rotary, was looking for a project to support” Carroll says. “Then one day Mureleen came to me and said, ‘Why not yours?’”
There is an easy camaraderie between Carroll, LaVenture, “Coach” and “Mac” as they work around the boutique, and it is apparent they are more than just colleagues — they are a family.
“That’s really what we are about, creating a sense of community, of family, and helping these men find their passion,” Carroll says. “After all, everyone deserves a second chance.”
The 2nd Chance Boutique, 4305 Clayton Road, Suite E in Concord (near Safeway), is open M-F, 10-7; Sat. 10-6; Sun 12-6. To donate men’s and women’s clothing or accessories, call the store at 925-691-5024. For more information about CRI, go to californiareentryinstitute.org.