Giving Former Prisoners Positive Returns

Posted June 20, 2011, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

With help from a Milwaukee interfaith organization called Project RETURN, Rodney Evans got a job cleaning his church when he returned from prison at age 37 and was later put in charge of facilities.

Evans, now 45, recently started a six-month training program in the computer field and is on track to get a transitional job with a participating company, bolstering his odds for long-term employment.

Supportive services Evans received through Project RETURN (Returning Ex-offenders To Urban Realities and Neighborhoods)—including classes focusing on fatherhood, parenting, and relationships—also helped him reunite with his wife and 10 children, and today he’s an involved grandfather of eight. He also serves on various task forces to help ex-prisoners stay on track and assume their responsibilities as parents.
 
“Before Project RETURN, I was truly on a downward spiral,” says Evans, who spent 20 years in and out of jail as a result of drug addiction. If his parole officer hadn’t referred him to the program, he says, “I would be dead or in an institution.”

With Annie E. Casey Foundation support, organizations like Project RETURN have garnered city, state, and federal assistance to remove roadblocks thwarting former prisoners from becoming productive members of their communities.

Some 7 million adults—one in 32—are under criminal justice supervision in the United States, and 1.8 million children have a parent in prison. Largely because of barriers to opportunity, communities of color are disproportionately affected. African-American children are almost nine times, and Hispanic children three times, more likely than white children to have a parent in prison. Children of incarcerated parents are more likely to be exposed to parental substance abuse, extreme poverty, and domestic violence. Barriers to becoming gainfully employed and rejoining their families and communities land many former prisoners back in jail.

Coordinated Effort

The impact of incarceration and reentry undermine the best efforts of families to achieve economic self-sufficiency and break the cycle of poverty that passes from one generation to the next. The Foundation’s reentry work supports programs, policies, and practices that improve the employment prospects of former prisoners in an effort to reduce recidivism, increase public safety, and improve outcomes for children and families affected by incarceration.

As part of Making Connections, Casey supported efforts to help align the work of community organizations in Milwaukee around reentry and work with state agencies to create a “workforce pipeline” of services to help ex-prisoners reenter the community successfully, notes Rita Renner, a Casey reentry workforce consultant who has played a critical role in the Milwaukee work.

This work spawned several collaborative efforts that brought city and state officials and agencies together to improve and coordinate support for ex-prisoners and has helped:

  • Place more than 1,500 formerly incarcerated individuals in jobs since 2008;
  • Improve the Department of Corrections pre-release services like ensuring prisoners get photo IDs and social security numbers;
  • Convene two statewide summits, sponsored by Casey, to bring together the Department of
  • Corrections, Department of Workforce Development, and the Workforce Investment Board to better coordinate work preparation policies; and
  • Restore driving privileges for 200 ex-prisoners since 2008 and spearhead state legislation revising driver’s license suspension rules.

In October 2009, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections received a $750,000 Second Chance Act grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to expand its “Windows to Work” program, which offers pre-release services starting six months prior to release and includes group and individual coaching, case management, and supportive services for a year after release. Local matching funds, including support by the Casey Foundation, brought the total investment in these efforts to $1.5 million.

Without these efforts, “we wouldn’t be nearly as far along in developing the collaborative process and helping this population get connected to jobs,” notes Mary Kay Sergo, reentry director for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. Participation in a datamapping project supported by Casey that tracked patterns of incarceration and reentry also “helped us appreciate the different demographics in the specific regions and tailor our efforts to them,” says Sergo.

“There has also been a renewed interest around using data for more informed decision-making and workforce accountability, so that everybody who is involved in funding can come together and talk about results on the same level,” says Peter Zarimba, results facilitator for Casey’s Reentry Workforce Initiative.

“The Foundation’s focus on using data to track employment outcomes for returning individuals is a core strategy,” notes John Padilla, a Casey associate director. While some restrictions on hiring ex- prisoners are statutory, others are “urban myth,” he says. “People will say we don’t hire them, but often it’s a manager or recruiter in H.R. but not a written policy.”

Other states also have made progress on reentry reforms. In Florida, for example, a Casey-supported task force helped the state to become the first to comprehensively inventory employment restrictions for ex-prisoners and formed the basis for a federal law requiring a 50-state inventory of such restrictions.

Casey grantees such as the Urban Institute, Council of State Governments, and Public/Private Ventures also have contributed to the field through reentry mapping and research; a national reentry resource center; and a pilot program with the U.S. Department of Labor on work attachment and using mentors to curb recidivism.

Culture of Healing

One of the most significant roles Casey has played has been providing guidance for faith groups on reintegrating former prisoners.

Building on the strengths of faith-based organizations in its Making Connections sites, the Foundation developed Healing Communities, a comprehensive effort to help faith-based organizations support reentry. Designed by scholars in the field including Robert Franklin, Stephanie Boddie, and Harold Dean Trulear, Healing Communities has been adopted by the Michigan Department of Corrections and promoted by groups such as the Progressive National Baptist Convention, the Christian Association for Prisoner Aftercare, National Women’s Prison Project, and Council of State Governments’ National Reentry Resource Center.

The model reflects Casey’s signature strategy of “looking at the distinct strengths of organizations on the ground and how to mobilize them toward a particular social problem, in this case reentry,” notes Trulear, an associate professor at the Howard University School of Divinity. He is director of Healing Communities at the Philadelphia Leadership Foundation, which is now managing the project.

“Healing Communities has been a tremendous asset for the faith-based community,” says the Rev. DeeDee M. Coleman, pastor of the Russell Street Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit and chairman of the Social Justice & Prison Ministry Commission of the Progressive National Baptist Convention Home Mission, which represents 2,000 churches and 2.5 million members. “One of the biggest improvements I’ve seen is how knowledgeable pastors are now about reentry,” says Coleman, who notes that some 300 pastors in Detroit regularly come together to exchange information with experts and interested parties.

The Philadelphia Leadership Foundation, whose chief executive officer is former Philadelphia Mayor Rev. Dr. W. Wilson Goode, Sr., also houses the Amachi program, a partnership of secular and faith-based organizations working to provide mentoring to children of incarcerated parents. Amachi—named for a Nigerian Ibo saying meaning, “Who knows but what God has brought us through this child?”— involves faith institutions, human service providers, and public agencies working to match children of prisoners with adult mentors.

Currently, 250 such programs in 48 states have partnered with more than 6,000 churches to serve at least 100,000 children. Early Casey support and investments in a national training institute have helped deliver technical assistance to 500 sites between 2000 and 2010. The Foundation’s 10-year support for a similar effort by Big Brothers Big Sisters has also served 35,000 children between 2001 and 2010.

An Atlanta-based organization called Foreverfamily (previously Aid to Imprisoned Mothers), another Casey grantee, has provided services for more than 10,000 children of prisoners and to mothers in prison, as well as to fathers and caregivers.

With modest investments in training and technical assistance, programs like these can have a significant impact. “The Healing Communities model is relatively new, but because it has been adopted by reliable, credible organizations, it will continue to live on,” notes Casey Senior Associate Carole Thompson.

The impact is anything but fleeting for Rodney Evans. “One of the main things that happened to me when I came to Project RETURN was that I was able to vent and share and not be judged,” notes Evans. “My counselor always made me see the good side of things, and that helped me to finally have confidence. Once I saw things in that light, I was so ready to go out and live life."