Giving Former Prisoners Positive Returns

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

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.”

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