Perhaps the faces of the people attending the orientation at the offices of Re-Integration Services for Ex-Offenders, or R.I.S.E. offers the best snapshot of the enormity of the problem, and the daunting issues these individuals will face now that they’re out of prison.
There were more than 80 people sitting in the large reception room, most of them Black males in their 20s and 30s. Two were Black females, a smaller number were Latino males, and one was a Caucasian man in his 40s. All of them needed jobs; some had other issues, but they all came of their own free will in the hopes that the services provided by R.I.S.E. might actually help them rise above the bad choices they made and put the past behind them.
“Obviously, this is a Black male problem, as you can see by the number of men who showed up here today. Most of our participants are Black men,” said Bill Hart, Executive Director of R.I.S.E. “To paint a picture of the mindset we’re working to change, I was up at Graterford not too long ago and I was speaking to an inmate who was obviously going through something. He was crying, if you can imagine this guy, who is doing life, crying. So I asked him what’s going on. He said he wasn’t making excuses for the things he did, and he was serving life. But what really cut into him was that his son and grandson were serving time. Three generations of one family. And the problem isn’t just finding them employment - but making them employable. It’s not an easy task, and at any given month I have to turn many of them away because we just don’t have the resources. We can refer them to other agencies, but the number of ex-offenders needing services is enormous. Look at it like this: 20 percent of Philadelphia’s residents has a felony conviction.”
R.I.S.E., though, isn’t an employment agency. Its workforce development staff works to obtain good jobs and has a network of employers for participants who comply with the program’s guidelines. First, a participant has to complete the Managed Reintegration Network. The client is assessed for substance abuse, behavioral health, family strengthening services, life coaching and educational and employment readiness. The agency maintains a network of employers who are willing to hire its clients, and the city offers a $10,000 tax credit as an incentive.
According to the agency’s numbers, the performance statistics for R.I.S.E’s 2012 fiscal year are as follows: of 2,339 perspective clients, 559 were enrolled in the program, 253 were employed, and there was a 4 percent recidivism rate.
Citywide, the recidivism rate hovers around 40 percent. According to the 2011 Pew study “State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of America’s Prisons,” the latest figures indicate that in spite of the increase in spending on corrections, many states have seen little improvement. The report said that if four out of ten adult ex-offenders return to prison within three years of their release, then the system designed to deter them is falling short.
“Many will argue that imprisonment is big business, yet what should be big with business are efforts of reintegration into society. This is the only way to reduce recidivism for our city,” said City Councilman Curtis Jones.
“Right now, Philadelphia is considered one of the most violent cities in America,” Hart said. “In Pennsylvania, Black men are ten times more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts. Does the political will exist to begin to address these problems? Well, yes, but the problem on the other end of that component is that many of these men don’t vote. Imagine the political power of those votes if these men understood we can elect a mayor or a governor. We have the power to elect a president. Unfortunately, many of them aren’t civically engaged - and that’s one of the things we try to show them here.”
Wallace Custis, an ex-offender who is now manager of training at R.I.S.E. said the issues of ex-offenders isn’t just about helping them rebuild themselves, but it’s a matter of public safety.
“Most of these men have issues that go back to their childhood, and a lot of them had no one to look up to. There was no one teaching them how to be a man,” Custis said. “Our average participant reads at a fifth grade level. Our ultimate goal here is not just helping them to find work, but public safety — because this affects all of us.”