It has been well documented that the United States incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any other industrialized nation on Earth; more than 2.5 million people — and many of those individuals are expected to return to prison after having committed new crimes within a few years after their return to society.
There are a host of issues that contribute to high recidivism; some ex-offenders can’t find gainful employment because of their past, or they’re homeless, or they have problems related to substance abuse. But whatever their main problem is, they need assistance from the government and community in order to reestablish themselves as productive members of society.
Several programs exist whose express mission is helping ex-offenders: R.I.S.E. or Re-Integration Services for Ex-Offenders, is supposed to be at the top of the list. But another program, with a 70 percent success rate was forced to suspend services on June 15 because of state and city budget cuts. For more than three years, Philly ReNew, a program offered by the Pennsylvania Prison Society, helped at least 400 men, all of whom were fathers, obtain employment, GEDs and change their lives for the better.
Without the $600,000 state grant, Philly ReNew will be gone. With an average recidivism rate of 55 percent in Pennsylvania, and about the same rate in Philadelphia, losing successful re-entry programs puts public safety at risk, said Pam Superville, program manager, Entry Services.
“Re-entry programs have been proven to decrease recidivism,” Superville said. “As of June 30 we won’t be able to adequately serve these men with the concentrated assistance they need. If an ex-offender finds a job but has no home, what’s he going to do? We know that cuts to these programs will eventually lead to more individuals going back to prison. We were getting applicants from the state and federal facilities who heard about what we were doing and wanted to participate. Now we have to turn them away? We have to say we can’t take them, and some of them will feel hopeless. As we speak, we’re reaching out to the private sector and different state legislators — but so far we haven’t gotten a positive response.”
Philly ReNew began operations in 2008 and took in 150 men a year, ex-offenders from not only city detention facilities but also state and federal inmates who were being released. People who were non-violent offenders, violent offenders, both men and women and, sex offenders were assisted in putting their lives back together.
Cameron Holmes, who served 22 ½ years in prison for burglary and robbery is a life skills educator and job coach for the program. He also expressed his concern for the clients and public safety.
“When I’m talking with them, they know they’re with someone who knows what they’re going through. It’s not just about finding jobs, but about teaching them to be men — to be politically active and active in their communities. They have to learn how to be fathers,” he said. “After June 30, if clients come in and need help, we’ll still help them as much as we can, but it won’t be able to be on the same level. Do we really want to take this away from them?”
Noel Ramos, one of the clients of Philly ReNew said he saw a flyer for the program on the bulletin board of the halfway house he was in. He said he expected the usual, but he was wrong.
“It was a totally different environment. I wanted to get out of my criminal lifestyle, I wanted to change my life and Cameron inspired me to do that,” Ramos said. “I learned it’s not just about having a job but about educating yourself, to constantly improve yourself. I learned it’s more than just about me. I know a lot of people, and they look at me now and see the changes. I’m trustworthy now. I know federal inmates who were going to be sent to this program because of its success. I’m really concerned about what’s going to happen to them.”
Isean McNeal came to Philadelphia to participate in the program 15 weeks ago. He said he was given a list of different programs and chose Philly ReNew. He said he wasn’t expecting the reception he received.
“It was a family atmosphere, they welcomed me with open arms, and that’s not what I was expecting,” McNeal said. “I was really looking to change my life and honestly, my expectations weren’t that high — but when I saw the welcoming I got and the doors that opened for me, I knew I could get past my old ways. We’re like a family here; I know I can call on these people for help. Mr. Holmes taught me so much about being a man. I mean, I thought I knew — but I really had no idea at all. When we heard the announcement that the program wasn’t going to continue, we were hurt. Some of the people here were on the verge of tears. I’ve been involved in other programs — this was one of the most effective ones. Nothing else was like this one. They went above and beyond to help us. I’m an advocate for this program, and the community needs it.”
Although the problems of previously incarcerated individuals are issues that cross all ethnicities and ages and affect every neighborhood in the country to some degree, in Philadelphia these problems deeply affect the African-American community to a greater degree.
Law enforcement officials across the city will readily confirm that most of the violent crime in Philadelphia is caused by young Black males with a prison record. Likewise, so are the majority of the victims, and finding ways to successfully deter this criminally active minority is a major time consuming enterprise.
In Philadelphia, the city supports an organization called Reintegration Services for Ex-offenders, or R.I.S.E., which has been in place for several years. But in an era of a weak job market and where the recidivism rate approaches 50 percent, increasing services and options for ex-offenders is always a good thing.
On Oct. 27, 2012, the Tasker Street Missionary Baptist Church will be hosting a symposium for individuals returning to the community from prison. Seeking to initiate solutions from different angles, Pastor Mike Lovett, Dr. Kay Johnson and Philadelphia City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson said the problems of ex-offenders are pervasive and affect the quality of life in every community in Philadelphia.
“Especially in Point Breeze,” Lovett said. “The Point Breeze community has a very high percentage of people coming out of prison - and in terms of services for these individuals, not a lot is happening. We think the Black churches could be, and should be, doing a lot more to help. This is a multi-cultural, non-denominational symposium. Race and religious or non-religious background are not relevant.”
Dr. Kay Johnson, who along with her husband Dr. Michael Johnson will be spearheading some of the workshops and discussions during the symposium, said helping ex-offenders become productive members of the community should be one of the priorities of the Black churches. Listed among the various workshops will be information on how to conduct gun buy-backs, women’s and youth ministries and other workshops and discussions.
“We really want to acquaint the churches about the literally tens of thousands of people coming out of prison and the problems they have related to returning to the communities,” Johnson said. “They need addiction services, their families need assistance, and the majority of them need housing and jobs. R.I.S.E. is doing its job, but we’re in a climate of shrinking state and city budgets. The churches can help in this.”
City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson said his office wants to help make the symposium a success and has thrown his support behind the effort.
“I’m a longtime member of Tasker Street Missionary and I want this event to be a success,” Johnson said. “Helping recently incarcerated people is a ministry that starts while these individuals are still in prison. We have to help them get into the right state of mind, and this church was one of those that stepped up. This is an issue that affects all of us – a bullet doesn’t discriminate.”
According to the latest statistics provided by the federal government, 95 percent of the people currently in prison will be released at some point. When they are, unless there are consistent, intense and thorough programs and services in place ready to assist them, they are going to recidivate, said Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole. Cole spoke at length during the Southeastern Regional Reentry Conference on Tuesday of this week.
“Today, some 2.3 million people – or more than 1 in 100 American adults – are behind bars in the United States. At some point, 95 percent of these prisoners will be released,” Cole said. “This translates into some 700,000 people coming out of our state and federal prisons every year. Two-thirds of all released state prisoners will be re-arrested within three years, and half will return to prison. Among released federal prisoners, 40 percent are re-arrested or have their supervision revoked within 3 years. Aside from the very serious implications for public safety, recidivism also impacts budgets at the federal, state, and local levels. Our Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that more than $74 billion is spent on federal, state, and local corrections annually. In fact, it is one of the most expensive items in any state budget. And with more than $6.5 billion spent on the Bureau of Prisons each year -- it takes up a substantial portion of the Department of Justice budget as well. The nation faces significant challenges in ensuring the safe and successful reintegration of formerly incarcerated individuals into the communities. The issues are complex and the stakes are high. But in order to effectively respond to these challenges, we must work together and engage stakeholders at every level in these joint efforts to find lasting solutions.”
According to statistics provided by the National Reentry Resource Center, nine million people are released from federal, state and local prisons every year and all will need some kind of assistance; especially in the form of jobs and housing.
“This Administration and this Department of Justice have made effective reentry a priority. We are working on all fronts – and across many agencies – to promote viable reentry programs, explore innovative practices, support research, and expand partnerships,” Cole said. The Attorney General chairs a Federal Interagency Reentry Council composed of 20 federal agencies – bringing together cabinet officials and other leaders to tackle some of the most pressing reentry challenges. The purpose of the Council is to leverage federal reentry resources and to improve community safety, help returning inmates to become productive citizens, and lower the direct and collateral costs of incarceration. In the year-and-a-half of its existence, the Council has had tremendous success in lowering barriers to successful reentry.”
Cole said the Justice Department has helped publicize resources that can aid individual jurisdictions in their reentry efforts. He said that the Obama Administration is committed to creating new strategies and forging critical partnerships that can help make the transition from corrections facilities to communities easier and safer. These efforts are aimed at giving jurisdictions the tools they need to help returning prisoners become productive, law-abiding, tax-paying citizens while discouraging behavior that may land them back in jail or prison.
Lovett said that although a great many churches in Philadelphia already have prison ministries he thinks they need to unite more and concentrate their efforts in order to be more effective. “We tend to narrow our outreach to the individual pews and we need to broaden our efforts. That’s one of the reasons why I said this is non-denominational and multi-cultural. This isn’t about a person’s individual faith but about where they live.”
The Tasker Street Missionary Baptist Church is located at 2010 Tasker Street Philadelphia, PA For more information about the symposium call (215) 389-8282.
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.”