Penn program helps formerly incarcerated re-enter society

A School of Social Policy and Practice initiative helps people transition out of prison

· February 13, 2014, 7:20 pm   ·  Updated February 14, 2014, 2:18 am

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When he walked into Home Depot, he was hoping to be arrested.

He had been incarcerated twice before, but only for about three months each time. “It wasn’t enough time for me,” he said.

On Oct. 27, 2012, Jose took items off the shelves at Home Depot and put them in a bag, knowing that he would be apprehended. Retail theft was the minimum crime he could commit in order to go back to jail.

“I had no choice but to put myself [in prison],” said Jose, whose last name is not included in this article to protect his privacy.

Jose had struggled with opiate dependence for the past 15 years. Although he had stopped using heroin eight years ago, he was still addicted to methadone, a longer-lasting, legal substance used as a substitute for heroin.

But he worried that the emotional struggle of a complete detox would lead him back to heroin, so he decided that he needed to return to jail to get clean.

“I told [the public defender], ‘I need some type of support system that can help me get back into society. I need someone to work with me and help me,’” Jose said. “Because I couldn’t do it alone.”

He found that support system in the Goldring Re-entry Initiative, a program at Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice. Since the 2011-2012 academic year, the GRI has paired students pursuing their master’s degree in social work with men and women who are incarcerated in Philadelphia prisons.

These student interns work closely with the offenders for three months before they are released and another three months afterward to aid their re-entry into the community. They help their clients transition out of prison, assisting in areas like employment, housing and education.

“There are social services within the jail, and everyone inside the prison system has a social worker,” Cate Collins, the director of the GRI, said. “And then there are a number of agencies in the city that are providing good resources and have good programs [for ex-offenders]. But there’s nothing to bridge that gap.”

The GRI helps connect its clients to these city-wide organizations, sometimes by enrolling them in computer literacy courses or helping them gain entry to community college through agencies such as Philadelphia RISE — Reintegration Services for Ex-Offenders.

On any given day, there are 9,000 people in Philadelphia jails, Collins said. Over the course of each year, 30,000 to 40,000 people cycle through the prison systems and often recidivate, returning to jail soon after they’re released, she explained.

“When a person who’s incarcerated is released, their likeliness to recidivate is very high,” Britney Thornton, the GRI’s student coordinator, said. “We know that each month that someone is able to stay out without returning, the likelihood that they won’t ever return increases. The model that we have walks them through [those] first three months to [help them] never return to prison.”

Jose started working with Fae Stone, an intern with the GRI, in October — three months before his release on Dec. 23. Stone met with Jose once a week to discuss his goals and concerns about reentering the community and to create a detailed plan of action to implement upon his release, which the GRI calls a “discharge plan.”

“I would look forward every week to meeting with Ms. Stone because it’s a one-on-one communication,” Jose said. “I felt comfortable to spill out and be honest, truthful. I feel like that’s the only way I could help myself do the right things.”

He took out the spiral notebook he used while incarcerated. He flipped to a page from his earliest meetings with Stone, where she had asked him to list some of his professional and personal traits. His answers were written in neat, capital letters: HARD-WORKER, SPIRITUAL, SENSE OF HUMOR, AMBITIOUS.

Jose explained that at the same time he was working with Stone, he decided to stop taking methadone.

“I detoxed right there. I went through all the emotions, the thoughts and everything in there,” he said. “I started feeling a relief. I started thinking more clearly. I started reading books and I could understand them a lot more … I cried so much because of happiness.”

Now that he is back at home with his family, Jose plans on enrolling in the Community College of Philadelphia, where he hopes to study culinary arts.

He said his greatest challenge at the moment is finding a job that will hire an ex-offender. Before he was incarcerated in October 2012, he applied for a job operating forklifts. He had experience and had gone through training to obtain certification.

“First thing they ask is if I have ever been incarcerated — ‘Sorry, we can’t hire you,’” Jose said, shaking his head. “That’s like getting shot, that’s like putting a hole in me.”

He’s confident that Stone and the GRI will help him find employment, however.

“With the program, I don’t feel alone out there. I feel like I’m working with someone who’s willing to help me and support me in making different decisions,” Jose said.

One of Britney Thornton’s clients, Cameron, who was arrested for drug charges, felt that the most helpful aspect of the GRI was “just having some help, period.”

“The other times [I was incarcerated], I didn’t have help,” Cameron said. “Britney has a nice personality, it makes her easy to talk to. I tell her everything.”

Stone explained that many ex-offenders feel helpless.

“For a lot of [clients] it’s very anxiety-producing and frightening to be out in the community. For one of my clients, I’m it — I’m his only resource,” she said. “He’s been in the system his whole life ... He feels like the only thing he’s good at is being in jail, which is not true, but that’s his image of himself. And that’s really difficult to get past.”

After 16 months in prison and five months working with Stone, Jose is hopeful about his future.

“The way I feel right now, I don’t feel like going back and getting incarcerated. I have no urges of using [drugs] because of the support I have,” he said.

“There’s no way I could fail,” he said, pounding the table with each word. “There’s no way I could fail.”

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