Reentry programs push for doors to open

July 20, 2011

By Zakia Williams
RICHMOND, Va — For seven years Donna Hobson, 42, assisted clients in their recovery efforts from alcohol and substance abuse. She monitored client’s behavior and provided them with community resources. As a substance abuse counselor at The Healing Place in Richmond, she found joy in motivating others to overcome their addictions.

“I like the idea of being able to give of myself of what I know I have to someone else and to see their lives change,” Hobson said.

But Hobson’s own transitions were unpredictable.

In 2009, Hobson’s life skid into reverse when she began reusing crack cocaine and drinking alcohol. Last year on Valentine’s Day weekend, she left her two daughters, 6 and 16, unsupervised. Struck with a felony child neglect conviction, Hobson said she spent, “10 months, twenty two days and some hours in the Richmond City Jail.”

“I thought I didn’t need [counseling support] anymore. That I had arrived to this perfect place. That I could do this all by myself,” Hobson, the mother of four, said. “What I learned is that when I step away from [God] everything else crumbles.”

Now Hobson is a student in the classes she once taught.

She seeks assistance from the Offender Aid and Restoration (OAR) located in downtown Richmond. The non-profit reentry program provides pre-release case management services in all the area jails and post-release case management services to adults with a criminal conviction.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 95 percent of prisoners will be released from prison at some point. The overwhelming number puts a strain on programs dedicated to helping inmates post release.

“Some mornings we may have 20 or 30 clients lined up [outside] of the door waiting until when we open the door at 8:30,” said Barbara Slayden, executive director of OAR in Richmond.

In recent years, reentry programs have moved to the forefront of government discussions. In 2008, President George Bush signed into law the Second Chance Act that authorizes federal grants to government agencies and nonprofit organizations tasked with serving the ex-offender community in hopes of reducing recidivism.

Gary Dennis, senior policy advisor for the Bureau of Justice Assistance (B.J.A) at the U.S. Department of Justice, said the grants help ease the experience for former inmates.

“The offenders who are lucky enough to be a part of some of these demonstration projects have access to enhanced resources,” said Dennis, who oversees the Second Chance Act.

This year the government appropriated $100 million for six solicitations based on reentry organizations’ purpose. The Second Chance Act Adult Mentoring Grants for Nonprofit Organizations is the most heavily subscribed Dennis said, “because it’s the only section of Second Chance that private and nonprofit, including faith-based organizations can exclusively apply for.”

Although funds are available, Dennis said applicants have a less than one in ten percent chance in winning.

In 2009, OAR beat the odds.

Out of 507 applicants, the organization was one of 36 recipients, receiving $256,457 from the
maximum $300,000.

In 2009, OAR in Richmond was the recipient of the Second Chance Act grant. Now the organization has to cut back on some services to make ends meet.

Aside from funding organizations, Dennis said the Second Chance Act promotes awareness.

“The act itself has reshaped our national discussions about how we view people who are coming back from prison,” Dennis said.

In Virginia, Governor Bob McDonnell surpassed the talking phases. Last month he signed the prisoner reentry legislation.The legislation includes:

  • Increasing to 90 days the amount of time in which the court services unit must consult with the local department of social services before a juvenile is released from the Department of Juvenile Justice.
  • Requiring the Department of Corrections (DOC) to establish a personal trust account for every inmate, requiring the DOC to offer testing for human immunodeficiency virus within 60 days of release 
  • And allowing prison workforces to assist with maintaining privately owned, abandoned cemeteries.

One of the main goals for the Virginia Adult Reentry Initiative is for reentry services to begin the day an inmate enters the penal system.

Slayden said the legislative would benefit her clients. She told a story of a man in his 50s who called her after serving a 30 year sentence.

Desperate for guidance, Slayden said he told her, “Don’t they know that I don’t know how to take care of myself.”

Once prisoners are released some face mounting pressures from society. Many of whom may argue ex-offenders don’t deserve job opportunities, especially with the national unemployment rate at 9.3 percent according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Gwynne Cunningham, workforce development program manager for the Virginia Department of Corrections, said once offenders pay their debt they should have another chance and that people shouldn’t mistake government initiatives for “acts of charity.”

“It’s really preventing future victims,” Cunningham said. “We have to give [ex-offenders] opportunities to keep Virginia safe.”

Yet, Cunningham said she understands why some employers may be reluctant to hire former inmates. In response, she said Virginia offer employers’ incentives such as the Work Opportunity Tax Credit and soon it will join the Federal Bonding Program.

“Federal fidelity bonding is basically insurance that if an employee steals from you or damages your property, that you will be reimbursed for that up unto a certain amount,” Cunningham said.

Hobson admits the job search is daunting, but said the last thing she wants is a hand-out.
“I want to be able to be self-supporting through my own contributions,” said Hobson who sell dinners to offset college expenses for her son who will be attending Virginia State University this fall.

“I just want to be able to work and support me and my children.”

Amid government initiatives, reentry programs and faith-based organizations’ assistance, former inmates know the key to a job lies in the employer’s hand.

Samuel Brown, Jr., 57, said quoting the lyrics to a James Brown song, “if you open the door I’ll get it myself.” Since his 2007 drug related offenses, Brown said the doors remain close.
“A lot of times I feel like after I leave out of the door they’re going to take my application and toss it,” he said. “And that may not be true all the time but that’s usually how a lot of guys feel, including myself.”

Hawaii had the highest inmates release with a whopping 2,639 percent increase over 20 years (1978-1998). Virginia, known for its tough criminal justice system, ranked 25 out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia for the largest jail release percentage. From 1978 to 1998, Virginia released 225 percent more inmates, which was slightly lower than the national 263 percent average.
The data from this visualization derives from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The statistics were transferred into a Microsoft Excel document to determine the jail release percentage change over time.