Today it seems that everyone is looking for a solution to the problem of how to safely reintegrate offenders back into the community from our penal institutions. It is a hot priority issue with top government officials, law enforcement, and political figures alike. In fact, the problem is such that it is being treated as a serious public safety issue that the entire community should be involved in helping to solve, according to the Philadelphia Consensus Group on Reentry.
Some years ago, I read an interesting quote on the cover of a concept paper representing a group of ex-offenders working for prison reform out of New York which says: “The great illusion of leadership is to think that man can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there.”
I believe this quote will be helpful in giving you a better understanding of the message we bring to you today from the inmates, volunteers, and ex-offenders who are involved with the reentry initiatives of People Advancing Reintegration (PAR) and Project Pipeline To Prison Youth/Reclaiming Their Lives As Men.
What this quote means, in our unique situation, is that it takes a prisoner or an ex-offender who has been intimately involved with crime, substance abuse, prison, and the societal conditions influencing those negative experiences, to navigate a safe passage back into the community. Viewing the problem from this angle, and seeing a need to break away from a vicious circumstance of dependence, ninety-five percent of our problem was solved when we, as offenders, adopted the attitude of seeing ourselves being the problem of crime and recidivism correcting itself. It was the only responsible position for us to take in the situation if our lives were to improve for the better. And, we have indeed worked out a solution to the problem of how to safely reintegrate offenders back into the community out of Graterford Prison/SCI Phoenix. But it is going to require, in addition to continued support of the prison administration, support of the parole authority, and the External Working Group of Project Pipeline To Prison Youth/Reclaiming Their Lives As Men to make the plan we offer today successful.
People Advancing Reintegration, Inc. (PAR) is an innovative inmate self-help program I created at Graterford Prison in 1987 to help fellow prisoners prepare for their freedom in a realistic and responsible manner. With all the government money being expended for programs to help offenders in their return to the community, for us, there was only an alarming rate of recidivism to show for it. Faced with that reality, we decided that we, the prisoners ourselves, would have to take the lead in guiding the mission of reentry if we were to achieve better results for ourselves.
The internal phase of the program consists of PAR’s Day One Parole Preparation Course. The program is conducted once a week over a period of four months. To qualify for participation, an inmate must have one year left to his minimum parole date or pre-release status. The program takes 30 men per cycle.
Class Facilitation Method
The first phase of the program involves a course in Effective Personal Leadership Training. The second phase involves problem solving and decision making around parole issues. The program is taught from a PAR workbook manual, developed by prisoners for prisoners. Each participant is required to prepare a personalized Written Plan Of Action to guide him upon release. Members of the LIFERS, Inc. Public Safety Initiative conduct sessions involving its Street Peace Campaign, which offers our participants a means of doing valuable volunteer public service in support of that project upon release.
The Economic Plight Of African American Men
A wise African American religious leader, the late W.D. Muhammad, said something that is profoundly true involving the African American community that equally applies to offenders returning to the society: “Business is a need in human nature. Social establishment aspirations need to mate with business interests. If it doesn’t, then you don’t have much of a future for yourself in the social establishment.”
He continues this thought with the following: “People need a perception of themselves and the perception of the reality of themselves in any given situation. There is a need to keep an eye on what you want from yourself and an eye on what you want from America. Many of us do not give serious thought to what we want from ourselves and that is a big mistake. What are we doing about our own condition? Are we questioning it? We should support an independent effort. If we invest nothing, then we get nothing. If we put nothing in, we get nothing out.”
To begin with, in most cases involving reentry, prisoners and ex-offenders are treated like helpless children who need to have a solution to their problem imposed upon them by those who presume to know what is best for them. Their opinion is not sought at all. They are only included in the process as a type of welfare recipient.
Even the government has done away with that debilitating relationship with its poor and needy citizens. They were forced from the welfare rolls into a life of independence through its “Welfare To Work” program. Why accept anything less of the ex-offender? There is a need to place a portion of those vast sums of reentry dollars at the disposal of Project Pipeline To Prison Youths/Reclaiming Their Lives As Men. Let us show that we have a realistic plan to meet the special needs of these young men. The resource invested will have been well placed. The society would be better off as a result of it.
No longer should we be willing to tolerate going back to fail in our own African American communities where others find such great business success as outsiders. Our attitude now is that although we came to prison for committing criminal acts, we are returning as responsible businessmen determined to compete for a share of the business life and wealth of our own communities. That way we will have all the necessary resources to do it together for ourselves in a collective manner. The time is now.
After many years of operating under the harsh and punitive “Lock ‘em up and throw away the key” philosophy, Pennsylvania’s state budget can no longer afford the huge financial burden of its penal institutions. Fortunately, a favorable turning point is on the horizon for Pennsylvania’s prison population. Officials are now aggressively pursuing release policies to reduce the state’s prison population as a result of it. I believe these officials would be open to any creative ideas that would support the reduction of its prison population with viable alternatives.
From PAR’s perspective there could be no better opportunity for prisoners, ex-offenders, and volunteers. We can capitalize upon the situation by showing what it takes to make significant progress with our reentry program. It would serve as a model to effectively reduce its prison population in a crisis situation.
From its inception, the driving force behind PAR’s self-help concept was the stark realization that, at the core of those problems which contributed to the high rate of recidivism amongst the participants who came to PAR for help were a host of serious unaddressed needs they were being confronted with and had no help for what was causing them to fail. Chief among them was:
There was another serious draw back to our self-help approach that had to be overcome if we were to be successful. African American men carry the stigma of being a group of people who shunned the idea of taking the initiative to do for self. That they don’t struggle and make sacrifices in a collective unified manner in order to overcome difficult circumstances to get ahead like other men. That meant we would have to take responsibility for developing the internal and external phases of the program based on our needs so as to safeguard against failure, from a self-help perspective. Our plight cried out for it! It is my firm belief that, as inmates, we should put the essential components of our reentry model in place first to show that it can be done independently.
It is important to know that for the first ten years we worked on perfecting our Day One Parole Preparation Course as the internal training phase of the program with support of the prison administration and outside volunteers. In 1996, we began to place heavy emphasis upon establishing a business-driven Reentry Zone within the City of Philadelphia for Returning Citizens because of the pressing need for housing, jobs, and other important services that were not available to our participants upon release from those who claimed to provide these services.
Our great advantage is in the fact that we now have the support of the External Working Group of Project Pipe Line To Prison Youth/Reclaiming Their Lives As Men behind us to make it happen. Our members are enthusiastic about this approach. Why? Because they see themselves as part of an organization being established by themselves. An organization that offers security and a real sense of purpose in support of their lives in the familiar surroundings of their own community where they once failed.
Our goal is to establish a networking arrangement with other organizations and service providers to help support our membership. Currently, we have been successful in developing important partnerships with Laura Ford of the Catholic Archdiocese Prison Ministry Project and others in support of our mission. Four years ago, PAR Recycle Works was created to provide transitional employment for our participants upon release, thus laying the foundation for the business-driven Reentry Zone we envision.
We are requesting support of the prison administration for a systematic way of processing our participants out at their minimum date who successfully complete PAR’s Day One Parole Preparation Course. This systematic approach also requires support of the parole authority, volunteers, and a select group of credible service providers. By credible service providers is meant those with an ability to deliver actual services to our participants upon release in a timely fashion.
The primary reason is to improve upon the success rate of inmates who fail to complete reentry programs successfully, and to show how people fare under our support network, versus those who do not have the benefit of preparation and support.
The intent of this project is to show how important these unaddressed needs are to the process of reentry and how to solve them. We bring the issue of the unaddressed needs to the attention of service providers so that they may be included in all future considerations involving the treatment and release of offenders in the 21st century.
Most importantly, this reentry project we are pursuing would allow PAR’s Reentry Project to bridge the disconnect between services provider and recipient by wrapping needed services around its participants to make reentry work for the individual. This would permit service providers to reach the desired results for which their services were meant to achieve, while at the same time improving outcomes for the recipient. Service providers are required to participate in our reentry sessions as guest speakers to familiarize the men with the service they will provide, and as a means of getting to know the men they will be working with. Each man is helped according to his written Plan Of Action, a copy of which is made available to each partner involved with the Pilot Project..
Role Of The Prison Administration
The prison administration’s support of the PAR program over the years has been a key factor in our success. Its support has given us leeway to produce meaningful results for the prison population that has helped in our ability to make steady progress towards the Pilot Project we are asking support for today. The prison administration’s support is instructive of the kind of trust and cooperation our ideas need to be given by supporters on the outside in order for them to experience the good results we produce for reentry on the outside with their support.
It is our participants’ transformed attitudes that makes the services they receive work. From PAR’s perspective, those services are treated as a necessary and meaningful hand-up in pursuit of a goal the man has. He has a personal stake in reaching it for himself in concert with others for the bigger ideal.
Bill DiMascio, the former Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, wrote in a Graterfriends Newsletter some years ago after meeting with PAR Peer Facilitators:
“Reentry is a buzzword nowadays. And with the lure of millions of government dollars being spread around the country for this kind of program assistance, re-entry ‘experts’ are popping up in community meetings, storefronts, and churches across America.
But there is a secret to re-entry that lies hidden in the most unlikely place; it takes some digging to unearth. Several months ago we connected with members of the People Against Recidivism Group at SCI Graterford. Here is its mission: ‘To ensure that our members leaving prison become productive citizens, in control of thoughts and actions, men devoted to preserving community safety with faith in their own ability to change their lives for the better, men free from resentment and armed with the ability to distinguish clearly between real and unreal.’
That brings us back to the ‘secret’ key to re-entry. It lies inside the people who know it best – those who have lived and breathed and created the culture of crime. A growing number of long-term prisoners speak with passion about the value system that drives street crime. Some are PAR members; others belong to different groups. But all speak to the central issues with a power, a purity, and a passion that grows in the soul. They possess a credibility that is central to any effort to guide people to change their way of life.
People who profess to want to do something to end crime to reduce recidivism, to enhance re-entry should be listening to them.”
All elements needed are in place to take advantage of this opportunity we have to establish an effective model for reentry out of SCI Phoenix. We believe that by networking hand in hand in a special arrangement with a select group of sincere lay and professional service providers, this would give all parties concerned a practical example of what we prisoners would do to address reentry effectively for ourselves, from an inside-out self-help perspective. Ultimately the role of service providers is to render the support we need to stand on our own. It is our mission to create a multi-faceted Transformational Center in partnership with the LIFERS, Inc. Public Safety Initiative within the business-driven Reentry Zone we envision. The Transformational Center will act as a haven where ex-offenders can meet and be creative in their own right, with an ability to go where others can’t go in the trenches, relating to the people who are involved in the culture of crime.
We bring all of this experience with us in support of Project Pipeline To Prison Youth/Reclaiming Our Lives As Men.