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The Road to Reentry

By Arnesa A. Howell

Reentry. The word is both a source of hope and trepidation for those returning to society after incarceration. The odds are stacked against these men and women, and they need someone championing their cause, according to Rodney Mitchell, chief operating officer of the District nonprofit Reentry Legal Services.

A criminal history is like an evil twin that you can never get rid of,” said Mitchell during a panel hosted by Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.) during the 2017 Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference. No matter how many programs there are to help, he continued, an individual still must take ownership of his or her actions.

“The first step for me was to make a conscious decision: that’s not me, that’s not my life,” said Mitchell, a self-proclaimed survivor of the streets in the 1980s. With a criminal background, he today holds a juris doctor of law. Despite having a clean record for 26 years, he ruminated, that “evil twin” is still there.

Before a packed room in the Washington Convention Center, Mitchell and fellow panelists addressed the struggles and opportunities facing the formerly incarcerated while also making a call to action for second chances.

As part of the panel, “Convicted. Out of jail. Out of work. Out of prison. What’s next? Reentry,” advocacy and nonprofit leaders, District officials and lawmakers advocated for helping this population gain a foothold in the community through workforce development, an avenue to filling the skills gap.

As part of his outreach, Mitchell works with federal courts to engage with a men’s support group. When talking to these men fresh out of prison, he doesn’t play games: “If you’re a career criminal or a self-proclaimed gangster, you’re in the wrong classroom. This is for men who are trying to come home and be real, because it’s hard work.”

Advocating Solutions
For the audience, Mitchell outlined the pathways to success. Self-commitment is the first step, followed by opportunity, he said. Mitchell urged business owners and managers to open that door of opportunity by giving those returning home after incarceration their first break. “They need to have someone in their corner that’s behind the scenes championing the cause for reintegration and employment,” he said. “Because the reality is that the stigma and the discrimination that we face … compounds the issue.”

Mitchell added that there must be legal remedies in place across the public and private sectors. As examples, he gave nods to the “Second Chance Act,” aimed at reducing recidivism and improving reentry services, and the “ban the box” law, prohibiting employers from asking about criminal histories ahead of a conditional job offer. “Is that the end-all-be all? Not at all, but it’s a start,” he explained.

Finally, he urged mobilization and legislation, which he called the “perfect storm” to ensuring that “our people” have the opportunity to get ahead. “ There is no room for apathy,” he said. “We are in the fight of our lives.”

Meanwhile, Davis ticked off a list of barriers: the war on drugs. Selective prosecution. Unfair judicial processes. Together, he said they disproportionately impact African Americans, contributing to higher imprisonment rates. But despite the hurdles, Davis noted that there is progress. He praised the outcomes from the Second Chance Act, saying its grant program has benefited more than 700 groups, organizations and agencies.

On the Front Lines
As executive director of the District grassroots organization Voices for a Second Chance (VSC), Paula Thompson serves men and women returning home from the D.C. correctional jails and Bureau of Prisons facilities scattered across the United States. “We are unique in that we look at reentry at the point of arrest,” said Thompson, noting that the nonprofit goes directly inside the jails, marking the beginning of case management for those incarcerated. But VSC has a reach that extends beyond the “clients” it helps directly. “Men and women call on us, and their families call on us to meet with them and see where they are,” she said.

Thompson presented various scenarios in which VSC comes to serve its clients, more than 4,000 each year. “They can be taking their children to school and be arrested, they can be going to work and be arrested, they can be violated in their homes and be arrested,” she explained. “We are oftentimes the first phone call.”

These are crucial moments when the family connection is at stake. With no federal prison in the District, residents can be housed as far away as California, according to Thompson. “Oftentimes, we are their voice and we work very closely with other agencies in the city to make sure [families] stay connected,” she said.

And release can be the beginning of new struggles, especially for those who’ve spent decades behind bars. Getting a home, job and housing is a tall order for someone with a felony record, according to Thompson. “The system is not set up to welcome them when they come home,” she said.

Factors increasing the risk of re-incarceration include lack of job-seeking and other soft skills, illiteracy and mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from experiences while incarcerated.

As the discussion of solutions continues, so must a dialogue on the shortfall facing many grassroots organizations: funding. “Agencies doing effective work—need funding at every stream of the appropriations cycle,” Thompson stressed, alongside funding for a continuum of care that includes social, behavioral and emotional transitional supports.

From housing and employment hurdles to harsh sentencing laws, panelists detailed a series of barriers to successful reentry. With no single resolution, the complex issues surrounding life after prison persist. Still, the panel appeared hopeful about the supports that do exist—in some cases family, community and advocates for change. “We need to recognize the work of community organizations that exist in our cities. In Washington, D.C., the community organizations are the heart and soul of our efforts to combat the barriers of recidivism,” said Brian Ferguson, director of the Mayor’s Office of Returning Citizen Affairs in the District. With this office, he said returning citizens know one thing: “They will always have a seat at the table.”