It’s hard to find anyone who believes the criminal justice system is effective, and harder still to find someone who believes American prisons are doing a decent job of rehabilitating the people they house.
Yet, as much of a humanitarian crisis as mass incarceration is in the United States of America, an equally debilitating crisis is the one that follows.
What happens to incarcerated people when they are released from prison?
“Reentry” is the accepted term for the process of reentering society after incarceration, and Philadelphia is home to hundreds of thousands of returning citizens. As of 2011, approximately 40,000 people return to Philadelphia from state and federal prison every year, and approximately 44,000 people in Philadelphia — 3 percent of the city’s population — are on probation at any given time.
That’s hundreds of thousands of Philadelphians, primarily people of color, fighting to escape the pull of gravity — the cycle of recidivism that keeps people with criminal records unemployed, at-risk of re-arrest and eventually, back in prison.
Steps are being taken to reform the system, from tweaking the terms we use to identify returning citizens to investing millions of public-private dollars into initiatives that will reduce the city’s prison population. Although there’s work being done by government and nonprofit providers, advocates, activists and reentrants themselves say it’s still not enough.
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Here are 10 things you need to know about the state of reentry in Philadelphia.
1. This is a big space with a lot of players
The U.S. incarcerates people than any other country in the world. Yet, even though violent crime rates have dropped, the jail population continues to increase. Why? America’s prison industry is generating billions of dollars by keeping people incarcerated under the guise of rehabilitation.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise then, that nonprofits and city governments are making money off of reentry grants, too. Barack Obama’s presidency ushered in an era of criminal justice reform, and with it came millions of philanthropic and federal dollars aimed at helping formerly incarcerated individuals reintegrate and become productive members of society.
In Philadelphia, government offices such as the Mayor’s Office of Reintegration Services (RISE) aim to help reentrants find employment, while diversionary programs like Dawn Court and post-conviction programs like The MENTOR Program work to keep reentrants from becoming recidivists. Julie Wertheimer, the city’s chief of staff to the deputy managing director for criminal justice, is tasked attracting federal, state and private dollars for reentry, and a cut of those funds are allocated to nonprofit service providers in the city.
Of which there are a lot. And they have a history of battling over the same pot of money.
“It seems as though reentry has become a business,” said Jeff Copeland, a Philadelphia reentrant currently pursuing a career in social work at Penn’s Goldring Reentry Initiative (GRI). (In some ways, it has — just ask Jane Hainey, a Philadelphia mother who started a transportation business to help people visit their incarcerated families.)
Recent injections of public and philanthropic dollars into reentry have made nonprofits thirsty.
When millions of dollars in reentry funding began pouring into cities following the Second Chance Act Prisoner Reentry Initiative of 2009, nonprofits such as JEVS Human Services, which has traditionally served Philadelphia’s Jewish community, began adding reentry and diversionary programs, including District Attorney Seth Williams’ The Choice Is Yours.
There might be a bevy of nonprofits serving the reentry community in Philadelphia, but many do different things. Founded in 2012, the Philadelphia Reentry Coalition is a group of approximately 80 nonprofits working toward a more cohesive vision for reentry in the city.
Advocates who have been incarcerated themselves, such as Redeemed founder Bill Cobb (who has just been tapped by the American Civil Liberties Union), X-Offenders founder Wayne Jacobs and The Center for Returning Citizens founder Jondhi Harrell are working in political circles and directly in communities helping reentrants mobilize and get the services they need.
Women are very much leading the reentry charge in Philadelphia.
“There are a lot of females doing this work,” said Harrell, pointing to Renaya Furtick Wheelan and Petrena A. Young, the founders of nonprofit I’m F.R.E.E., and Every Murder Is Real founder Victoria Greene.
Women are spearheading reentry from every angle. There’s Wertheimer at City Hall, Mural Arts’ Restorative Justice Program Director Robyn Buseman, RISE Executive Director Ceciley Bradford-Jones, Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project Co-Directors Lauren Fine and Joanna Visser-Adjoian, Reentry Coalition Director Aviva Tevah, Chief Defender Keir Bradford-Grey, Deputy Chief of Parole and Probation Darlene Miller and Philadelphia Prisons Commissioner Blanche Carney.
Just to name a few.
2. … And with a lot of new players waiting to get in
Entrepreneurs are also taking on reentry.
Bonham Strand, a Hong Kong-based bespoke suit company, is getting ready to launch in the United States, starting with Philadelphia. Founder Jong Lee is hoping to begin in-prison training programs to turn inmates into artisan tailors this year. Upon release, those returning citizens will live and work in halfway houses, honing their skills as Bonham Strand employees. Lee has been traveling back and forth from Hong Kong to meet Philadelphia’s reentry leaders.
Meanwhile, craft brewery Triple Bottom Brewing is getting ready to launch this summer with a jobs program for returning citizens.
From the nonprofit entrepreneur side, fledgling organizations are finding their place. Steve Greenberg’s Furnishing a Future is teaching reentrants how to build furniture at NextFab (which is then donated to affordable housing units). Songs in the Key of Free cofounders Miles Butler and educator August Tarrier are working with inmates to record an album of songs about incarceration and preparing live performances.
There’s rich variety in reentry programs in Philadelphia — and plenty of constituents to go around.
3. There’s no shortage of returning citizens in Philadelphia
Approximately 20,000 people are released from Pennsylvania prisons every year. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, over 6,800 return to the Greater Philadelphia region.
Over 4,000 return to the city of Philadelphia.
“You have a carceral community, and then you have a free society,” said GRI’s Copeland.
There’s a reason why formerly incarcerated individuals do not feel they are a part of that society. They might be “returning citizens,” but many are yet to have “returned,” per se.
“I haven’t reentered yet,” said the ACLU’s Cobb. “I’m still trying to enter.”
It’s not easy. Employment is a behemoth of a barrier, but smaller challenges such as paying for and obtaining an ID are among the first obstacles to reentry that returning citizens face.
“A person returning from prison doesn’t have an income,” said Cobb. “There’s no place that expenses that for an individual. That’s a basic fundamental barrier to reentry. The feeling among formerly incarcerated people and people who need support upon reentry is that there is no place to go in the city to get your most basic and essential needs.”
4. There are costs to keeping people incarcerated
The annual average cost to incarcerate one person in Pennsylvania is $42,339, and Pennsylvania Prisons Society Executive Director Ann Schwartzman told the Inquirer the annual cost per inmate can cost as much as $45,000. According to the Philadelphia Department of Prisons, it costs, on average, $840 to keep someone in the city’s prison per week.
Those are just surface-level numbers. In Pennsylvania, counties are responsible for both court and prison costs, and since Philadelphia is both a city and a county, funding the prison system has left little room for investing in things that could prevent crime, such as a robust education system.
Arguably more important than the fiscal consequences of incarceration is the actual cost incarceration has on communities — specifically impoverished communities of color. Philadelphia’s most marginalized communities are losing the human capital pool that power them.
The impact incarceration has on the families of incarcerated individuals is often overlooked, said TCRC’s Harrell.
“Hundreds of thousands of families in the city are going through this at any given point,” he said.
Not to mention the trauma of actual incarceration.
“The misery. Your kids who miss you. Your wife who found somebody else because you weren’t there,” he said. “All the sacrifices, all the things you did to change inside — and you’re never going to be looked at in the same way as any other person.”
5. Philadelphia is making moves to lower its prison population significantly
The city has invested $6 million — $3.5 million of which is from the MacArthur Foundation — in an initiative that aims to reduce the city’s prison population by 34 percent in three years. To do that, the city is implementing programs that expedite the release process, creating alternatives to imprisonment and working to keep nonviolent offenders out of the prison system altogether.
Immediate reforms might be in probation and parole. Currently, a third of the county’s prison population is composed of folks being detained for violating probation or parole — things like missing a meeting with a probation officer or receiving a traffic ticket.
As of Jan. 26, there were 6,352 inmates in Philly prisons. The grant is nearing its one year mark.
The city will also play a part in the state’s two pay for success projects, which will be funded by private investors and enacted by Center for Employment Opportunities and Youth Advocate Programs, though the details of Philadelphia’s involvement are unclear.
“Both of these projects are targeted statewide,” Press Secretary Jeff Sheridan said in April, “and Philadelphia is certainly part of our efforts.”
6. The city’s recidivism rate stands in the way of achieving that goal
While the city is hoping to cut into recidivism rates by implementing more diversionary programs and alternatives to incarceration, advocates like Cobb remain skeptical of the initiative altogether:
Why should the institutions responsible for creating the system be trusted to properly reform it?
Skepticism aside, recidivism remains the largest barrier to successfully reducing the prison population. As of 2014, the recidivism rate in Philadelphia is a whopping 65 percent, and the three-year reincarceration rate is 41.1 percent.
These aren’t all new offenders. Judges such as Michael Erdos and Lisa Rau and public defenders such as Bradford-Grey have all echoed the same sentiment: They’re tired of seeing the same people come through their doors.
Here’s what’s fueling recidivism.
7. Employment is an issue
Getting a job with a criminal record is by and large the biggest challenge for reentrants. Folks like dog trainer Chris Catona have jumped through all the hoops and still spend years trying to find a job.
The city passed amendments to the Fair Hiring Law last year that make it easier for people with criminal records to avoid discrimination from employers.
Formerly incarcerated individuals such as Cobb, Copeland, Catona and Harrell say it’s progress, but it’s not enough. Employers are still able to discriminate based on whether or not a person has a criminal record.
So, what businesses are hiring formerly incarcerated persons? RISE’s Bradford-Jones said there are a few larger corporations — ShopRite, Comcast — but small businesses are where the real successes have been. Why? It’s face-to-face and there’s less bureaucratic red tape.
“Big companies need to do more,” said Bradford-Jones. “That’s policy. They have guidelines. That’s where we can have our greatest impact most immediately.”
Digital literacy, said Harrell, is a big barrier to employment for returning citizens — especially those who have spent long periods of time away from technological advancements.
“A lot of returning citizens, the first thing they do when they come home is go to the library,” he said. “One of the main things you need to do when you come home is up your computer literacy. The library is a great place to do that.”
Meanwhile, in-prison programs are helping returning citizens prepare for life outside. At Philadelphia Department of Prison’s Holmesburg work site, inmates are earning organic agriculture certificates from Temple University by turning food waste into high-quality compost.
Catona went through New Leash on Life‘s prison program. The same program, which pairs rescue dogs with inmates, helped his mentor, Rob Rosa, readjust to life beyond bars and eventually land a job with the nonprofit.
8. Housing is a more difficult issue
But the obstacles to reentry go well beyond employment. How can you keep a job when you don’t have a place to live?
“Affording independent housing — first, last, security — it’s really tough,” said Ruth Shefner, one of Copeland’s colleagues at GRI.
There aren’t many city programs that help reentrants obtain housing.
“Housing needs to be first. You have guys who really want to break out of a community of violence and they can’t,” Shefner said. “I’ve not seen a lot of work at the intersection of housing and criminal justice in this city.”
9. … As is the child welfare system
Housing might be underlooked, but so are the factors that lead to incarceration in the first place. Advocates argue that while there are plenty of services for reentrants in Philadelphia, there has not been enough attention paid to the children and youth who are most likely to come in contact with the criminal justice system.
The city has seen a recent focus on improving the child welfare system from folks such as Bradford-Grey, Stoneleigh Foundation fellows such as Rhonda McKitten and Dominique Mikell and nonprofit leaders such as Simran Sidhu.
But with so many people working on reentry from so many angles, who’s actually leading the fight for reform?
10. There is no “face of reentry” in Philadelphia. That’s a good thing
In short? No one person. And it might be better that way.
“People who want to be the face of reentry, spokesperson for the masses — those folks are worried about themselves and not the community,” Harrell said.
There are leaders in reform, for sure. Reentry Coalition’s Tevah, for example, might be seen as a leader for the work she does corralling efforts. Bradford-Grey might be the defender reentrants look up to, and Cobb might have his hands in everything. But none of them would tell you they’re leading the fight themselves.
“Systemic change happens through coalition and partnerships,” said Cobb. “I am delighted that I have quality working relationships with so many individual leaders, but there’s a collective face in the reentry fight. It’s about coalitions and organizations.”
One thing is for sure: The people who are indeed leading the collective fight are women and formerly incarcerated individuals. Not politicians.