BETA

Life with parole

Graphic by Claire Sheen

When Governor Dannel Malloy first announced his Second Chance Initiative in December, Dan Jusino was skeptical. Malloy argued that by diverting ex-offenders into programs of “rapid attachment” to the workforce, he could lower the high rates of prison reentry—also known as recidivism—in New Haven.  There was a time when Jusino would have agreed with him. But after 30 years evangelizing the rapid attachment approach, Jusino has had a change of heart.

In his opinion, “work is not the goal here: the goal is to become a citizen.” To prove his argument, he’s built EMERGE, a new program to address the true challenges people face after leaving prison. EMERGE is essentially a job agency: it receives work orders from community organizations that are then filled by ex-offenders. They make $10 an hour refurbishing blighted houses, gaining work experience in the construction trade. Eventually, they will move on to more permanent jobs. But along the way, EMERGE shepherds recently-released inmates towards true reintegration, chipping away at the mental blocks and social ties that could cause them to reoffend. EMERGE is in the vanguard of a new wave of social programs that elevate mental health and personal growth above interview preparation and résumé editing, the bread and butter of rapid attachment.

The problem these programs face seems insurmountable. Despite the best efforts of a constellation of social organizations, New Haven’s prison reentry system is fundamentally broken. According to the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, 79% of formerly incarcerated men are re-arrested within five years. 50% of released prisoners are arrested on a new charge. This fatal cycle of incarceration, release, and arrest shatters communities and comes with a billion-dollar price tag.

Jusino usually deemphasizes statistics—after all, it’s hard to quantify personal growth—but he has one in particular to be very proud of: EMERGE graduates have a recidivism rate of just 16%, nearly five times lower than the average rate in New Haven. The first two minutes with Jusino makes it clear how EMERGE has achieved something so remarkable. He cuts through conversations with a combination of straight talk and deep empathy, qualities that form the core of EMERGE’s programming. Jusino wants his mentees “to be able to look at another man and say ‘I love you.’ Have you ever tried doing something for someone else without getting the credit? You get emotional. It’s better than all that crack you’ve been smoking.”

EMERGE focuses on the past fears and lived experiences of its members. That’s likely the reason why it’s been so successful. “What’s different about us from a lot of other workforce programs is that we try to work with the individual as a human being,” Jusino said. “When I have men and women sitting around this table, talking about violence, being sexually abused, abandonment, and fear, they’re trying to build a relationship with the one thing that’s always been foreign to them: honesty. That’s where our success is.”

The program’s intensely personal approach draws from the deep passion and commitment of its employees. At EMERGE, Jusino provides the vision, but people like Alden Woodcock execute it. “I do something rare for New Haven nonprofits—I fire people,” Jusino said. “It’s really fucking rare. So you know Alden was the perfect candidate: competent, bright, and knew absolutely nothing about re-entry. He brought no bad habits.”

Woodcock is the director of program services and the architect of EMERGE’s literacy program. Slight, with thick-framed glasses, he’s constantly reminded that he’s a “white boy” working a system that disproportionately processes Black and Latino men. But he’s earned respect by driving the success of EMERGE’s keystone programs.

Other literacy programs are often group-based, but Woodcock and his volunteers work one-to-one. Their approach gets results: 86 percent of the people involved in the program for 40 hours move up a minimum of one grade level. Ex-offenders in group-based programs often take 18 months to achieve the same success. “And that’s just the measured outcome,” Woodcock explains. “The great thing is that these guys are finishing what they started. After this, they’re more inclined to go back to school.”

Here, Jusino interjects, clearly conscious that Woodcock is underselling his accomplishments. Pounding on the table, Jusino booms with pride: “He’s white. He didn’t come from the experience these men have had. Intellectually, he knows, but emotionally, he doesn’t. With this program, Alden’s been able to get [ex-cons] over one of their greatest fears. They’re not afraid to take a bullet, they’re not afraid to do a drive-by, but they’re afraid of these social rites of passage. Education—this is the stuff that drives fear. Once they get through that, you’re looking at a different person.”

***

In a converted industrial garage on Grand Street, Diego slowly pecks at a computer keyboard. Bookish and soft-spoken, he speaks gently, considering each word. Released from prison five years ago, he’s a recent graduate of EMERGE who’s come back to get some help applying for jobs. When he got out of prison, he quickly fell back into the same patterns that landed him there in the first place. Now, he’s focused on doing better for his son. “I just want him to see me being up for work. The things I went through—I want to do everything I can for him so he doesn’t have to go through that,” Diego said. These days, he’s been working with Yale’s Urban Resources Initiative, planting trees across New Haven while learning the basics of landscaping.

As Diego continues his job search, Woodcock, sitting at the meeting table that dominates the EMERGE office, explains why Diego’s work has been doubly important. “This contract with Yale breaks down barriers. There’s a crew of six guys planting trees with Yale Forestry interns. On a social level, it’s huge for the city.” Mark Wilson, rifling through papers on the other side of the table, nods in agreement. He chimes in: “Seeing that there’s a group of people who don’t look like them, who don’t run in the same circles as them, but who care about them—it has a tremendous effect on these guys.”

Wilson is EMERGE’s program manager, splitting his time between teaching practical and social skills to the organization’s participants. A carpenter by trade, he’s in charge of getting people through the door with a job offer, then getting them to buy into the personal development programming. Like Jusino, Wilson doesn’t have a lot of faith in programs that take only employment as their end goal. In his opinion, a job has never kept anyone from making a bad decision. Nearly 75% of people who pass through his office held a job before going to prison. To him, “the work is not the focus. It’s a very important component, but it’s the behavioral health and personal development programs that keep people out of trouble.” He’s most proud of his “real talk” program, group therapy sessions that let participants become resources for each other and gives them an outlet for the day-to-day stresses of life.

To Wilson, there’s something deeply affecting about the work he does: program participants “return to the same communities they might have been selling drugs in, and they’re literally rebuilding them.” For EMERGE, which mostly relies on word-of-mouth recruitment, it’s a win-win. Seeing people who used to be “heavily in the streets” working to better the community encourages others to come in. “People will say ‘If that guy can get a job, I know I can do it, because I was never in it as crazy as him,’ ” said Wilson.

Woodcock and Wilson both view community visibility and the Real Talk program as core elements of EMERGE’s anti-recidivism strategy. In their experience, people commit crimes because of childhood trauma that often goes unresolved. Peeling back the layers behind this trauma is the goal of the work they do each day. “We as a society need to look at the kind of people that are exiting our prisons,” Woodcock explains. “They’re even more broken and misguided than when they went in.” And when they leave prison—in New Haven, this usually means being dropped off on State Street with a box of personal belongings—they’re shoved back into the same environments that provoked them into committing a crime in the first place. “Even if you get a job, you’re expected to perform better than someone who hasn’t been incarcerated because you have something to prove. Add that to the pressures of the stipulations of your parole or probation, the mistrust of the family members you’ve been reunited with—of course you’re going to reoffend!” says Woodcock. He paints an all-too-believable picture of the road to recidivism in New Haven: “There are people just waiting for you to get out, hand you a package, and get you back into the life. That’s something you always know you can do if you’re getting out of jail.”

These easy pathways back to crime cast doubt on the success of efforts to lower minimum sentences for nonviolent crime. In a reentry system that is already stretched to its limits, which fails nearly 80% of its users, what will be the effect of simultaneously releasing all of these people from prison? Without a plan, Woodcock argues, it’s likely that they’ll find their way back in front of a judge.

The high rate of recidivism comes at a price for everyone in Connecticut, not just those within the communities torn apart by the cycle of crime and reentry. It costs nearly $60,000 a year to house an inmate in a Connecticut prison. Putting someone through EMERGE costs only $8,000. “That’s the heart of social entrepreneurship,” Wilson said. “We can get this guy out on the streets, get him a job, make him a taxpayer again. And private citizens could invest their money and see a real return.” Wilson and Woodcock are quick to push EMERGE’s fundamental identity as social entrepreneurship as evidence for its scalability, but it’s unclear if EMERGE derives its success from its techniques or its employees. Many of its programs were adapted from successful reentry initiatives elsewhere—most notably San Francisco’s Delancey Street Foundation.  But what sets EMERGE apart and what gives it its strength are the people who care so deeply about it.

Sean Moore, DC ‘17, a volunteer at EMERGE who has spent nearly five years working on reentry programs in New Jersey, outlined what he considers the major issues in New Haven’s existing system: “Reentry is myopically focused on jobs and housing, which are immediate, important needs. Programs don’t focus on reconciliation between families, and they don’t focus on creating a social support network.” In his view, failures in the reentry system most often occur because of lapses in communication between nonprofits, the city, and the state and federal court system. Moore often appears in court with EMERGE participants facing imprisonment for failure to pay child support, adjusting their payments to match their incomes. For Moore, the experience revealed deep disconnects within the post-prison criminal justice system: “I’ve been in front of three judges” said Moore. “None of them really knew what EMERGE was.” Thanks to EMERGE’s legal assistance, at least, all fathers in the program pay some form of child support.

The thorny institutional processes surrounding child support payments is a cause of a surprising amount of recidivism, even among EMERGE members. “Most of these guys start a job, and suddenly get a garnishment from the government, and they quit. Or they get fired because the employer doesn’t want to deal with the paperwork,” Wilson explains. From across the room, Woodcock adds: “Or one week you’re making $300, and the next week you’re making $150. It totally removes the incentive to work. Most guys just say ‘forget it,’ and end up back in prison or in the streets.”

And the cycle repeats.

***

Programs like EMERGE are self-selecting: those who voluntarily enter them are likely those who are the easiest to help, since they’ve taken the first positive steps towards reintegration. But what of the people who will not—or cannot—seek programs like these? Justino is quick to emphasize the role mental health and trauma play in recidivism and criminality. As he explains, “today they call it ACEs—Adverse Childhood Experiences—but we’ve been dealing with this shit like forever. We called it unresolved childhood traumas: growing up poor, growing up black, or growing up under alcoholics.” It turns out that group therapy works wonders for this type of mental illness. But where is the support system for the more seriously mentally ill—those suffering from conditions, like schizophrenia, that require clinical management?

Mark Costas, a postdoctoral associate with the Yale Program for Recovery and Community Health, researches the interactions between those with serious mental health issues and the courts. He’s Brazilian, and seems to view the American system of mass incarceration with equal parts incredulity and contempt.  As he explains, 20% of people inside the prison system have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness, and in Connecticut, many of them end up inside Garner Correctional Institution, just outside of New Haven. “There, they have more of a psychiatric approach, but it’s still not total recovery. How could you ever do that in prison?” Costas asks. “It’s very difficult for someone who came from a broken family or had serious challenges in school to be a perfect citizen. But we expect that of them. If you go from 10 violations to five, it’s a huge progression that we should celebrate. But no, even if you went from 10 to one, it’s as if you had 10 again.”

For Costas, the system fails the mentally ill most in its treatment of addiction. He lambasts the perspective that addiction is a crime, rather than a medical issue to be addressed. “Criminalizing addiction does no good. It puts a lot of people with mental illnesses inside prison, who tend to have much more difficulty coming out of prison. The parole boards are much more strict. So a person with a mental illness will serve double the time as a person without a mental illness. Why is that? Are they more dangerous? No. The crime is the same crime.” And once the seriously mentally ill leave prison, they often have additional difficulties reintegrating into society. Of the seriously mentally ill ex-offenders who would like to work, only 2.5% are able to find employment. The rest are likely to end up back in prison, snatched off the New Haven Green and dumped back into the criminal justice system.

In New Haven, the seriously mentally ill who would like to work after leaving prison often end up at CHOICE. It’s their only option, actually—CHOICE is the sole organization in town that offers supportive employment programs for people with both a criminal record and serious mental health issues. As Ann Tramonta-Lee, program director for CHOICE, explains, “we look at people as individuals rather than just lump them all into a prescribed program that may or may not be successful. You may reach just one person, and that is your success.” CHOICE follows a model—IPS, short for Individual Placement and Support—that focuses on individualized assessment, placement, and ongoing mental health counselling. As Costas explains, “with IPS, you’re ready for a job on day one. Even if you’re symptomatic, if you want to work, you’re ready. A lot of research shows that fast placement into something you want to do improves stability. But it doesn’t work effectively for populations that are also discriminated against, like the people who go through the prison system.” While it is illegal to ask about a mental illness in the hiring process, it’s easy to infer its presence through unexplained gaps in an employment history. And it’s impossible to dodge a criminal record: nearly every employer asks about past convictions directly and conducts a background check.

Mentally ill ex-offenders are helped by programs like CHOICE, but they are still round pegs in a system built out of square holes. As Sean Moore explains, “Overwhelmingly, they fall through the cracks. I mean, overwhelmingly. A lot of the guys I dealt with were getting out of psychiatric institutions and didn’t have access to medication, or there was no way to be sure they were on it if they had access.” More fundamentally, argues Moore, if you grow up in a community where you’re conditioned not to talk about these types of issues, there’s a very low chance you’ll seek help.

Tramonta-Lee has a more jaded view of the process. “Look at what the landscape looked like before [the state] started moving away from residential mental health systems and towards community-based care. We had a higher number of people in the institutional mental health system, and fewer numbers of people in the prisons. And now that balance is shifting.” In truth, this trend is not that surprising. Many of the seriously mentally ill function best in highly structured environments, and for some people, “thriving without that structure is really hard. So they do things to get back into that structured system,” said Tramonta-Lee. “But that’s probably a small percentage of the population.”

Frequently, mentally ill ex-offenders have no special accommodations in the reentry process—they are left drifting, with no place to go and nobody to turn to. Costas sighs as he recounts the typical first day for the people his study follows: corrections officers “take you right to the Green. They say: ‘Here are your belongings, your belongings are in this box, you are on the Green or right in front of Elm Street Church and—goodbye! And now you have to present to your parole officer in a specific amount of time, and you’ll need a place to live, and you’ll need an income.’” More often than not, these ex-offenders’ mental health issues are intertwined with addiction. Homeless on the green, these people become some of the most vulnerable citizens in New Haven. Many of them are under parole agreements that stipulate they undergo blood testing to ensure they are taking their psychiatric medication. If they test positive for illegal drugs, they are immediately sent back to prison. “There is no harm reduction approach. It doesn’t matter if you’re back using [illegal] drugs 24/7 or just have taken one dose. You’re not celebrating progress—you’re just punishing,” said Costas.

Programs like CHOICE push the prison reentry process away from punishing failure and towards positive reinforcement. Shades of the IPS model can be seen in the structure of EMERGE, whose strong emphasis on community-building and mental health draws from the same theory. At their core, both programs aim to address something fundamentally missing from the current system: fixing the root causes of criminal activity and helping ex-offenders rediscover their sense of citizenship. Justino sums up what EMERGE, and programs like it, are all about: “We help [our members] make peace with institutions. We apologize for moms and dads that didn’t love them, schools and teachers who did not teach them, police and correction officers who abused them. And then we say: ‘Okay—we made the apology, now get the fuck over it. Grow up, and let us work with you to take you to the next level.’”

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