Reentry Resources for the Incarcerated in Pennsylvania

Image: MST Services

by ISABEL ELGIN                                                                                                         Staff Writer

In 2018, over 96,000 residents were serving time in various facilities across Pennsylvania. Of these 96,000, 60% will be rearrested within three years of release. A recidivism rate of 60% is high, with neighboring states New Jersey and New York boasting recidivism rates of below 30% and 42%, respectively. A central factor that can help decrease recidivism rates are quality reentry programs.

Reentry programs are organizations that offer services to previously incarcerated individuals who are making the transition back into society. These services can include anything from obtaining housing and employment, to drug and alcohol abuse treatment, to classes on anger management and conflict resolution.

While there are many programs that offer reentry services for ex-offenders in Pennsylvania, Ruth Shefner, director of the Goldring Reentry Initiative (GRI), says, GRI is different. In addition to serving clients post-release, GRI “works with clients pre-release” by putting together an initial reentry plan and keeping in contact with the judge and defense team on the case in order to set the best release date and make the transition back into society less rocky.

GRI is a reentry program that is run in coordination with the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. Masters of Social Work students act as caseworkers to their clients, assisting with resume building, conflict resolution, and finding employment and housing, among other things. Second-year student and caseworker, Kiara Thomas, jokes, “[it’s] kind of like the same thing college students call their mothers with”.

Affordable housing is the most-needed resource for recently-released individuals. But it’s also the biggest challenge due to high pricing, lack of availability, and certain living eligibility requirements depending on the crime that was committed. While employment used to be difficult to obtain for ex-offenders, individuals in Pennsylvania are no longer forced to disclose criminal history to most employers during the job-application process, thanks to the recent amendment of the “Ban the Box” legislation in 2016.

With help from caseworkers, support from loved ones, and an actual desire to change, Thomas says a turnaround is possible. One of her current clients was released from prison six months ago and has already found a job, acquired housing, and reconnected with his son. “Watching him say he wants to change his life, and then actually change it” is an experience that Kiara credits as one of her most meaningful.

Making these types of programs accessible to inmates during their time in prison are an effective way to curb recidivism, as the presence of reentry programs in prisons has been shown to lower recidivism rates, but there is never a guarantee on the quality of these courses. Additionally, their location and timing are often unpredictable. As many of GRI’s clients come from the county jail system, which serves a more transient population, it is more difficult to tailor programming to the needs of individuals.

Goldring Reentry Initiative. Photo: University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy & Practice

GRI ultimately provides the support, which Thomas considers to be the key to stopping the cycle of recidivism, to a population who “aren’t used to receiving individual time and attention”. It’s one drawback: since it is run out of the University of Pennsylvania, which runs on an academic calendar, there is a lack of support during the summer months. Thus, GRI is currently in the process of organizing an alumni network so that successful graduates of the program can act as mentors to new releases and provide a needed sense of relatability during all times of the year.

A less common form of release is an exoneration. An exoneration will occur when someone has been found to be wrongfully convicted of committing their alleged crimes and deemed innocent. Due to restrictions regarding overturning convictions and procedural roadblocks, it can be daunting for an inmate to prove their innocence on their own. That’s why the Innocence Project was created.

The Innocence Project’s Pennsylvania branch was opened in 2009 and has helped exonerate 14 people to date. This is impressive considering that the average case can take anywhere between 7-13 years from the point of initial contact to potential exoneration. Nilam Sanghvi, legal director for the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, admits, “We were founded in 2009 and there are cases that we opened in 2010 that are still ongoing”.

The time-intensive process aside, the Pennsylvania Innocence Project is a stellar resource for any inmate who is a Pennsylvania resident and whose claim to innocence doesn’t involve self-defense, but rather a complete lack of involvement in the crime. Sanghvi says individuals can be wrongfully convicted for many reasons, including incentivized witnesses, pressured self-confessions, and eyewitness misidentification. However, the Pennsylvania Innocence Project combats these mistakes by reinvestigating the case, re-testing the evidence using new, updated methods, and doing DNA analysis.

Marshall Hale. Photo: Pennsylvania Innocence Project

They used these methods to exonerate Marshall Hale, who spent 33 years in the Graterford prison in Philadelphia falsely accused of rape. The victim’s misidentification of Hale and faulty blood sampling were responsible for Hale’s conviction in 1986. After reinvestigating the evidence and submitting countless appeals, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Conviction Review Unit vacated Hale’s conviction.

Given that individuals exonerated as a result of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project were found to have never committed crimes, Sanghvi says “recidivism isn’t an issue”.  As individuals are typically older when they are released in this manner, they are less likely to reoffend. Furthermore, due to the greater amount of support for individuals released in this manner, they typically have an easier time readjusting to society. However, there is currently no law in Pennsylvania that requires compensation for exonerated individuals, so many still struggle financially.

Many working in the field of exonerations are motivated by the potential to help save innocent lives. A study done by the National Academy of Sciences estimates that approximately 4% of individuals who have been or are currently on death row to be innocent. Furthermore, in all likelihood, this is a conservative estimate.

Members of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project are also motivated by the connections that are fostered. In the extended amount of time working with specific clients, “[you] build relationships with people and their families”, Nilam explains, “it’s the kind of job where everything is impactful”.

Ultimately, there are quality reentry services available to every inmate in Pennsylvania regardless of crime details, location, race, gender, socioeconomic status, etc. While this is certainly an improvement, to further the progress being made on the topic of reentry, there are still steps that need to be taken. These proposed measures include guaranteed compensation to victims of wrongful conviction, an implementation of reentry services in prisons and jails that are lacking, and passing Ban the Box legislation nationally.

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