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Reentry Reflection Hopes To Brake Recidivism
By Steve Lilienthal
Published: 02/25/2013

Dsc 1051 Women are walking across the stage in the basement auditorium of a church in southeast Washington, DC, wearing fashionable attire.

Other women, seated, clap enthusiastically.

It could be a fashion show staged by a church’s women’s club. It isn’t.

CSOSA Nancy M. Ware and Kemba Smith

The women onstage and in the seats are clients of CSOSA, the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA) that handles parole and probation for the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, and have been in prison. Now, they are struggling with life on the outside.

“Lifetime Makeover: Reclaiming My Life” is part of “Reentry Reflection,” a series of events held in January and February 2013 that helps to address the needs of citizens returning from prison.

Women on this Saturday hear experts addressing issues such as “Why Mental Health Is Not A Negative Term,” how to “triumph” over trauma, and how to achieve better relationships with their partners.

Too often women facing difficulties with dysfunctional families and intimate relationships become enmeshed in the criminal justice system due to problems such as substance abuse. Roles of criminal and victim are often interchangeable.

CSOSA mental health program administrator Ubax Hussen tells the women that two-thirds of people in prison need medication. But only 17% “keep up with treatment” upon leaving. She emphasizes that there is no shame in discussing problems openly and in obtaining treatment for them.

Lamont Carey, a former prisoner who has his own entertainment company, talks about how being raised in a dysfunctional family led him to prison. Women, he stresses, should set “realistic” standards for partners.

One audience member, Margie Draper, talks proudly about her experiences. In an interview, Ms. Draper insists being “locked up doesn’t mean I can’t move forward with my life.”

“Lifetime Makeover” was held to address the challenges facing women returning from prison. Women more likely had been taking care of children before leaving for prison, and they wish to reunite with them. They are less likely to have committed violent crimes. Often, their crimes are substance abuse and property crimes, frequently driven by their abuse problem.

Not everyone appreciates the concentration on intimate relationships. Ms. Asantewaa Nkrumah-Ture expresses discontent with the forum, insisting it should address important issues. Many lack permanent housing, are even homeless, and experience great difficulty finding work. She also wants discussed the local drive to “ban the box” that asks people to declare criminal records on job applications. Checked boxes often lead to tossed applications.

Kemba Smith, author of the book Poster Child, speaks to the women at lunch about her experiences in and out of the criminal justice system. Smith compliments CSOSA for having “put on a program like this” promoting community resources and that addresses “intimate issues that are important to women.”

Leonard Sipes, CSOSA senior public affairs specialist, says his agency has forged partnerships with employers and non-profits to help people returning from prison with jobs and housing. But CSOSA’s first goal is to help former inmates to stabilize their lives through “dealing with core issues” so they can better maintain steady employment and obtain stable housing.

Asked whether this event would have been held forty years ago, Sipes, with over forty years experience in criminal justice, says no.

Then, recidivism was expected. Now, with greater awareness of how unresolved past difficulties can lead to recidivism, CSOSA stages Reentry Reflection events, to help publicize the treatments, mentorships and partnerships aimed at encouraging more successful reentries.

Public/Private Ventures in its “Call to Action: How Programs In Three Cities Responded To The Prisoner Reentry Crisis,” issued midway through the last decade, cites Washington, as one of the “pioneers” in grappling with the “prison reentry crisis”,” particularly through the partnership forged between CSOSA and DC’s faith community.

Then-CSOSA director Paul Quander, testifying in 2005 before the US House of Representatives Government Reform Committee insisted: “”Effective community supervision is not just the prevention of wrong-doing, it is the encouragement of right-doing.”

This belief helped lead to the development of Reentry Sunday and its spin-off, the partnerships between CSOSA, the faith-based community, and non-profits in mentoring and assisting DC residents who have just left prison.

CSOSA, in 2001, under the leadership of Jasper Ormond, then CSOSA’s interim director, had been thinking of ways to help to reintegrate DC’s returning prison population.

Rev. Donald Isaac, executive director of the East of the River Clergy, Police, Community Partnership (ERCPCP), participated in CSOSA’s efforts in 2001 to consult the city’s faith community. Participants believed that if Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were alive, the imposing rate of incarceration and recidivism, particularly for African-American males, would rank high on his agenda.

The first Reentry Weekend in 2002 was held in concurrence with the holiday commemorating Dr. King’s birthday to help alert the city to the problem of returning prisoners and to help erase the stigma families felt of having loved ones in prison. Because January had become the newly declared National Mentoring Month, participating houses of worship were urged to recruit mentors for the returnees from prison. In Isaac’s view, more mentoring was taking place in prisons then than on the outside.

Now, the one day event has evolved into a series of events spread over forty days this year.

Diane Kincaid, deputy director of the American Probation and Parole Association, says other communities stage similar efforts.

Nancy La Vigne, director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, asserts that events such as Reentry Reflection have value. “It makes sense to try to engage the community,” she says. “The community has a vested interest in helping people become law-abiding citizens.”

Isaac says housing and jobs remain difficult obstacles to surmount for DC residents returning from prison. Yet, in Isaac’s view, thanks to CSOSA’s engagement of DC’s community, “We’ve made a lot of progress.”

Stephen Lilienthal is a freelance writer who lives in Washington, DC. He is the author of the recently published Library Journal article, "Prison and Libraries: Public Service Inside and Out,"

Other articles by Lilienthal


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