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For Ex-Cons, Re-entering Society is Daunting

May 6, 2010

By Brittany Daniels
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The man was released from prison at age 56 after serving 30 years of a life sentence. To him, living outside the gates seemed scarier than being behind bars.

“I had a life sentence,” the man told Barbara Slayden, executive director of Offender Aid and Restoration, a nonprofit group in Richmond. She recalls the ex-con’s words:

“I didn’t think I was ever going to get out. I don’t know what to do out here. Didn’t they know that I didn’t know how to take care of myself when I got out? I don’t know what they were thinking about sending me out here. I don’t know how to live out here.”

After they’ve served their time behind bars and are released back into society, prisoners often need education, employment, housing and other assistance – or else they’re likely to return to committing crime.

But such help can be hard to find.

Tax dollars fund prison systems; however, organizations that aid in prisoners’ re-entry are typically nonprofit and rely on private donors. Only a few groups receive state funding. In either case, the money is not enough.

Because prisons are so crowded, waiting lists prevent inmates from taking classes and receiving their GEDs. Ex-offenders frequently return to the streets with no friends or family to help them, no home to live in, no money to pay for housing, food or clothing, and no education beyond what they received before incarceration.

It’s a recipe for recidivism – the high rate of ex-cons who end up back in prison.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell has pledged to make prisoner re-entry a priority. Before his inauguration in January, he visited with inmates at Henrico County’s Regional Jail East. So far, McDonnell’s primary accomplishment on this front has been to name Banci Tewolde as Virginia’s first statewide prison re-entry coordinator.

Tewolde is a former assistant attorney general who has worked with the state and federal prison systems and the jails in Norfolk and Richmond. In her new position, she will work with government agencies and nongovernment groups to develop and implement a comprehensive plan for ex-cons being released from Virginia prisons.

It’s not the first time the commonwealth has focused on the problem.

In 2003, the National Governors Association selected Virginia to participate in its Prisoner Reentry Policy Academy to reduce recidivism rates.

About two years after the NGA brought the academy to Virginia, it was replaced by the Virginia Community Reentry Program. The program has no dedicated state funding and has been voluntarily adopted in only seven localities: Norfolk, Greensville-Emporia, Culpeper, King George, Southwestern Virginia, Albemarle/Charlottesville and Richmond.

The Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services gives Offender Reentry and Transition Services grants to groups it has approved. Last year, only nine organizations could apply for part of the $2.4 million available.

The nine groups included regional jails (such as the Northern Neck Regional Jail) and nonprofit organizations, such as the Offender Aid and Restoration groups in Fairfax, Richmond and other communities.

In recent years, because of Virginia’s budget crisis, state funding for the Department of Criminal Justice Services has been cut repeatedly. That in turn has put a greater financial strain on groups such as OAR.

Offender Aid and Restoration

OAR is a nonprofit that serves people who are in prison, are getting ready for release or have been released.

“We continue as a support system as long as anybody needs us,” said Slayden, whose group serves offenders in Richmond, Petersburg and neighboring counties. “If you’ve been an OAR client, you can always be an OAR client if you need assistance.”

The group’s mission is “to provide community-managed services aimed at restoring the individual offender as a responsible member of the community.”

OAR helps offenders not just with their physical needs but also with social reintegration.

When prisoners 40 or older are released, most of their friends and family members have abandoned them. Some clients move into rooming houses because it’s all they can afford; they sit in their rooms alone when they aren’t at work.

“They eventually get bored and depressed,” Slayden said.

So OAR recruits volunteers to organize fellowship circles for ex-offenders. The group offers a wide range of services: It helps ex-cons find jobs and housing, get their GED and address substance abuse and other problems. OAR even operates a program specifically for convicted prostitutes.

OAR began in Roanoke in 1971 and spread to Richmond the same year. In 1982, it began receiving state support – until the economy took a turn in 2002. OAR now gets state funding only when it wins a grant from the Department of Criminal Justice Services. The organization depends on funding from United Way, the city of Richmond, federal grants, private foundations and other private donors.

During the 2009 fiscal year, OAR reported revenues of about $830,000 and expenses of $850,000 – leaving a $20,000 deficit.

OAR has 17 staff members and more than 100 volunteers.

Last year, OAR’s pre-release services aided more than 2,000 clients in nine Richmond-area jails. Post-release services helped almost 2,300 clients through offices in Richmond and Petersburg. Of these clients, more than 1,200 attended job search classes, and more than 170 found jobs.

OAR also collaborates with a faith-based organization called Boaz & Ruth, whose mission is “to rebuild lives and communities through relationships, training, transitional jobs, and economic revitalization.”

Boaz & Ruth aids formerly incarcerated people in job searches. The nonprofit group provides employment by operating various businesses, including Mountain Movers, Parable Restoration, Firehouse 15 café and two Harvest Stores.

On the Web

Virginia Department of Social Services Prisoner Reentry Programs:

Offender Aid and Restoration, Richmond:

Boaz & Ruth:

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