Elected leaders, police officers and members of the criminal justice community walked a mile in a newly-released prisoner’s shoes, during a reentry simulation at Delaware State University.
The hour-long simulation was co-hosted by the Delaware House Democratic Caucus, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, District of Delaware and Delaware State University.
Each week was condensed into 15 minutes and over the course of four weeks participants were required to do things like get photo IDs, check in with their probation officers and get a job. The tasks sounded easily achievable, but the exercise highlighted some of the barriers that often impede the reentry process.
Delaware House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf made it to week three before getting tossed back into jail, along with two-thirds of the group taking part in the simulation. Those numbers mirror real life statistics. In Delaware, 76 percent of ex-offenders are rearrested three years after their initial release; 68 percent are re-convicted; and 65 percent are sent back to jail.
Schwartzkopf said the reentry system is “a heck of a lot more difficult than I even thought it was,” especially when you don’t have a car or any money because you can’t get a job without a state-issued ID. The retired Delaware State Police captain admitted he felt frustrated and overwhelmed during the exercise.
“It pushes you to do things that you shouldn’t be doing, which is what got them in jail in the first place,” said Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth. “When you’re going to let somebody back out, you’ve got to give them the tools to help them to succeed and we as a state can do that. Make sure they have the ID, that’s the biggest thing coming out. You’re tripped right off the bat. So how do you compete in a 100-yard dash when you trip over the first obstacle?”
Georgetown Police Chief R.L. Hughes also wound up behind bars during the exercise.
“I was placed in jail because of a probation violation. Waiting to try to get to probation, couldn’t get there, approached a field probation officer and was then taken in because I had missed a previous probation meeting the week before and then taken in. That’s not uncommon to occur in the real world,” Hughes said. “Our agency sees this cycle going on, and then the addiction cycle, and getting the help, and those keep driving merry-go-round for a lot of these folks. And so this exercise kind of brings it home.”
Attorney Samantha Lukoff works in Delaware’s Office of Defense Services. She said while the intention is for ex-offenders to succeed, the reentry system sets them up to fail.
“As a public defender, we get to know our clients pretty well and the communities that they come from. And these are communities with less resources than other communities, and less jobs, the schools aren’t great, there’s often violence in these communities, so it absolutely sets it up to be very, very difficult for our clients to get back in,” Lukoff said.
Brady Muhammad said the barriers are real. He shared with the group how after serving 13 years in jail for robbery, he was lost when he got out, figuratively and literally.
“For me, the amount of time that I spent in prison, a lot of things had changed in Wilmington, so I wasn’t quite sure where this was at, where that’s at, what bus to get on so I really had to start over,” Muhammad said.
Project New Start helped Muhammad find his way. The intense 10-week job readiness program in Claymont helps people transition out of prison. The 56-year-old was recruited from the Plummer Community Corrections Center, a work release program in Wilmington.
“It taught me how to conduct myself in the interview, how to use the computer, which I had no computer skills — so that in itself was very helpful. When it was time for me to get my license, they helped with paying the money that I need to get my license,” recalled Muhammad, one of the program’s many success stories.
“When individuals come out of prison, they are coming out for the most part with no social security cards, it’s hard for them to have a driver’s license, they don’t have a state ID, a lot of times they don’t have access to their birth certificates, so even coming out and having the documents they need to go to work is a major hurdle,” said Priscilla Turgon, executive director of Project New Start. Additionally, Turgon said many ex-offenders also struggle with addictions, learning disabilities and limited or no access to transportation.
Turgon believes these barriers are contributing to Delaware’s alarming recidivism rate.
“I think reentry should begin at sentencing. So as soon as an individual is sentenced, that time that they’re spending in an institution should be time that they’re being connected to skills, arrangements being made for housing, of course job training, job experiences and these employment documents,” Turgon said.
Project New Start graduate Sebastian Corbin was trapped in the recidivism cycle. He was in and out of prison three times for assault and armed robbery.
“If you can’t get employment, you can’t be picked up, you tend to revert back to what it is that you know how to do to get money fast, so you’ll be able to survive,” said Corbin, adding this time he’s not going back.
The 50-year-old, who now works for Owens Steel in Wilmington, said he’s older and more mature. More importantly, he said the program changed the way he thinks.
Project New Start is the only reentry program in the Delaware that makes the Alternatives to Violence Program (AVP) part of the curriculum. The Quaker program provides alternative ways to handle problems, trauma, anger and conflict without resorting to violence.
Research has shown that inmates exposed to AVP recidivate at a lesser rate compared with other inmates after release. Turgon also added mindfulness and meditation training to build on that.
“So at the cost of $36,000 a year to keep somebody in prison, even a small program like ours, the impact is for four years, saving the state of Delaware approximately a million-and-a-half dollars a year,” Turgon estimated.
Cost savings aside, Lukoff said helping ex-offenders transition successfully benefits the public at large.
“I absolutely understand the issue of public safety and that we need communities to be safe, and people to feel safe and to have our victims feel like they’ve been compensated in some way,” said Lukoff, who also worked on the other side as a prosecutor for four years in the Delaware Attorney General’s office. “But in reality, communities are safer when people come back into the community, these reentering citizens, when they have jobs, when they are able to be productive members, pay taxes and they’re not then going to want to, or need to commit crime in order to sustain themselves or their families.”
Project New Start partners with various employers, like the city of Wilmington. In its four years, the program has had 80 students. Of those, 52 graduated, 49 are working, and only 10 have gone back to jail.
For the past three years, Muhammad has worked in the city of Wilmington’s Department of Public Works. He was recently married and is getting ready to buy a house. “I’m really just having fun being free and being a citizen. And there’s nothing like it.”
There are six students in the homestretch of Project New Start’s current program. Malik Harper and David Williams are among them. Both were convicted on drug dealing charges and spent about three years behind bars. With only two weeks left before they graduate from the program, the two men, both of whom are in their 20s, have a lot of life they want to live.
“I’m so glad that I signed up. It’s been the most beneficial program, probably, I’ve taken in my life,” Williams said. “They let you know it’s not going to be a cakewalk and they have great partners who are willing to give us a second chance when we get back out there.”
“I’m going to do what I have to do to stay successful and stay on the right path. So whatever objects that come through my way, I’m going to conquer them and stay focused on the bigger picture in life,” Harper said.
“Certainly this isn’t a touchy feely population to serve. And when we’re out every day trying to get money to support our work, it’s tough. So we’re not serving the victims, we’re serving the perpetrators,” Turgon said. “The expectation is that everybody’s going to be there every day. And we don’t pay them. I can give people bus tickets. So coming in the door, the people that come out the door are people that are ready to make that change.”
Changes, Turgon hopes, that will stop the cycle of recidivism and ultimately reduce crime in Wilmington and statewide.
WHYY is one of 15 news organizations in the Philadelphia Reentry Reporting Collaborative, a solutions-oriented focus on the issues facing formerly incarcerated Philadelphians. The aim is to produce journalism that speaks, across the city and across media platforms, to the challenges and solutions for reentry.