Re-entry program offers support, services to inmates

Rebecca Berfanger
March 17, 2010
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It's not a secret this is a tough economy. Jobs are scarce, everything is more expensive than it used to be, and even things like health care aren't guaranteed.

That goes for everyone regardless of income level, education, job skills, or experience. Add in a criminal record and time served, and that only complicates one's situation when looking for a job, housing, treatment, or other services.

The Thresholds & Transitions program that started last year at the Plainfield Re-Entry Educational Facility offers information and tools to help residents prepare to leave the prison system. The facility has since moved to the former Indiana Women's Prison on Indianapolis' near east side.

The program includes weekly "Healthy @ Re-Entry" classes that cover various issues, such as HIV/STD education, job placement, substance-abuse treatment, and advice for residents about how to maintain healthy relationships.

Tommy Chittenden, the program director for Thresholds & Transitions, facilitates the classes. The program is part of Step Up Inc., an Indianapolis-based organization that also works with incarcerated women and youth with similar programs.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is looking closely at the Thresholds & Transitions program as something that could be emulated in other states.

For most of the courses, Chittenden will spend the first hour on that week's issue. The second hour he gives the men a chance to work on their specific issues.

"Health education is only a part of it," Chittenden said. "The bigger picture is looking at behavior."

He'll then ask the residents a seemingly simple question: "Who are you? Not who do you live with or what do you do? That question can bring the mind to a screeching halt."

He added in many cases the residents tell him no one has ever asked them to think about that before.

By working backwards, they can sometimes recall something as simple as a childhood memory of someone who told them, "'You'll never amount to anything.' Even if it's said in passing, it can become real at the subconscious level," he said.

Chittenden invited Indiana Lawyer to observe the March 6 session , which included Pamela Pyles, a job counselor from Work One; and Keith Sneed, an adult substance-abuse counselor at EmberWood Center in Indianapolis. Both work specifically with men who've recently been released from detention centers.

"We're working on breaking down stigmas," Chittenden told the residents at the start of the program. "We're looking forward to tomorrows, and you have a lot of tomorrows."

He also summed up the work done in previous classes.

"We're trying to change your behavior by changing your thoughts. I can give you all the information in the world, but if the mind isn't processing that information, it won't make any difference," he said.

He then took a moment for the residents to talk about how they'd been doing since the last time he saw them. Most used words like "blessed" and "excited" about the positive opportunities they had to face their problems, including substance abuse and other issues.

Pyles told her personal story of being unemployed for a few years after leaving a job in advertising she had for almost 20 years, and how her story wasn't uncommon.

She described a number of programs available to the residents despite their criminal convictions. She compared the popularity of employers looking to hire former prisoners to that of green jobs because of available tax breaks and grants, including the Work Opportunity Tax Credit.

She focused on the Apollo 13 program, "named after the most successful re-entry in history," according to that program's information sheet handed out at the session. Apollo 13 is a new program for 18- to 29-year-olds who recently have left incarceration at an Indiana state prison and are looking for work in Marion County.

While it's currently available only in Marion County, she said it was a pilot program that would likely eventually be available in other parts of the state.

Pyles had a positive outlook for the men - at least if they were willing to do the work.

"It is hard out there. You are going to get a lot of no's, but you will learn from the process," she said.

She and Sneed also suggested the residents rethink their relationships with friends and family members on the outside.

"I don't mean don't talk to them," Sneed said, "but you have to keep moving forward and they might be holding you back."

The residents seemed surprised at the number of opportunities available to them and wondered why they hadn't heard about them before.

As one of the residents put it, on the outside they would have to hustle to get what they needed, and these programs would help them hustle for jobs in a more positive way.

"It's a legal hustle," Pyles agreed.

Pyles also suggested the residents consider what kinds of jobs they would have. While one said he was studying cooking skills, she suggested he start somewhere like a fast-food restaurant or as a banquet server for a hotel for his "right now job." She added he also could keep an eye out for a more lucrative position down the road that could be attainable with the food-service experience.

She also suggested they consider labor jobs or jobs with unions if they wanted to eventually work in construction.

The Apollo 13 program and programs like it, she said, would help the men think about their needs and barriers, such as transportation or education. For instance, if an applicant doesn't have a driver's license, the program will help them work through the issues to get one if possible. It could also help with setting the men up with GED programs that Work One offers.

Pyles said she would also help the residents explain their criminal charges on job applications.

"You are not your felony," she said. "You have to own that you did it, but you are not a felon. If your felony is all that you see, that's what others will see."

She also suggested the men dress appropriately for all interactions with potential employers and consider having visible tattoos removed.

Sneed spoke about options at EmberWood Center and how substance abuse counseling would help residents get and keep their jobs if they have a problem.

He also mentioned a grant program that would help pay for substance-abuse treatment for the men when they first leave the facility and talked about the importance of keeping a social support group.

Some of the men who had "graduated" from the substance-abuse program continued to go to meetings, he said, because they saw it as a way of giving back and showing those in the program that success was attainable.

"You have to keep your head together," he said. "Just because drugs and alcohol are still available in the same places, it doesn't mean you have to go there. When the mind is altered, bad choices are made."

Chittenden said once they were within 365 days of their release dates, he would review their treatment and employment options that were discussed at the session. He also gave them booklets that included information for things like civil legal aid, housing, food assistance, parenting, health care, and other services.

"We'll get what you know you're going to need," he told them. "We'll find a way to get it done. ... Don't put the roadblocks in your mind right now."


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