Letters from the Executive Director

Elements of Successful Reentry Part I: Start Early

By Cleveland Bell, Riverside House CEO

We have recently talked about restorative justice  – what that means, why it’s important and the process we go through at Riverside House to help returned citizens achieve it. One big element that deserves a blog post series all of its own is reentry, or how a person who has previously been incarcerated re-enters the community.

There are four elements to successful reentry, and as I discuss them, I want to use my own experiences to help illustrate these points and paint a picture of what it can look like. I don’t have all the answers, but I have my story, and I think it will be helpful to others.

The first element that is crucial to successful reentry is starting early. You may be surprised to hear this, but re-entry actually needs to start the day after sentencing. This goes for the inmate and the system.

The U.S. Department of Justice also believes that reentry begins on day one of incarceration. The first step in their Roadmap to Reentry plan states: “Upon incarceration, every inmate should be provided an individualized reentry plan tailored to his or her risk of recidivism and programmatic needs.” (See their full plan here.)

After my sentencing, while I was in pre-trial, several important things happened for me that helped shape how my reentry process would go. First, I went to a Bible study group and received Christ, which was the first step. A local pastor came and did Bible study courses every week that I attended, and when I finished my first one, it was the first thing I had ever successfully completed. I got a certificate, which was huge to me at the time (I still have it).

It may sound small, but this was the start of me getting acclimated and the start of reentry even though I didn’t know it at the time.

During these initial months of my incarceration, I also wanted to get out of my cell. In the cells, we talked about nothing, watched TV, and talked about more of nothing. It was not a good environment for productivity, and I knew it, so I became a trustee. This meant I got a job at the prison, starting out in laundry doing linens for the entire institution. It was so helpful because it enabled me to work, and I was able to be productive. I eventually worked in food service as well, and I got to be in a cell with other trustees, which meant I was around others who were trying to better themselves just like me.

I was finally sentenced, and it was recommended by my case worker that I be put on work release for nine months.

According to the Bureau of Prisons, job training is a crucial part of reentry. For more than 80 years, federal prisons have provided job skills training. Inmates who participate are much less likely to recidivate or engage in misconduct, and they are more likely to be gainfully employed upon release.

I was able to go out to work every day for a cable company laying underground cable, and I saved the money I made. On the day I was released from prison, I picked up a check for $8,000. It was the most money I had ever held in my hand, and I had it to help me re-enter the community.

We need to encourage the system and the inmate population to do their part in achieving success like this. We need to encourage them to do even better than this. It doesn’t matter how long a person is in prison, whether it’s a few months or ten years. Reentry should start as early as possible. Doing anything they can to better themselves will give inmates the best chance possible when their release date comes.

But starting early is only the beginning, and in our next reentry blog post, we will talk about why it’s so important to treat offenders like PEOPLE, not just inmates.

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