This year violent crime in DC has skyrocketed. With the increased violence comes more scrutiny at repeat offenders and those who have experienced incarceration multiple times, a group that was called out during a recently publicized email conversation between DC Police Chief Lanier and a concerned citizen.
While repeat offenders may be involved in rising violent crime in DC, it’s important to remember that this is a uniquely vulnerable population that faces many barriers to stability with little support. Two staff members from Thrive DC took the time to sit down and explain what it’s like for someone coming out of incarceration, and what Thrive DC does for people when no one else will help.
Can you introduce yourself (briefly) and what you do at Thrive DC?
Nicole: I am the Re-entry Program Manager for Thrive DC. I am responsible for coordination of services, case management, and life skills group facilitation for the women’s program for returning citizens: Women in New Directions. This program combines employment assistance, sobriety maintenance, basic needs, and supportive services offered by Thrive DC staff to assist women in their journey to stable and productive lives.
Jemahl: I am the Employment Specialist here at Thrive DC. I have over 12 years of experience in employment services teaching, training, and guiding community members toward self sufficiency. I specialize in working with individuals who are seeking to re-engage themselves back into the workforce and aide in developing habits that are relevant to the job or career of their choice.
At Thrive DC, I also manage the Real Opportunity Culinary Program, which is a 23 week extensive program designed to provide soft and hard skills training and an externship within the food service industry. For ex-offenders, restaurant kitchens and construction jobs offer the most opportunity for stable employment.
What is the biggest struggle for ex offenders coming out of incarceration?
Nicole: What isn’t one of their biggest struggles? In most cases what we would consider immediate needs are their biggest struggles. Employment, personal documents, stable housing, food, peace of mind, and rest are just a few of the barriers that many women and men face once released from custody. Each of these contributes greatly to an individual’s ability to become and remain a productive citizen.
Jemahl: All ex offenders struggle when transitioning from incarceration to a stable environment. What makes the transition more difficult is having to do it without support and immediately being expect to provide for themselves after starting with no resources and no initial funds.
Most people aren’t aware, but most ex-offenders released from incarceration finish their sentence in a halfway house that is supposed to help them with the transition. But without any money, IDs, or transportation, it’s extremely hard to make something happen for yourself before your time in the halfway house is up and you’re out on the streets.
As a result of not having the support and resources to help with their specific barriers, ex-offenders often get upset with the process and some will fall back into behaviors that contributed to their trouble in the first place.
What opportunities do you have at Thrive for ex offenders to turn their lives around?
Nicole: Most importantly, we offer support for those who are tired. As a returning citizen there is always something new to get back on track, and the process of finding housing, employment, services, benefits, etc can be draining. We work to assist returning citizens with the much needed leg-work that helps them piece their lives back together.
Supporting these women means being available and stating the hard facts. For example, I have helped a client recover from identity theft, something that happens more frequently when moving from incarceration to transitional living. I’ve provided a listening ear when personal issues and circumstances become overwhelming, and visited a client at her treatment program just to let her know that she’s not alone. Simple things like that help my ladies keep going in the right direction.
Jemahl: At Thrive DC, we offer access and support from our Employment Assistance Program and the Real Opportunities Program. Both programs are aimed at assisting individuals who have high barriers to employment. One of those barriers is the simple fact of there status as a returning citizen. Here we act as a buffer for all clients to advocate on their behalf and encourage employers that the skills and abilities gained within our training program will be an asset to their business.
What makes it hard for Thrive DC to help ex offenders?
Nicole: There is no one answer to this question; in my short time here I have seen/heard a combination of answers: that transportation is unreliable (it may take up to 3 buses to get from some areas in SE to Thrive DC), that the area around Thrive DC is too tempting for relapse (Columbia Heights being where they once participated in illegal/drug activities), and time/scheduling issues. Having the motivation to ask for assistance, and a willingness to commit to the processes is also a big struggle for clients who tried and failed before.
Another issue is that some agencies we share clients with may not always have the same zeal that I do for ensuring that their clients get all that is available to them. There have been issues in the past with agencies not willing to coordinating services, and times when it has been difficult to speak to shared clients at another agency’s location.
Ex-offenders face a lot of stigma, especially the idea that since they did the crime, they deserve all the consequences that come from that. Whatever they may be. For ex-offenders, it’s hard not to get punished over and over for the same past crimes.
Jemahl: If an ex-offender has the time, access, and opportunity he/she is welcome. But if the ex-offender has no open time, access, or opportunity to come and enjoy the benefits of our program, they will be very difficult to assist.
What can people do to support your programs?
Nicole: My ladies have a hard time committing to the program because of all the obstacles in their way. People can help them by providing us with gift cards to grocery stores, coffee shops, hair salons, and places like Target that can be incentives and rewards for clients on their path back to stability.
But the biggest thing that people can do is to keep encouraging returning citizens to persevere. Ex-offenders face a lot of uphill battles, and get frustrated with organizations they’ve had bad experiences with. Support and encouragement to keep working with organizations trying to help them make the biggest difference in our clients’ path back to success.
Jemahl: To support the employment department of Thrive DC:
Employers – Allow an opportunity for ex-offenders who have come through our employment program a chance to work with your organization.
To support either the WIND program or our Employment Services, please contact our Community Relations Coordinator Greg Rockwell at 202-503-1528 or firstname.lastname@example.org.