Prisoner Re-Entry Schools

Photo by Nick VedrosThe time is right for Prisoner Re-Entry Schools.

Offenders must be redirected, not simply recycled, ideally through public-private partnerships. People who have earned a second chance need places to go where stock phrases like “new beginnings” aren’t made into nonsense through endless repetition.

In Boston, Massachusetts, inmates will soon have the option of applying for enrollment in a new prisoner re-entry school inside the 45-year old Boston Pre-Release Center. In addition to a long list of programs that began in 1972, the new Re-entry School will help connect parolees with individual and community leaders confirmed to support them and, ultimately, to help reduce recidivism and crime.

Pre-Release Schools are the Future of Prison Reform_Where Excuses Go to DieAmong other skills, Ben Thompson, Massachusetts Assistant Undersecretary for Re-entry, considers the development of a moral compass in offenders a high curriculum priority. He’s right. This plus a positive work ethic, in many individuals, is but a challenge or two away from fruition.

Helping steer offenders toward something to believe in, rather than monitoring their compliance with obsolete mandates, is the future. It’s beyond cliche for parolees to be placed in low-level jobs, only to encounter the folded arms of employer expecting to be either impressed or dismissive. Helping individuals form partnerships and develop communication skills that defy old behaviors is the only way to give meaning to words like “persistence” and “rehabilitation.”

Pre-release Classroom_Where Excuses Go to DieBesides, I know from experience that the prestige of any job takes a backseat to how much a person can grow via small, personal milestones that even reluctant mentors and good listeners can offer.

I describe, in Where Excuses Go to Die, one of my assigned prison jobs as a pre-release teacher’s assistant. This was an instructor who changed not only my life, but the lives of those he addressed in each cycle of students who passed through his classroom. How little he had to work with can be found among the book’s pages, but I will never be able to thank him enough. I’m not alone.

If you want a different result make a different choice_Where Excuses Go to DieSince those years I spent behind bars, I’ve worked to defy the public’s proclivity for dismissing the incarcerated as “those people,” as scumbags who must deserve whatever they’re getting “or why else would they be locked up?” Inmates are easily and often blamed for poor public policy decisions relating to criminal justice, overcrowding, and crappy conditions. But a lot less noise is made about milestone-based education and genuine rehabilitation. I’m not only for both, I’m a product of them.

Prisoner Re-Entry Schools are the next obvious step because, for all the welcome attention being paid to criminal justice and prison reform these days, prepared receiving communities have the best chance at showing pre-release inmates and parolees potential that they cannot yet see in themselves. That’s something they tend to want to keep.

Less Friends Less Bullshit_Where Excuses Go to DieThe decisions I make, the quality of my life, and the person I am today are largely owed to people like playwright, author, and former penitentiary writing instructor David Scott Milton; the aforementioned pre-release instructor, Chuck Hildebrandt; the late comedienne and my erstwhile mentor, Lotus Weinstock; LA County Men’s Central Jail Chaplain William McKinley; jail hobby shop monitor Gary Palmer; two Associate Wardens; and about 15 career corrections officers who, sometimes without knowing it, encouraged me to push myself for the better.

There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you_Maya AngelouThese people didn’t have a program or a curriculum. Most of their encouragement came from smart-ass remarks, stories, and making me face the truth about my situation. I knew how to use a shovel, but lacked what rehabilitation professionals call “soft skills,” i.e., social intelligence, a strong work ethic, and so forth. I was taught to hear my own voice and not to isolate myself so severely in the future in order to do so.Unkown

The time is right for Prisoner Re-Entry Schools.

Imagine what could be done with the right hearts, a progressive curriculum, relevant tools, a welcoming academic setting, and the power of philanthropic funding! Ben Thompson thinks it will reduce recidivism in his area of the country by about half. That’s pretty significant.

Hey, and speaking of bringing meaning to old stock nonsense, forget “offender” and “parolee”: I like Thompson’s use of “returning citizen” to refer to his future candidates.

Having been one myself, I just think it fits better.


Dog programs such as Puppies Behind Bars and Mission Pawsible are a well-regarded approach to mentoring and soft skills, but hopefully aren’t the ceiling of community re-entry innovation. For those unfamiliar with the language of community re-entry, here’re a few other programs worthy of wider incorporation into emerging vocational and evidence-based pre-release curricula:
The Ohio Prison Nursery: Achieving Baby Care Success (ABC’s)
Reaching Out From Within
The VCE Optical Lab at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women
The California Progressive Programming Facility
Second Chance – Inspiring a Culture of Dignity
Our beloved, inglorious El Rey hotel – aka, The Weingart Center Los Angeles
While John Oliver’s recent Last Week Tonight segment doesn’t mention reentry schools, it does brilliantly cover the same ground, and contains Jean-Claude Van Damme references.

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