How NOT to Run a Residential Reentry Program

by Daniel A. Rosen |

January 20, 2022

MEMORANDUM

TO: DC City Council & MORCA; All DC-Based Residential Reentry Organizations; DC Reentry Action Network (RAN) Members

FROM: A Returning Citizen/Resident of a Residential Reentry Program (Jubilee House)

SUBJECT: How NOT to Run a Residential Reentry Program


Overview: Providing returning citizens with housing through residential reentry programs is a good thing. A great thing, even. The District and every state should do much more of it. But HOW it’s done is worthy of thoughtfulness and consideration. Every returning citizen I know who’s lucky enough to be housed is grateful to have a place to stay upon leaving prison. But no one appreciates being treated like a child or a prison inmate still. Returning citizens leave prison with serious emotional baggage, and poorly-run reentry housing facilities shouldn’t be adding stress to their lives. Directors and CEO’s of these programs need to look at how they’re doing business to ensure they’re actually providing a supportive environment where residents can get their lives back together. To that end, here are some observations based on the recent experiences my housemates and I have had in one reentry program:

1. Housing: House returning citizens like they’re free people, not inmates. Cramming more people into bunkbeds in your facility (especially during Covid) because it brings in more public dollars isn’t appropriate. People need space to decompress after prison.

Note: Most of us have dealt with cellmate challenges and noisy, chaotic environments for years. A little peace and a break from that would be helpful.

Recommendation: Single-room occupancy should be the standard. Especially during Covid.


2. Structure/Rules: Giving returning citizens some structure is good. The free world can be overwhelming after prison and having rules is often helpful. Publishing a handbook of program expectations is useful so residents understand their responsibilities.

Note: New made-up rules every week that are nowhere to be found in the program handbook and applied arbitrarily are not the same as structure.

Recommendation: Have a thoughtful handbook and rules that are applied fairly. Also have staff with the wisdom and discernment to understand when flexibility is more important than rules.

3. Case Management: Giving returning citizens case management services is critical. Residents will need help getting identification documents, obtaining jobs, securing public assistance benefits, reestablishing family ties, saving money, and more.

Note: Successful case management likely requires more than a single intake phone call two weeks after arrival. 

Recommendation: This is pretty simple. Hire a case management staff that’s actually experienced at case management.

4. Employment: Help residents get jobs. Support them in doing that job well, once they get one. Don’t saddle them with excessive house requirements that cause them to miss work or have to shortchange their job.

Note: Forcing people to take time off work for mandatory house meetings isn’t supportive. Forcing people to quit their job because they might need to be available for overnight shifts isn’t helping – it’s the opposite. Forcing people to take off work to go get a postal money order to pay rent isn’t supportive.

Recommendation: Make supporting residents’ efforts to get a job and succeed at their job YOUR job. For example, get a CashApp account so residents can pay rent without taking off work.

5. Mental Health: Help residents with their emotional well-being and mental health. Prison leaves deep scars. 

Note: Stressing residents out with rude staff, arbitrary rule changes, and an “us-vs.-them” approach isn’t helping. It’s actually just recreating the trauma people experienced in prison and re-traumatizing them.

Recommendation: Use some of your funding to give reentry program participants FREE access to therapy (the way Free Minds does). Involve residents in supportive groups where people can express their reentry challenges in a safe environment.

6. Rebuilding Relationships: Help residents rebuild family and community ties. Give them the space to repair those breaches and a place to do so within the house. Connection with, and support from, friends and family is critical to success in reentry.

Note: Denying a resident’s weekend travel request to celebrate their mother’s 75th birthday isn’t helping. This is a decision for a probation officer, not a housing facility.

Recommendation: Have a place within the facility where residents can spend time reconnecting with friends and relatives. Do everything you can to support family connections.

Conclusion: A residential reentry program isn’t the same as probation – treating returning citizens like you’re their Probation Officer isn’t appropriate. Most of your residents already have a PO. When a resident comes to you with an urgent issue, telling them that you’ll get around to it the following week isn’t helpful. Especially if the concern is about COVID. Interaction with them as if it’s “your way or the highway” also isn’t appropriate. Please start acting as if you actually care about the residents in your facilities, or get out of the residential reentry business.

Note: It might be best NOT to hire a former PO as your Reentry program director. 

Final Note for D.C. City Council and the D.C. Mayor’s Office of Returning Citizen Affairs (MORCA):

PLEASE don’t continue to fund organizations that operate this way to expand their Reentry services, no matter how much Covid money there is. Fund organizations who actually give a damn about the people who live in their houses and will do more than provide lip service in support of residents’ successful transition back into society. Jubilee Housing has big plans to build new facilities and expand their programs – the District somehow selected them for new funding. But if you can’t get the small things right because you don’t hire competent people and leadership also isn’t paying attention, it’s hard to see how you’ll get the big things right.

Please do better.

Signed,

A Resident, Jubilee Housing

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