Peer reentry group offers help to offenders for housing, employment, mental health
By Dana Simas, Public Information Officer
People with more than 500 years of past incarceration filled the packed meeting room at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) San Francisco Parole Office.
It was full of former long-term inmates who never thought they would see the light of freedom again. They’re all here for support, and they’re all voluntarily here.
The group, called the Peer Reentry Navigation Network (PRNN), is a brand new pilot program for former long-term inmates, aka “lifers,” who have been found suitable for release by the Board of Parole Hearings (BPH).
For decades, inmates serving life sentences in California were routinely denied parole. A very small percentage of them were granted parole despite the recidivism rate for this population being less than one percent.
In 2008, a state Supreme Court ruling prohibited BPH commissioners from denying parole based solely on the inmate’s commitment offense. Now, if a long-term inmate puts in the time, does the work, completes rehabilitative programs, and stays in line, he/she has the real possibility of being released. Nearly 800 long-term inmates were granted parole in 2014, compared to just 25 in 2006.
The group meets once a month and this month’s meeting was about “living amends.”
“What do we do to get past that grief? Not the grief I feel for myself, but the grief I feel for (my victims),” said one female participant who spent nearly 40 years in state prison for a double homicide.
The subject is something to which all the participants can relate. They all have victims and they all seek support, as well as offer support, to those who are familiar with those tough questions.
“You live your life in a way where you strive to just do the next right thing,” one male participant answered.
Office of Victim and Survivor Rights and Services (OVSRS) Director Cynthia Florez-DeLyon and OVSRS Manager Katie James attended the PRNN meeting in March and discussed what kinds of things victims ask OVSRS and how the office helps victims cope with their trauma.
The meeting resulted in positive dialogue between the participants and OVSRS despite what could be described as inherent barriers. How does society balance the rights of victims with those who commit heinous crimes, many times as a result of drug abuse? Or how does it balance those rights after the offender has been victimized as well?
It’s a tough question to ask, and even harder to get right. Crime effects all involved and can have long-lasting effects for generations on both sides of the crime. California, with the passage of Proposition 47 and other incarceration-reduction measures, seems to be moving away from an incarceration mentality to one of treatment and the idea that someone can change their ways.
Division of Adult Parole Operations (DAPO) Director Dan Stone and other stakeholders were aware of the growing numbers of long-term inmates being released and believed reentry support targeting their unique needs should be provided. In early 2014, Director Stone instructed parole units to try to find a way to develop a peer support program for former long-term inmates.
The PRNN emerged from many months of consulting with long-term inmates, both paroled and incarcerated, stakeholders, parole agents and providers in the community who had been working with this population. It’s currently being piloted in San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles and Pomona.
Being released back to society after 15, 20 or 40-plus years of incarceration presents numerous unique challenges. Some of the challenges include finding meaningful employment, locating housing in an area probably completely changed from when the offender went to prison and reuniting with friends and family whose lives have moved on during the offender’s potentially decades-long absence.
In the next few months, PRNN will be identifying and training several of the participants as “peer reentry navigators” who will provide in-reach services. It includes returning to the prisons to speak with other long-term inmates who are preparing for parole, outreach to community programs and additional one-to-one peer support as needed.
According to officials, CDCR is leading the nation in the way it is addressing reentry needs of former long-term inmates. In addition to offering counseling and reentry services like housing, employment, and substance abuse treatment, CDCR has also created specialized long-term offender parolee caseloads for parole agents such as Martin Figueroa.
Agent Figueroa is clearly respected by the group, who frequently rely on him for support.
“We don’t gain satisfaction in sending anyone back to prison because they failed so we do everything we possibly can to keep them out and to keep them on the right track,” Agent Figueroa recently told KQED radio’s Scott Shafer in a broadcast interview.