A Way Back
More than a third of the men and women released from prison in Rhode Island return to the ACI within a year - nearly half within three years - often because they have no support system when they get out. This month Jim Hummel takes a look at a decade-old program, run by a non-profit organization, that has reduced the recidivism rate of its participants dramatically, laying the groundwork for employment and sobriety.
To see Blessing Way's progress report, click here.
Click here for more information about The Blessing Way.
It is a graduation with no gowns, or music, or the obligatory walk across a stage.
But for Raphael Ribera this is a major milestone in his life - and one that may well save his life.
Raf, as his friends here call him, has just completed a 90-day reentry and recovery program run by The Blessing Way, a non-profit organization founded nearly a decade ago by The Reverend Joyce Penfield, an Episcopal priest who had worked as a chaplain with both men and women at the ACI.
Raphael: ``Sobriety, faith, and just getting my life back to together. I was pretty broken when I got here and other pieces are coming back together again.’’
Raf’s story is a familiar one. He has had substance abuse problems and was periodically homeless. Others who make their way here are fresh out of prison, often with no support system or resources - and with a good chance of winding up back behind bars.
Rev. Penfield: ``The prison can’t keep up with all of the needs of what people have outside, they can’t, they just don’t have the resources.’’
When Rev. Penfield began working with female inmates back in 2001 she quickly learned getting out of prison brought mixed emotions.
Rev. Penfield: ``They were afraid to leave - and then when I started listening it was because they had no place to go, they had no job, they had no network of support.
Hummel: ``And a record.’’
Rev. Penfield: ``And a record, and also mental health problems and whatever. Mainly they had nothing.’’
In her job as chaplain Rev. Penfield eventually met all of the women admitted to prison - and quickly found she knew many of them - because they had reoffended and were sent back to the ACI.
And that was the inspiration for The Blessing Way, which is operated out of St. Peter’s and St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Providence, where the Rev. Penfield is the part-time priest-in-charge. She devotes the majority of her week to The Blessing Way as its executive director.
Rev. Penfield: ``The first focus was just helping was just helping people get spiritually grounded when they got out. But then we realized that without a coat, without a place to go and food, your stomach is hungry, so spiritually you’re not very complete.’’
Blessing Way is supported through donations and grants. Reverend Penfield is a mix of compassion and tough love. The organization rents apartment for its participants in an adjacent triple-decker owned by the church. Blessing Way pays rent to St. Peter’s and St. Andrew’s for the space. For the 90-day program, two women live on one floor and two men on the other and there are live-in house managers as well.
The first rule: no drugs or alcohol - or you get bounced. No second chance.
And there are goals right from the get-go because the 90 days go quickly.
Rev. Penfield: ``The day that they come to us, the first night that they stay and I meet with them and do an orientation. They get the date that they’ll graduate, so it’s 90 days or nearby.’’
Hummel: ``And the clock’s ticking.’’
Rev. Penfield: ``The clock’s ticking, so don’t waste the time, because if you have forever, why would you worry? Stay in bed and relax. We don’t want that. We have a requirement for everyone coming to us: you must be in a 30 hour or more program per week, but it’s customized. And the reason is, we don’t want people coming, suppose yo get social security, now you say you don’t have to work. So what do you do all day, okay you go to a few meetings, recovery meetings. No, we want you focused so you can move on with your life, we don’t want you in a circle spinning around your tail.’’
Raf has been working at the church, doing painting, raking leaves and light maintenance.
Raphael: ``Yeah, they also have a Life Skills class every Wednesday and I thought I’m good, I’m an adult, then stuff, they teach me new stuff that I’ve never thought about. It’s thinking in a new way. You know to do it the right way this time, instead of my way.’’
The groundwork for the program begins long before the men and women get out of prison and Reverend Penfield personally picks up each on the day he or she is released.
Rev. Penfield: ``I will already know five things that we need to get done within two or three hours. And I will take them around to get their money from the inmate accounts, to go over and cash it so they’ll have something to go and get clothing if they don’t have it. If we can get to it to get food stamps, probably won’t have enough time. The next day I’ll do the same thing. I’ll going in for food stamps, I’ll sit down I’ll go in and stand in line with them. On two days we can get everything done, but by bus it would take them two weeks, and they need to get stable for those first few days - next week you got to get a job, we want you out looking for a job, so we want to start getting you job prep, and have you out because you need to pay us and you need to get going.’’
Ah yes, the rent. Each participant is expected to pay a portion of what it cost Blessing Way to rent the apartments. On this Wednesday night just before Raf’s graduation Rev. Penfield presides over a business meeting of sorts, making sure everyone is paid up.
Then the group moves to the church’s sanctuary for a time of meditation. They share with - and pray for - each other.
Rev. Penfield: ``One thing I’m grateful for, one blessing I had this week. Or two. They fill in the blank.’’
Then back into the parish hall for Raf’s graduation. Rev. Penfield just finished a year-long study showing concrete results of the program. She estimates it saves taxpayers more than a million dollars a year by cutting down on the recidivism rate for the more than 150 men and women who have gone through the program since 2007.
Rev. Penfield: ``We just want them to be safe off the street, have them emotionally together, spiritually connected - we want them to get connections to services and we’ve been able to do it in 90 days.’’
Hummel: ``You’re the bridge to the next…’’
Rev. Penfield: ``That’s it, Bridge Is Us. That’s the bridge.’’
Raf: ``It’s here to help. If you want the help, it’s here for you, you just have to accept the help.’’
Rev. Penfield: ``We’re like a little home. We provide that’s stability, structure and boundaries.’’
In Providence, Jim Hummel for The Rhode Island Spotlight.