POV: What kinds of things does the Maryland Reentry Project do with prisoners and ex-prisoners to help them transition to life after prison?
Rada Moss: Right now we just serve men, and we only serve five zip codes in the city of Baltimore — the areas that have the biggest ex-offender population returning. We begin working with them up to 90 days prior to their release, in cooperation with the Division of Correction. We do a needs assessment and develop a case plan with them, and we provide a cognitive skills curriculum, which includes life skills, prior to their release. We also have an exit orientation, so that they're clear about what their partnership with us means when they're released. Our staff are mainly ex-offenders themselves, and they're from the communities that we serve, so there's a genuine legitimacy there that the staff provides. We usually like to meet them at the gate when they're released.
Based on their needs assessment, we have an idea of what their needs are in terms of substance abuse treatment, housing, education, employment, health and mental health, so that we can devise the case plan accordingly. Our whole intent and goal is to ensure that they have the services that they need to be connected to the community, so that they don't return to prison. We don't provide any direct services other than case management. We have a community network of service providers that provide those services for us. And so when we say that we're a partnership, we mean that in every sense of the word. We have nine to twelve community partners that we contract with to provide services, and we have a working partnership with the Division of Correction. We have an assigned agent from parole and probation that works exclusively with our clients. We work with the police department, the health department, so it's a systemic and community partnership. And it's a voluntary program. It's not mandated, and it's a two-year commitment from the time of their release.
POV: What's distinctive about REP? How does this program differ from other transitional programs for ex-prisoners?
Moss: I think what's distinctive is the fact that we are definitely community-based, but we also have a strong link with corrections. That being said, we're also decentralized, so there's not a one-stop hub that we have. We work from three organizational centers in the communities that we serve so that we can have easy access to our clients and they can have easy access to us. The staff is also critical. We want people who have a blend of perspective and expertise, and I invest a lot in training them to be professionals. So I think that the staff are the ones that move the wheel. And I think the intensity and depth of services that we provide access to — through contracts, not just relationships, though we have those, too — allows us to keep our clients on track and prevent recidivism. So it's a really tight, strategic, very inclusive approach that has made us successful.
POV: What's the advantage of having contracts with service providers rather than informal relationships, as many other community agencies do?
Moss: We've been very careful about what services we wanted to contract with, because we've really studied what the needs are, and we've recognized that we can't do everything. So we have contracts with service providers that provide transitional housing and that provide substance abuse treatment. But we've really taken a look at what are the biggest barriers to someone's transition, and that's what we've targeted and are paying for.
POV: In the film, Omar finds himself in violation of his parole for failing to inform his parole officer that he'd used drugs, although he informed one of his REP counselors. What are the distinctive roles of REP case managers and state parole officers? How are all these different agencies coordinating their efforts?
Moss: We don't consider our clients as reporting to us, we consider them as having a relationship and partnering with us to aid in their transition back. We make it very clear from the beginning that we're not parole officers, because we need to establish a trusting relationship with them. We don't want them thinking that we're going to be on their back and watching them. That may be what we do in one sense, but in a very different approach than a parole officer. There aren't necessarily consequences other than us saying, "We're going to have to let you go, because you're not benefiting yourself and there's somebody else that we could help." Other than that there are not real consequences for not complying with us, like there is with a parole agent.
At the same time, we make clear that the parole agent who works with us is not meant to be lenient on our clients. The fact that she works exclusively with us is meant to make it easier for us to contact a single person within a large agency. We hope that we're helpful to the parole agency, sometimes in finding a client, in getting him to tell her the truth about what his condition is so she can better help him. But our stance and relationship is purely one of an advocate and a friend, mentor, guide, coach, not one of an agent.
POV: Are there rules to keep case managers from sharing information with the parole officer?
Moss: No, I'm not saying that at all. It's a case by case decision. And if it's something that our agent needs to know, whether it's detrimental or not to the client, if it's something that she needs to know, we would tell her. But if it's not going to affect the client's parole condition, then there's no need to tell her. We just need to get him on the right track to get him whole and healthy.
POV: Are the stories of Omar and Pete typical?
Moss: What we see with Omar's experience is that relapse is real. 80 or 85 percent of our clients have substance abuse-related issues, and they have to effectively deal with them. Having a job doesn't mean much if you're not able to keep it. At the same time, some of our most successful clients have been those who have relapsed. So relapse is not an uncommon or unfamiliar event for us to deal with. What is a little atypical about Omar's case is his steady decline, and his unwillingness to work with us to help him. We typically don't have that.
POV: How common are substance abuse problems among the inmates REP serves?
Moss: I think it varies, but I think substance abuse is the biggest issue. This is a subject of debate for people who do this work, but for me it trumps everything. I think lack of housing and homelessness is a huge barrier that has to be addressed immediately. So those two things, housing and treatment, and having access and resources to provide and find both, are the biggest problems.
POV: How effective is the Reentry Project? How does it compare to other programs for ex-offenders transitioning to life outside prison?
Moss: I don't know how it compares to others, but we have a recidivism rate that ranges from 11 to 18 percent over three years. That compares to about 52 percent, which is the statewide recidivism rate. So we've struck upon a model, serving a small number of men — we've served about 400 men at this point — that seems to work. It works, but it's a very intensive program, and it's steeped in partnerships, so there's not one organization or entity that's doing it alone.
POV: The Maryland Reentry Partnership is a pilot program, scheduled to last five years. Now that the five years of pilot funding are over, what's next for the program?
Moss: It was a five-year pilot which effectively ended June 30. But we're going to continue. That constant supply of federal funding just leveraged other funding. It's always been a constant fundraising effort.
POV: What kind of changes would you like to see in the support that's available to prisoners who've been released, either on the institutional level or in a broader cultural sense?
Moss: Institutionally, I think we're very fortunate. From five years ago, and even before that, we were very fortunate to have a state agency that embraced this and worked with us. And the community has also embraced us, they were the ones saying, "What took you so long? We've needed this support and this help." The only thing I think I'd like changed is for our society to be ready to receive this population as men, and to give them an opportunity to serve and to work and to be, and not to prejudge them so sharply before they're given a chance to showcase themselves. That stigma still exists, and there's not much we can do about that other than just to plug along.
POV: What are the best and worst things about the way the criminal justice system works in your experience? What are the biggest challenges in doing the work you do?
Moss: One of the biggest challenges is that there are very limited support services behind the fence [in prisons]. They've taken out higher education. And there's a huge need for treatment behind the fence. There's a lack of general support, in comparison to the way I have heard it was 30 years ago, when somebody could get a bachelor's degree or a master's degree or a GED [while in prison]. Those things aren't available anymore. And that's unfortunate because by the time somebody gets out, if they don't have that armor, that depletes them. The good news that I'm proud about is that there's a focus on wanting to improve things. There's a broader focus on reentry. There's recognition that these men are going to be released and that we're going to need to support them, and that the state Department of Corrections does have a responsibility there. Whereas the mindset before was that they were only responsible for incarcerating them. That paradigm has shifted, and they're gearing up to help prepare the men for release. So I think that's a wonderful movement here in Maryland.
Rada Moss is director of the Maryland Reentry Project, a community-based partnership serving ex-offenders reentering their communities in the city of Baltimore.