Transitioning back into society

Time and again they pleaded with him to make the phone call. He wouldn’t have to handle the drugs. All he had to do was set up the buy.
He knew it was wrong, and probably a crime, too. Each time the friends of his college roommate mentioned it, Kirk James found the courage to say no.

Until the one time he said yes.

In 1994, following his conviction, a judge sentenced James, then 18 years old, to seven years to life. When he was released from a New York state prison after serving nine years, James was filled with anger toward the criminal justice system. He was also determined to change it.

“The dehumanization I experienced in prison was eye-opening for me, but also something that sat with me where I knew I had to impact some change around the criminal justice system,” James says.

He finished his undergraduate degree and earned a Master’s in Social Work (MSW) before enrolling in 2010 in the new Doctorate in Social Work program at Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice. His advisor, Professor Ram Cnaan, was looking for someone to champion a novel proposal. The idea was to develop a new program to place social work students as a group inside a prison to work with individuals for 90 days pre- and post-release in order to reduce the likelihood of recidivism.

The Goldring Reentry Initiative (GRI), which is named for funder Gary Goldring, places selected Penn MSW students in six-month internships to help incarcerated individuals transition successfully out of prison and back to society. Students meet with prisoners for the three months leading up to their release and may continue to help them for an additional three months post-release.

More than 2.3 million people are incarcerated in the United States, James says, and 5 million more are on parole, probation, or under some form of government supervision. Each year, 700,000 individuals are released from prison, and researchers estimate upwards of 70 percent will return to prison within three years.

James says prisons have social work programs to help with reentry, but workers carry huge caseloads, and there’s little follow-up once a person leaves.

“The post-release piece is crucial because the trust that’s built up inside is left behind bars when a person is released. There’s no communication between the parole or probation office and the prison social worker,” James says. “We can provide that bridge and that level of support that’s often times missing.”

Each of the eight GRI student participants carries a limited caseload, but more than 140 inmates have been served since the inception of the program last spring. Students travel to the prison to learn about their clients’ goals for release, health issues, areas of concern, and available support systems—information critical to forming a realistic discharge plan.

Post-release, students help their clients implement the plan by acquiring identification, housing, and government benefits, while addressing issues around physical and mental health, alcohol and substance abuse, family reunification, education, employment, and community support.

In counseling the students and clients, James preaches the value of small victories. His personal experience lends credibility to the program, which is voluntary for the clients. Building on lessons learned in year one, they’ve increased their client retention rate to 70 percent.

Research shows a growing need for specialized, hands-on training for social workers in the criminal justice system. Social workers interact regularly with populations that, because of their challenges, are more likely to have some type of contact with the criminal justice system, either as victims or perpetrators of crime. Yet fewer than 20 percent of accredited MSW programs offer educational opportunities in the criminal justice system, and only 8 percent of students enrolled in MSW programs in the United States in 2012 were working in criminal justice settings for their field placements, notes Erica Zaveloff, one of two GRI student coordinators.

“While the organizing value of social work is said to be ‘social justice,’ little of that organizing value has been utilized toward issues surrounding prisons, prisoners, or subsequently, reentry,” she says.

The effectiveness of the continuum-of-care approach to reducing recidivism has been demonstrated by several community-based organizations and studied by the United States Department of Justice. But James, who graduates in May, is not aware of another MSW program that’s using the model.

“The feedback from students has been very amazing, but I think they’ve also realized how systemically challenging it is for their clients to succeed once they’re released,” he says. “We’re totally learning to fly while in the air. But something needs to be done. I would rather be on the ground figuring it out than doing nothing.”

Originally published on March 21, 2013