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Returning from prison and recreating a stable life is a difficult task. People reentering society face challenges securing housing, employment, health care and more — all in the midst of trying to re-establish ties with their families and communities. In D.C., more than 60 percent of these people re-offend and go back to prison.
A variety of initiatives across the District seek to change that reality, including Georgetown’s Pivot program, a partnership with D.C.’s Department of Employment Services that provides a cohort of 20 recently returned citizens with business and entrepreneurship classes and internships. This summer, the program graduated its first group of fellows. We discuss the program and the reentry experience in D.C. with a Pivot graduate and a local policy expert.
Produced by Margaret Barthel
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. When D.C. residents leave prison or jail, they return home to the District. But even though they're now free, returning citizens face a new set of challenges. They need to find housing, employment, get healthcare, rebuild family and community relationships, all while complying with parole or probation restrictions. Many returning citizens don't succeed at that balancing act. More than half reoffend and go back into custody.
KOJO NNAMDIWhat's to be done about recidivism in the District? Georgetown University has one answer: a new program that provides returning citizens with business and entrepreneurship training and internships. Joining me to talk about this is Emily Tatro, deputy director of the Council for Court Excellence, a nonpartisan organization working to improve justice in the District. Emily Tatro joins us in studio. Thank you for joining us.
EMILY TATROThank you for having me here.
NNAMDIDeVaughn Bell is also with us. He's a graduate of Georgetown University's Pivot Program, it's called. DeVaughn Bell, thank you for joining us.
DEVAUGHN BELLThank you.
NNAMDIDeVaughn, you're one of the Pivot Program's first 20 graduates. What is the Pivot Program?
BELLThe Pivot Program is a intensive incubation for individuals returning from incarceration to be able to hone their skills, to start their own business. Or, if not, go into a career that's going to be financially stable for them.
NNAMDIHow did you come across the program?
BELLSo, upon my release, I was having problems with finding employment, even though my resume had got me three offers that were rescinded. So, someone told me about a program that the Department of Employment Services offered. And through that, I was introduced to the Pivot Program.
NNAMDIThe Pivot Program involves classes. What kind of classes did you take? Do you have one or two big takeaways from that classroom experience?
BELLSo, we do market and financing, communication skills. One of my biggest takeaways -- before the Pivot Program, I didn't think I needed marketing for my business. And upon graduation, I can honestly say that that's the biggest thing in business, marketing.
NNAMDIYou also did an internship. Where did you intern, and what did you learn?
BELLI’m actually still there, so Prequel D.C. is a restaurant incubator where a chef could come in from one night to six months to test their skills and menus and things, to see if they have what it takes to open their own restaurant. And for me, the biggest take-away from that is, I used to want to be an owner and a chef at my restaurant. Now I don't want to be that anymore, because I know that something's going to be cheated.
NNAMDIInteresting thing about you and this program is that you rediscovered your love of reading. I think the first time you got incarcerated, you were just short of getting our GED. So, you went ahead and got that, and then kind of fell out of the habit of reading. But putting you in this classroom situation, apparently recalled for you that you like to read. Tell us a little bit about that.
BELLSo, before the Pivot Program, I hadn't used my brain that hard in so long. And one of my professors, Josh Miller, was telling me how he'd read a book every week. In the first two weeks, we was given probably like 11 books, and...
NNAMDIChallenged you. (laugh)
BELLIt definitely was challenging, and I can honestly say now, since the program, in the last eight months I done read about 22 books.
NNAMDI(laugh) As a result of his challenges to you. You're a native Washingtonian. You used to go to school. At some point, you performed at Duke Ellington School, at some point. What did it mean to you to be a part of this Georgetown University community, and did you feel welcomed in that community?
BELLSo, as a youth in grade school, I used to go to Hardy Middle School, which was located right behind Georgetown University. So, 30 years ago, you couldn't tell me that I wasn't going to be a Hoya Saxa. So, to be accepted to this program and actually make it behind the gates, for me, it was amazing. It actually brought tears to my eyes to see that no matter how it long it takes, you can still have a change.
NNAMDIEmily Tatro, this program is one of several offered to returning citizens in D.C. who are trying to get back on their feet. How does Pivot compare to other education and training opportunities here in the District?
TATROIt has a special focus on business training and entrepreneurship, which is something that we see some of in the Aspire program and at DSLBD, but is pretty unique here in D.C. I think the other thing I can say, as Georgetown Law alum, is the Georgetown name and the Georgetown network, a lot of people get a lot of certificates leaving prison. You know, they have a certificate that says they can do this or do that. And they don't mean much when you come out and hit the ground. And having the reputation of Georgetown as an institution behind you makes a huge difference in who you can talk to and who will trust you to take that next step with your reentry.
NNAMDISeveral thousand people come back to the city from the correctional system each year. Are there enough spots and programs like Pivot to provide support for them?
TATRONo, unfortunately. There are about 20 graduates of the Pivot Program. We have -- last year, or 2017, we had more than 1,700 people coming home from prison alone, and almost 12,000 people cycling out of our local jail system. So, there is a massive need to meet, to make sure that people are ready to take jobs, that people have housing, that people are connected to healthcare and really to their community networks of support.
NNAMDIMany jobs in D.C. now require post-secondary education, which a lot of returning citizens don't have. But Pivot and other similar programs are not offering a full degree. Is there a disconnect there?
TATROI think there is, and it's something that's going to have to be addressed, at some point. We know that a lot of returning citizens aren't prepared immediately, coming home for a college degree, but that's not true. Returning citizens aren't a monolith. Every step of education makes you more and more likely to succeed. First year GED, and then getting some certificates or college credits, and definitely getting people enrolled in full credited college degree programs is the next step. We're really proud of some of the programs that the D.C. jail has going on right now with UDC and other schools in the area to allow people to take credited courses while they're incarcerated, as well.
NNAMDIYou know, back in the days when there was a Lorton Reformatory here, people could take college classes in Lorton Reformatory. One of the first people I ever hired in radio was a young man who had graduated magna cum laude from this American University while an inmate at Lorton Reformatory back in those days. DeVaughn, this is actually your third return to the District after a prison sentence. You were first incarcerated in 1996. What was it about this third time coming home that was different for you?
BELLFor me, coming home this time, I had the mindset that no matter what I was going through or what the circumstances was, that I was going to do whatever it took to not end up in that situation again. And I think the third time, you now, so to speak, I kind of seen a pattern that I was sinking into. And I didn't want to be there for the rest of my life. So, I had to make the steps necessary to change that.
NNAMDIHere is Brian in Washington, D.C. Brian, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BRIANHey, good afternoon, Kojo. Thank you for having me. I own a construction and development company in western D.C. called Blue Sky Construction and Blue Sky Development. We have a program through ABC Core at Anacostia High School where we train individuals two nights a week in construction, and we guarantee them jobs. It's an eight-week program.
BRIANOne of the things I'll say (unintelligible) do not hire in construction just in the DMV. We need over 500,000 people in order to continue to accelerate construction over the next 10, 15 years. And it's billions of dollars (unintelligible) from Washington, D.C. and the federal government, which is so unique about this area. And so we're always looking to hire. We're always looking to put people with the plumbing trades, electrical trades, mechanical trades. And so if people are returning home, we hire them constantly. We look forward to hiring them. So, we just hope that more people get involved (unintelligible).
NNAMDIAnd how can people get in touch with your program?
BRIANSo, our program is at Anacostia High School (unintelligible) Anacostia High School (unintelligible) ABC Core program, and they will direct you. We just had a class go through. It was 25 people. Unfortunately, only half graduated, but every person that was hired went into a trade and is now fully employed, so the 12 people that did. So, we're continually looking to (unintelligible) this program for the individuals. Thank you so much.
NNAMDIBrian, thank you for sharing that with us. Emily, nationally, about 75 percent of returning citizens are arrested again within five years of their release. The rate for the D.C. jail is only a bit better, at about 60 percent. What are the main reasons why so many people struggle to stay out of the system?
TATROOnce you're in, it's hard to get out. There are a lot of barriers to people successfully coming home and staying home, including your criminal record. We have Ban-the-Box in D.C.
NNAMDI(overlapping) Well, I was about to get that, because in 2014, the District Ban-the-Box made it illegal for employers to request information on criminal histories during their hiring processes. But your organization, the Council for Court Excellence, said in a 2016 report that 71 percent, 71 percent of employable citizens entering supervision in the District were unemployed. Is Ban-the-Box not working? Do people still get denied employment in the District as a result of their records?
TATROThey absolutely do. Ban-the-Box means that an employer or a landlord can't check until they've made that conditional offer. But they're still allowed to turn you down once they've looked at that point. And there are lots of informal ways to check records, as well, that we know people are getting screened out of these jobs. That's one of the reasons that we've really been pushing for criminal record sealing expungement laws in D.C. to change, so that we can actually go to the source, the records themselves, and change what is available to public view when. So that people looking for those records, if they're irrelevant, just can't find them.
NNAMDIBecause it's my understanding that getting records sealed in the District is fairly difficult.
TATROIt's very difficult in D.C. We had no record-sealing laws at all until about a decade ago. And even now, they're not very good. We have proposals right now from councilmembers Trayon White, Robert White, David Grosso, Mayor Bowser. And McDuffie actually just introduced another one this week. And Councilmember Allen, who chairs the Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety, has promised to do an omnibus mark up in September. So, we're really hoping to get those laws in the District changed before the end of the year.
NNAMDIWe should note that in May, a D.C. Office of Human Rights report indicated that the city had fined employers half-a-million dollars for not complying with the Ban-the-Box. So, if Ban-the-Box doesn't work what do you think could work? Maybe the sealing of the records?
TATROI think that's a piece of it, is sealing the records so that things -- we have one in seven adults in D.C. has a publically available criminal record right now. Half of those aren't even convictions. They're arrests, or something along the way that never ended in conviction. And that's not something that employers should be able to see and hold against you. If a conviction is very old or -- you know, these are all things that we can deal with from the court side to hide those so that they can't be used against people. Ban-the-Box is still important. We have to attack this from a lot of sides, but we need to give people the best opportunities available to them.
NNAMDIHere's Jerry, in Tacoma Park. Jerry, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JERRYYes. I came home in 2005. I haven't had any problems finding employment. In fact, I haven't had any problem with the law, period, since I came home. I was wondering, how could I get into the court program?
NNAMDIInto the Pivot Program that we're talking about?
JERRYYes, the Pivot Program. I'm still bumming around from job to job, because I can't find a job that pays me enough money to pay my bills.
TATROSo, Pivot Program is evaluating applications for their second class right now. You can go to their website and submit an application. The new students will be starting, I think, in late August.
NNAMDIOkay. And that's your tip right there, Jerry. Good luck to you, and thank you very much for calling. Emily, there's often disconnect between local authorities and the federal government, which runs the prisons where D.C. residents are incarcerated, and which makes decisions about parole for people returning to D.C. How does that disconnect affect reentry?
TATROSo, there are a couple of different pieces. One is that people are kept so far away from home. We have a lot of people who are incarcerated in Texas, in Florida, in California, and who really lose any connection that they have to family and to community overtime. But another piece of it is just data sharing and information. If someone isn't coming back to CSOSA or isn't coming back...
NNAMDIYou should explain what CSOSA is.
TATROExcuse me. If someone isn't coming back to community supervision probation and parole, or if they aren't coming back, they're at halfway house, we have about 25 percent of people who are just dropped on the streets in D.C., and we never knew they were here. And at least half of those people are immediately homeless. So that information sharing -- and from a research and policy perspective -- the data sharing, the overall, you know, what is the average daily population at BOP? We have one-day counts. We actually don't know a lot of information after the people are coming home.
NNAMDI(overlapping) BOP meaning the Bureau of Prisons.
NNAMDIDeVaughn, you were released from parole last week, but during your time under supervision -- and, by the way, congratulations. But during your time under supervision, you encountered some roadblocks, even though you were in the Pivot Program. What happened?
BELLSo, I had ended up getting my case file switched, unexpectedly. They just called me one day while I was in class, and told me that I had a new case manager. And upon meeting her, my prior case manager, he would see me on his late night, because he knew that I was in school and I didn't get out until a certain time. So, he would come to my house at 7:00. So, when I met her, she was like, well, I'm going to be at your house next week Tuesday. I was like, is that your late night? She's like, no, it's during the day. So, I'm, like, well, you know I'm going to be at school. She was, like, well, it's not my problem. You know, you need to be there or you're going to be in violation. I'm, like, well, I've been on papers for two years already, and I haven't had an issue yet with none of my, you know, case managers.
BELLSo, the blessing behind that was, after I spoke to her supervisor, I got switched back to my original case manager. And that's what led to the supervisor telling him to go ahead and put me in for early termination.
NNAMDIShe said that your being in class was not her problem.
BELLRight. I was the one on parole, not her.
NNAMDIWhat she did not say was that your being in class is, in her view, a good thing.
NNAMDIAnother feature, Emily, of the federal correctional system here in the District is Hope Village, the notorious local halfway house. Earlier this year, the federal Bureau of Prisons was set to award a new contract to a different operator to build a new halfway house, but there have been a number of roadblocks, including disputes over location for the project. Where do things stand now?
TATROSo, my understanding of the legal situation is that the BOP is still willing to site a men's halfway house at the New York Avenue location. And if we can't make it work there, then we are likely not to have a men's halfway house in D.C. anymore, which would be devastating for men coming home from prison.
NNAMDIPeople criticize Hope Village for a lot of things. Among them, that it doesn't fulfill its mission of helping returning D.C. residents get jobs. DeVaughn, you were in Hope Village for a time, back in 2017. What was your experience there, and do you think there's a good reason to shut the facility down?
BELLI think that they need an overhaul, so to speak, that they can offer better services. My encounter with them, you know, why I say that, you know, you got guys who coming home, who struggling to get themselves back, you know, in community and society. And they have to pay dues to the halfway house for bed space, and things of this such.
BELLYou know, one of my most negative experiences with them, they actually cost me a job. I had a job here. I applied at the zoo and, you know, for regular employment. But once I went on the interview, the manager was, like, you got manager skills. Why you not applying for a manager? So, I explained my criminal background history to her and everything. She was, like, don't worry about that. Come in. We want you for a manager. In order to leave the halfway house, you have to get permission. So, when she called -- well, the halfway house had to call her to verify where I was going, how long I was going to be and all that.
BELLSo, when the halfway house done that the lady was like, who are you and why you calling on his behalf? And when explained that she was my case manager and I was in a halfway house, the lady was like, well, tell him don't come. We don't even have employment for him. So, it could be a bad situation.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Josh, Emily. Would the cost of educating nonviolent offenders be less than the cost of incarceration? This would be a good motivator for taxpayers to support education of incarcerated people.
TATROYeah, I mean, of course. Anything that you do in the community is going to be less expensive than doing it in a correctional facility, where you have to pay for security and for housing, on top of everything else.
NNAMDIDeVaughn, now that you're a Pivot Program graduate, what comes next for you?
BELLI'm actually in the process of obtaining commercial kitchen space to get my caterer's license and everything official, and start my own company, The Empty Plate Catering. And hopefully put myself in a position where I could help be a solution to this problem, as well, of hiring returning citizens.
NNAMDIAnd what does your catering business offer?
BELLHallal and vegan catering.
NNAMDIHallal and vegan catering, compliments of DeVaughn Bell. DeVaughn Bell is a graduate of Georgetown University's Pivot Program. DeVaughn, thank you so much for joining us. Good luck to you.
BELLThank you for having me.
NNAMDIEmily Tatro is deputy director of the Council for Court Excellence, a nonpartisan organization working to improve justice in the District. Emily Tatro, thank you so much for joining us.
TATROThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIThis conversation about initiatives helping former inmates reintegrate was produced by Margaret Barthel. And our look at the 1919 D.C. race riots was produced by Monna Kashfi. Coming up tomorrow, we're cranking up the tunes as we ask: what's happening in local music today? We'll hear from musicians, critics and the record label founder about the summer's hottest hits. And we'll check in on the region's hip-hop, R & B, indie and, yes, go-go and punk scenes. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. You don't want to miss it. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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