Prince George’s County, Maryland team offers support to ex-convicts

When William “BJ” Paige left prison and returned home to Prince George’s County nearly two decades ago, it took him years to navigate the services that would lead to a career.

In 2005, while trying different websites to find job opportunities, he was blocked by new technologies that he hadn’t become familiar with while incarcerated. When he looked in person, as he met with social services to get food stamps, he was told the placement resources were in another location. He later found work at a car dealership, then at a grocery store, but it took him until 2014 — when he joined Howard University as an executive assistant — to get into the business. career he wanted, he said.

Now, the entrepreneur, career consultant and motivational speaker works as a liaison in the county’s new Returning Citizens Affairs Division, hoping to ease the transition of people re-entering society.

“We’re creating the culture of what it’s like for returning citizens to come home and get involved,” Paige said.

Although housing, employment and other resources are available through various departments and non-profit organizations throughout the county, the division under the office of County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) was created to help strengthen the reintegration strategy in Prince George , officials said.

Those incarcerated face a number of obstacles when trying to reintegrate into communities, including finding affordable housing and employment, often because landlords or rental agencies require documents such as identification and financial documents. that it is difficult for returning citizens to obtain immediately.

Michael Williams, director of the division, said it was essential that people also received mental health and addiction recovery support. The new division plans to create an ongoing “education campaign” for people even before they are released from jail or prison, so they are aware of the resources and help available to them and can find a “sense of hope early in the process”. he said.

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“What we’re hoping to do is create an ecosystem within the county that supports returning citizens,” said Williams, who has worked on reintegration issues in DC and most recently worked as a senior director of the justice policy at Pew Charitable Trusts. “Our office will play a vital role in raising awareness of the services that currently exist, then identifying the need for additional services, partners and programs so that we can begin to see what gaps exist and how we might be able to fill them. fill these gaps.

The County Council’s Reinstatement Advisory Board released a report in November with recommendations to improve the county’s reinstatement process and reduce recidivism. The council met for more than two years and included members from nonprofits, incarcerated people, and county government agencies.

In fiscal year 2020, 348 people returned to the county from state detention centers, not counting those who may also have returned from local or federal prisons, according to Angie Rodgers, assistant administrative director for economic development. at the County Executive’s Office. Part of the goal of reintegration initiatives is to give people tools – such as housing and placement – ​​to prevent them from returning to prison.

About 40% of people incarcerated in Maryland reoffend and return to jail or prison within three years of being release, often not for committing another major crime, but for parole violations or other technical violations, said Vanessa Bright, executive director and founder of the Maryland Reentry Resource Center.

Bright said the key to reducing recidivism is to intervene before release and make resources available to people leaving prison as soon as possible. Prisons and prisons could do a better job of creating systems that will allow people to succeed, from securing identification, a social security card and birth certificate to arrange transportation home from work, Bright said.

“There is a high percentage of people who come back [to prison] just because of the obstacles they have to face,” Bright said.

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If the government wants to get involved in helping people return successfully to communities, divisions such as Prince George should be empowered to make decisions and communicate with correctional institutions, agencies and non-profit organizations. lucrative to bring about real change, Bright said.

“We create new entities, and nothing changes their lives,” Bright said. “We nonprofits are trying to solve this problem…but [the government] should solve the problems that we cannot solve.

Rodgers said the county executive’s office economic development plans include increasing the number of affordable housing units in the county.

Last year, the council passed a bill to create a financial incentive scheme, provided by the county’s workforce development organization, Employ Prince George’s, for companies to hire residents released from incarceration in qualifying positions that pay at least $15 per hour. The program reimburses qualifying employers at a rate of $5 per hour for up to 40 hours per week, with a maximum of 1,000 hours for each year of employment after the incarcerated former employee’s hire date , in accordance with the law.

For Council Chairman Calvin Hawkins (D), sponsor of the legislation that formed the Rehabilitation Advisory Council, improving outcomes and prioritizing opportunities for incarcerated people is personal.

The council member served more than five years in prison in his twenties for armed robbery in 1983, he said.

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“I see this as an opportunity to give back to some of those who have to travel the way I have travelled,” Hawkins said. “And it’s going home to the community and having so many viable opportunities and options to be successful and not go back to jail.”

Williams said that Since joining Division, he and Paige have met with government officials, nonprofits, and returning citizens and found “a lot of enthusiasm” from partners about back-to-school work. underway in the county.

“A good re-entry strategy is a good public safety strategy,” Williams said. “I believe that by working to improve the conditions of our men and women who return home after periods of incarceration, we can reduce the number of those who end up returning or even adopt lifestyles that bring back people in prison. »

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