Thursday, November 02, 2006

“With Their Heads Held High”

Northeast Times highlights criminal rehabilitation.

For 20 years, the Redirection Center Inc. has been helping those in recovery in the Frankford community. As the lead organization of the Frankford Reentry Pilot Project, the center hosted a recent meeting of advisory board members at its headquarters at 1926 Margaret St.

A consortium of organizations and city agencies is working together to improve the community by assisting ex-offenders from the 19124 ZIP code and their families. The mission is to help the former inmates restore their lives and thus reduce the high rate of those who return to crime and life behind bars.

According to spokesman Ray Perry, the ex-offenders typically serve between four and 23 months at the Philadelphia Industrial Corrections Center on State Road for misdemeanor crimes such as possessing drugs or using them.

"We don’t deal with heavy offenders, not felony crimes, not murder or sex offenses," Perry said, discussing the kinds of ex-inmates who don’t qualify for the re-entry program.

A social worker behind the city’s prison walls chooses the ex-offenders likely to be good candidates for the program.

"We prefer they have three months left on their sentence, so we can mentor them and start to get things in order, so that when they come to us, we’ve already done a job search and they can get right to work," Perry said, adding that program participants are mentored for another nine months.

The project already has placed roughly 10 people in jobs. There are two recent ex-offenders — a man and a woman — who are out of jail and enrolled in the program and doing well so far, according to Perry.

The woman, Denise, stood and introduced herself to the Frankford Reentry Advisory Board members during the recent meeting at the Redirection Center Inc., putting a face to the project for those in attendance.

Board members are representatives of community-based organizations that provide services to ex-offenders. Those services include vocational training and help with finding housing.

The president and vice presidents of Pioneers International Inc. spoke to the roughly 30 board members about their training program, called ServSafe Certification, for ex-offenders trying to build a life outside of prison.

The program offers national food-handling certification to those who complete the eight-week course, which also includes life-skills training, basic computer training and job placement with restaurants, catering companies, food service companies, hotels, nursing homes or hospitals. State law requires that at least one employee of any food-handling institution be ServSafe certified.

Richard Green, president of Pioneers International, said there is much merit in the program.

"We want to bring our program to this community," Green said. "It will give (graduates) the edge that a lot of people don’t have. They can come in with their heads held high, not coming into a situation where someone is doing them a favor."

While the organization is bringing the program to Frankford through the Reentry Pilot Project, free classes will be held at Pioneers headquarters, 1315 Walnut St., Suite 500, starting in early December.

Each consecutive eight-week class will accommodate a maximum of 20 students. Those classes are filling fast, with an extensive waiting list, said vice president James Marshall.

Pioneers International expects to train at least 100 people in the first year of the program.

"In most cases, a job is there waiting for them. It’s an industry with plenty of opportunity," Green said.

The classes, he explained, are ideal for those who have the "entrepreneurial spirit but are doing it the wrong way."

"They can take that kind of energy and apply it in the right way, turn their life around, and become model citizens," Green said.

Classes also can be coordinated for those in the recovery process or taking medications as part of treatment.

Pioneers is also recruiting non-profit organizations for community-service outreach as part of a welfare-to-work initiative. Clients would work 20 hours per week, for free, for four weeks. Organizations can have as many workers as needed during that educational period, with a case manager checking their attendance daily.

For more information about either program, call 215-732-2991.

In addition to aiding ex-offenders, the re-entry project provides outreach to the families and the children of those in the program.

According to the Rev. Richard Smith, a prevention effort is being started to take a group of youngsters on a retreat in the mountains, along with hosting free hip-hop concerts for young people between 12 and 24 years of age.

"Statistics tell us that there is a six-percent chance that ex-offenders’ children will also be offenders," Smith said.

Dr. Victoria Yancey, special representative for community relations and faith-based initiatives for the School District of Philadelphia, also invited board members to "surround our arms around children that are wanting and needing," at an anti-violence summit from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday, Nov. 4, at Benjamin Franklin High School, 550 N. Broad St.

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