Many of the more than 2,000 persons released from Virginia prisons each year walk away with $25 in their pockets, the clothes on their backs and little hope of finding a job or a friendly reception in their communities, according to state officials.
Those facts, officials add, could help to explain why one of every three former inmates in the state commits another crime within 90 days of release and winds up inside prison walls again.
The high rate of recidivism is the major reason behind the recent creation of Virginia Cares Inc., a $1 million statewide program offering pre- and post-release counseling for prisoners and their families, help with finding jobs and, when needed, money. The program was launched last week by a coalition of Virginia community action agencies.
"This program is revolutionary," said Jack Powers, president of the Alexandria Economic Opportunities Commission and head of Virginia Cares. "There currently is no federal agency that works on crime prevention for affected people."
The new program will bring together the services of several community agencies -- such as Offender Aid and Restoration in Arlington and Operation Street in Alexandria -- and will offer statewide services that currently do not exist, Powers said.
Virginia Cares plans to set up programs in 20 cities and will provide transitional aid, money, counseling, job referrals and emergency aid to people just leaving prison and to their families, said Bill Moulden, an official with the program.
Moulden said four pre-release teams will visit inmates about to be released from facilities in Northern Virginia, Roanoke, Richmond and Norfolk.
In addition, Virginia Cares will establish 10 temporary job programs for former prisoners. The group is operating three such programs now -- in Alexandria, Lunchburg and Roanoke -- and seven others will be set up shortly, Moulden said.
"Statistically, I should be back in prison already," said James Sullivan, a participant in Operation Street in Alexandria, which is joining the Virginia Cares program. "I spent 15 years in prison for a property crime I committed in 1965. I was released in June 23, 1980, and statistically I should have been back in prison within 90 days," Sullivan told a group of social workers and government officials who gathered last week at Alexandria's Lyceum building to help launch the statewide program.
As of Oct. 15 of this year, 9,184 persons were confined in Virginia prisons, and another 986 state prisoners were being held in local jails because there was no room in the state system, according to state figures. Last year, state officials said, 2,846 persons were freed or paroled from prison.
Virginia Cares, a private, nonprofit agency, has a budget of $1,071,290 for its first year. Most of that money -- $550,000 -- comes from a U.S. Labor Department grant. Another $276,000 comes from state CETA programs. The rest comes from local agencies participating in the program, officials said.