Marsha Martin will never forget the day she was released from a military correctional facility in 2011, after serving a 15-month sentence for theft. One thought kept running through her mind: “How do I start my life over?”
“It took me about six months to break down my pride and go to the system and say, ‘I need help,’ ” Martin, 41, said. The Alexandria resident went to OAR (Opportunities, Alternatives and Resources) of Fairfax County, one of a handful of nonprofit organizations in Northern Virginia that help offenders reenter society. She received assistance with her résumé there, and she eventually landed a job in veterans’ services.
Despite two promotions in her first year, she was forced to resign, she said, because her felony record kept her from obtaining accreditation through an affiliate organization. She eventually returned to OAR to seek further help.
According to Justice Department figures, about 650,000 people are released from state and federal prisons each year. Millions more are released from local jails annually, according to the Council of State Governments. After reports last year that 46,000 drug offenders in federal prisons could qualify for early release under revised sentencing guidelines, reentry organizations such as OAR have been bracing for a potential surge in clients.
“I look at it as like a tsunami that’s coming, and you know it’s a hundred miles out, but it really hasn’t impacted us in that way yet,” said Derwin Overton, executive director of OAR.
Reentry programs are designed to reduce recidivism — repeat offenders returning to the criminal justice system — but data on their effectiveness is hard to evaluate, said Danielle S. Rudes, associate professor of criminology, law and society at George Mason University. Jurisdictions track information differently, and the computer programs they use are often incompatible with one another, she said.
“Recidivism can mean re-conviction, re-arrest or re-incarceration,” Rudes said. “So you could be comparing apples to oranges,” depending on how each agency uses the term. Although scientific studies on the effectiveness of these programs are inconclusive, she said, “You will find tremendous anecdotal evidence from places like OAR that offenders are indeed being helped.”
Many local groups that offer reentry services outside correctional facilities are nonprofit organizations, such as OAR of Arlington County, which serves Arlington, Alexandria and Falls Church; and Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, which provides services in suburban Maryland and the District.
Montgomery County helps offenders connect with the nonprofit organizations as they leave the correctional system.
“Reentry is about a warm handoff, about making a connection,” said Robert Green, director of the Montgomery County Department of Correction and Rehabilitation. “When you make a human connection, the likelihood of follow-up is much higher.”
OAR of Fairfax County is extending its reach into Loudoun and Prince William counties, said Brandon Cosby, the group’s director of development. Case workers assist inmates in all three counties, and OAR has applied for a grant from Loudoun this year, in hopes of expanding services there.
Several former inmates said they benefited from the classes OAR conducts in the Fairfax and Loudoun detention centers.
Samuel Johnson, 35, of Sterling took life skills classes offered by OAR when he was in the Loudoun Adult Detention Center for selling drugs. After being in and out of jail for more than a decade, he realized that he needed to change.
“I started doing a moral search of myself, just trying to figure out who I was and what I wanted,” Johnson said. “They taught you how to look at things from a different perspective. And I was able to utilize those skills to help change my life, along with the Bible and some good self-reflection.”
OAR’s life-skills classes focus on anger management, parenting and financial literacy. Other classes aim to help inmates understand the effects of crime and how to avoid the thought processes that lead to criminal behavior. These classes are particularly important, Cosby said, because criminal thinking — such as resistance to authority and an inability to delay gratification — is one of the main risk factors for returning to jail.
“I started making better decisions” after taking the classes, Johnson said. “If you have an anger problem, [you learn] how to think before you react, and how to recognize when you’re getting upset, so you know when to leave. So you don’t just blow up.”
OAR also conducts classes in résumé writing, interviewing for jobs, keyboarding and other basic computer skills to aid offenders with their job searches. Johnson said that helped him get a job working for a company that modernizes elevators, escalators and moving walkways. He was able to buy a car. He is now preparing to buy a home, he said.
OAR’s post-release program starts by helping inmates with their immediate — and most basic — needs.
“For many of them, everything they own is in the clear plastic bag that the sheriff’s office hands them” when they are released, Cosby said. “They don’t know where their next meal is, and they don’t know where they’re going to go.”
The bag contains only what they had with them when they were arrested — often just the clothes they were wearing at the time, Cosby said.
“If you were arrested in June in flip-flops and shorts, and you’re released [in the winter], you’ll be wearing flip-flops and shorts,” he said.
OAR keeps a supply of donated clothes to give clients when they are released, along with personal hygiene kits with items such as shampoo, a razor, soap and deodorant.
“Those types of things can go a long way to just make you feel human again,” Cosby said.
Housing and transportation are two other immediate needs. Even public transit can be a challenge for people without money, so OAR will help with bus tokens and Metro SmarTrip cards, Cosby said.
“We’ll try to get them to a safe place,” he said. “We can pay for the transportation there, make sure they have appropriate clothing, and try to get them into a stable arena.”
After that, OAR’s case workers assess offenders’ needs and risk factors, and follow up periodically to see how they are doing.
Because obtaining employment is often one of the biggest hurdles to starting over successfully, OAR develops and maintains a list of employers who are willing to hire its clients.
“An investment in people, even formerly incarcerated individuals, offers such a great return in a variety of places, from a public safety aspect,” Overton said. “They can earn money and in turn start paying taxes and give back to a community. They can get engaged with their children and break that cycle of crime.”
Several former offenders said that the moral support they received from OAR was invaluable to them.
“You’re looking at all of these challenges,” said John, a 45-year-old Fairfax resident who served nearly five years in prison for larceny. He asked that his last name be withheld to protect his privacy. “How am I going to make money? How am I going to get work?
“Every couple of months, they would call me out of the blue,” he said. “I had a great career before I screwed my life up, but that didn’t mean a whole lot when I got out. I didn’t really know how I was going to overcome that hurdle.”
OAR connected John with potential employers, “places that you could feel comfortable applying for if you said you were coming through OAR,” he said. “So you could approach the situation and not have to say right out, ‘I have a criminal background.’ ” He eventually found a succession of jobs in management.
“When you’re locked up for a long time like I was, you have to relearn a lot of things, because you get really institutionalized,” John said. “People can have good experiences when they get out if they work at it and have the proper support.”
After serving time for selling drugs, Jose Amaro, 31, of Leesburg has gotten a job building retaining walls. He said his OAR caseworker is helping him find recreational activities so that he can “meet good people so I don’t go back to the lifestyle I used to live.”
“I think I’ve been doing good,” he said. “I’ve been holding this job, and I haven’t been thinking about taking any shortcuts.”
The reentry process has not gone as smoothly for Martin, who spends much of her time perusing job listings and filling out applications. The stigma of her felony conviction has stayed with her, nearly five years after her release.
“It’s as if you’re reliving that sentencing day every day,” she said.
Martin would like to help others who have had experiences similar to hers. She hopes to land a job as a caseworker for a reentry organization, as a first step toward her long-term goal of becoming a professional counselor.
“People can get in a place of hopelessness, and not knowing which way to go,” she said. “I want to assist people in moving forward. I don’t want to be a problem. I want to be a solution.”