Within the past two years, nearly 100 inmates from Rivers Correctional Institute, upon their release and return to their homes in the District, have made significant progress in both their careers and personal lives, thanks to an innovative approach which seeks to limit barriers which often derail their ability to find a footing in a strange, new world – the U.S. society in the age of COVID-19.
The program, the GEO Continuum of Care, appears to have found its niche as a much-needed support mechanism for many of the men who previously served time at the low-level, adult male facility. And while it has made a difference for a growing number of returning citizens anxious to secure a job within the D.C. government, some activists remain critical of the lack of incentives that would encourage private businesses to give greater consideration in their hiring practices, especially when one considers how the current global pandemic has crippled the economy.
“Giving returning citizens a second chance makes a solid community. We’re not going to throw people away if we can give them a job,” said Joe Johnson, a GEO Continuum of Care consultant who for the past 20 months has facilitated the reentry of District-based returning citizens who served time at Rivers Correctional Institute.
The partnership initially began when employees at Rivers Correctional Institution received skills training from GEO. Seven staff members have since been added to coordinate the program, which includes risk assessment, cognitive behavioral transitional treatment, case management, therapy and substance abuse intervention.
In his role, Johnson connects inmates with socioemotional supports while incarcerated, and helps them look for housing and employment. He’s also been an advocate for government incentives that would entice private employers to hire returning citizens – an endeavor that has since been threatened by the District’s COVID-19-related budget shortfall.
“The strategy was to get tax credits for businesses to do that but if the District needs money, they can’t give away tax credits during these days and times,” Johnson told The Informer. “Let’s hope that when we get stable, we can get a tax break for returning citizens.”
Earlier last month, in anticipation of a nearly $1.5 billion revenue decrease, the D.C. Council unanimously approved a version of the FY 2021 budget that increased gasoline taxes, cut non-essential operating costs and increased franchise taxes on technology companies that originally qualified for a tax break.
Additionally, the council’s amendments to D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s original plan were proposed to curb the economic and public health effects of COVID-19. It also paved the way for a $15 million decrease in the Metropolitan Police Department’s budget and the allocation of funds for public housing construction and repairs, rental eviction and violence prevention and to address clearly delineated racial inequities.
COVID-19 notwithstanding, returning citizens often encounter barriers in their attempt to reintegrate into society. For example, tenants with felony convictions remain ineligible for subsidized housing options even as the cost of living increases.
And in a 2018 study conducted by the D.C. Policy Center in Northwest, an independent research center that provides analysis on local policies and issues affecting the District, data suggests a nearly 30 percent reduction in inadequate housing could be achieved with the gainful employment of returning citizens.
More than five months since leaving prison, Lyneil Manago says he’s successfully handled many of the barriers he and other returning citizens routinely endure including the lack of a formal education, limited soft skills, a tenuous job history and mental health issues because of the support he received while enrolled in the GEO Continuum of Care program.
During his two-years at Rivers Correctional Institute, Manago, a journeyman since the late 1990s, often met with a caseworker who helped him work through anger issues and connected him with professional development opportunities that would get him back into his trade.
Manago says that upon his return to Southeast in March, the program paid his outstanding union dues and purchased work boots and clothes he needed in order to begin his new life.
“I’m married, got a good job, make good money and stay out of the way. I want to buy a house and hopefully get my own business one day,” Manago, a Local 77 operating engineer, told The Informer.
“The anger management helped me by giving me a lot of different options. [During] sessions with my case manager, we talked about anything when I had an issue. If they couldn’t help me, they would get someone to help, whether it was at home or in the prison,” he added.