Leaders of organizations that assist former inmates resume their D.C. residency, have mixed feelings about a new job training and placement program that's also aimed at their clientele.
D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray (D) announced on Jan. 23 that an agreement had been signed between District and federal agencies to work toward reintegrating previously incarcerated citizens into mainstream society. Gray, 70, said that the plan, known as The D.C. Re-Entry Initiative, and which includes a resource center component, is necessary to help returning citizens live full and productive lives.
"No one can deny that incarceration has had a major impact on our community both socially and economically, with tens of thousands of District residents who have been involved in the criminal justice system at some point," the mayor said.
"Re-integration and social connectivity are keys to a safer society. We must do everything possible to ensure that every individual seeking an opportunity to turn their lives around after incarceration has a place to come and begin the process."
Gray said the One City Re-entry Resource Center will be a place where returning citizens can learn skills that will enable them to turn their lives around."
Statistics indicate that approximately 60,000 District residents are either incarcerated, on probation or on parole, and that 90 percent of them are African American. After leaving prison, many have difficulty securing housing and jobs.
The Office on Returning Citizen Affairs (OCRA), which is led by Charles Thornton, is charged with putting the mayor's initiative into action. However, Gray's effort brings a smile to the face of Yango Sawyer, co-founder of the Coalition of Returning Citizens.
"I think it is a great idea to put resources in one location and you don't have to go across town," said Sawyer, who lives in Southeast. "[People] expect returning citizens to come back home and work miracles as far as finding employment and a place to live is concerned. OCRA needs to have more money to do its job."
Roach Brown, founder and director of the prison dram troupe, Inner Voices, nd a nationally known advocate for returning citizens, agrees with Sawyer.
"It is a step in the right direction to have a one-stop shop for returning citizens," said Brown, 68. "I think however, that ORCA needs an increase in its budget."
Sawyer points out that there are instances where individuals have been incarcerated for decades and when they return to the District, they lack the necessary life skills to gain employment or to function in society.
"There is no computer training in prison," he said. "Some guys come out and cannot use a computer and that hurts them in their job search. Many of these guys have no place to stay and housing becomes a big problem."
The housing issues are what concerns Deborah Rowe, executive director of the advocacy organization, Returning Citizens United, located in Northeast.
Rowe, who is skeptical of Gray's initiative, said that while "housing is the greatest need that returning citizens have," other issues such as substance abuse and health care also need to be addressed.
"I am not too impressed with the mayor's program because it is too vague," said Rowe, 53. "We have job training programs for returning citizens so [why] do we need a one-stop shop," she asked. "I am confused about what this resource center will do."
Rowe further noted that returning citizens need jobs.
"We have a number of returning citizens who have four, five, six certifications walking around with no jobs," she said. "These people need jobs. I don't see a real commitment from the mayor on this."
Nonetheless, Sawyer remains optimistic about Gray's intentions.
"We need to lay a successful foundation for re-entry in this city and I think this initiative does that," he said. "Coming home from being incarcerated is not as easy as people think, because there are many obstacles to overcome."