After incarceration, the community reintegration process, known as reentry, is vital to the health and long-term success of those coming back home. However, there are many barriers to reentry that make the return to society difficult, increasing the chance that a returning citizen re-offends or violates their parole, which sends them back to prison. This reentry period after their release is an immensely vulnerable time, with 77% of returning citizens across the country rearrested and 55% returning to prison within three(3) years of their release.
Richard Garland, now Executive Director and Founder of ReimagineReentry, was one of these statistics. Mr. Garland grew up in the northeastPhiladelphia neighborhood of Frankfurt, living with his grandmother until the age of 13, when she could no longer care for him. At that young age with very little to support him, Garland was picked up, raised, and supported instead, by a local gang.
I sit with Garland, now 68 years old, and he talks about how he has spent more than a third of his life in and out of prison for crimes related to gang violence. He spent his final stint in prison from 1979 to 1991 fora crime he did not commit.
To help returning citizens make that transition back into their communities, reentry programs aim to address the barriers people face to living and working outside of prison, and attempt to break the cycle of re-incarceration, known as recidivism. Reentry programs ease the transition from corrections to community through services such as vocational training, educational opportunities, job placement, and housing assistance. Reentry barriers are numerous, complex, and can be difficult to navigate even with an agency’s help.There are social, financial, legal, psychological, and logistical barriers to reentry – and of course, there is a lot of stigma against those who have spent time behind prison walls.
For decades, the criminal justice system focused mainly on a person’s individual propensity and risk for crime, rather than a person’s environment and factors beyond their control that create a pipeline to incarceration. When a criminal system focuses on a person’s deficits and risks and misses their strengths and abilities as a whole person, it perpetuates negative and toxic stereotypes and creates a society of unending punishment. This kind of a risk-centric status quo can often continue beyond prison into traditional reentry programs.
Rather, Reimagine Reentry’s strengths-based model is based on the idea that returning citizens’ own strengths and motivations are the best suited to overcome the barriers they may face during reentry, promoting the truth that every single person has inherent value and is willing and capable to productively contribute to their community and all of society. Through this, ReimagineReentry aims to change the narrative around returning citizens and recidivism.
After his last 13 years in prison, part of Richard’s condition for parole was that he could not go back to Philadelphia. As he was preparing for his release, a correctional guard told Richard that he’d be back in prison in a week. Garland said nothing, but half agreed with the guard. But on August 21st, 1991, Garland walked out of the former Western State Penitentiary in Pittsburgh, a very different person from when he first entered.
“Moving to Pittsburgh gave me a platform,” but coming fromPhiladelphia gave Garland credibility. “Before you can be truly revolutionary, you have to change yourself. You have to unlearn all that was taught by the system. MOVE taught me to see myself through a different lens.” Garland shared, referencing the MOVE Project, the Philadelphia-born, Black liberation group founded by John Africa in 1972. Garland recalls, “when [MOVE] first talked about ‘All Life Is One’, I was struck by that. We all need the same air to breathe. If I cut you, you bleed the same asme,” Garland says as he looks down at his arm. “When I was in the penitentiary, the guards knew how to push my buttons. But MOVE taught me not to react. When I stopped reacting, that’s when I became a threat to the system. MOVE helped me make that transition.”
Before Garland left Western Penitentiary, he knew he wanted to do something to give back to all who mentored him and got him on the right path. He start casual; talking to people with similar backgrounds as his, sharing his story of personal transformation and encouraging others to believe in themselves. He was well liked, and well received. Eventually, he was asked to speak to youth inPittsburgh, fell in love with the work, and decided to continue his education and practice in social work.
Thirty years later, Garland is now up for pardon by the state of Pennsylvania, his case even being called a “slam dunk” by staff members at the Pennsylvania Department ofCorrections. Garland is now one of the Pittsburgh region’s most well-known and well-respected violence prevention experts. Reimagine Reentry was conceived from culmination of his lifetime of experiences, but Reimagine isn’t about Garland’s experience – it’s about the shared experience of being a returning citizen.
“Reimagine is bigger than me,” Garland says firmly. “It’s about the all the [people] behind me. Reimagine is about creating a path that others can follow, but with their own footsteps. Reimagine Reentry is laying the groundwork. There is a pathway –a pathway to sustainability. We lead by example.”
At Reimagine Reentry, it’s not about second chances; it’s about a third, or a fourth, or a70th or 80th – as many chances as it takes. ReimagineReentry is about the individual. Reentry is a human story, and ReimagineReentry is here to help human people.
“We are not trying to create another system that spits people out, that doesn’t forgive people, that condemns people,” says Lindsay Angelo, Director of Administration for Reimagine Reentry. “Of course, there is a degree of responsibility and accountability, but we are not here to create another system. We’re trying to show people another way.”
There is no one-size-fits-all model for successful reentry. Every returning citizen has a unique set of needs, circumstances, and environments that determine the services and resources they will need throughout their reentry process. Current research supports that holistic, comprehensive reentry programs appear to hold promise at reducing recidivism and producing positive reentry outcomes. Reentry is a hard story to tell, but ReimagineReentry is willing to take a chance where others may not.
Garland perks up and leans in, “the tides are changing for incarceration and reentry. People are more interested in this work than ever before...I’ve been able to raise millions of dollars for this work over years, and then we just got a grant of over $1 million in one shot.” You could feel the disbelief and gratitude. The man who faced the threat of life in prison, was once banished from his home city in Philadelphia, has spent his year since doing violence prevention work with the support of the Pittsburgh community and its philanthropic institutions. And now, he currently awaits a contract with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to work directly with Reimagine Reentry. “I was in the system, part of the system,” Garland concedes, “and now, thirty years later, the system is going to pay me to do this work. That’s full circle.”
“Reimagine is hope. Hope that we can reduce the recidivism rate. That’s what we talk about. Hope. That’s what Reimagine is.” Garland leans back in his chair and puts his arms behind is head, looking both satisfied and relaxed but also humbled and mellow. “I will never forget where I came from. That’s what drives me every day.All the [people] I left behind.”