After nearly two decades in prison, Isaac Rivera was ready to remake himself.

Isaac Rivera before a meeting of the Lancaster reentry program at Ebenezer Baptist Church.
BRADLEY C. BOWER
Isaac Rivera before a meeting of the Lancaster reentry program at Ebenezer Baptist Church.

The 41-year-old from Lancaster served time after a 1997 conviction on assault and rape charges, but he thought that his violent past could be behind him — if only he could find a way to jump-start his reinvention.

Then came a sign.

After he was released in January, he recalled, he was sitting in the waiting room at Lancaster's Probation and Parole Office.

"I saw a brochure, it said, 'Just got out?' And I pulled the brochure out, and lo and behold, it talked about a support group for those who are returning citizens," said Rivera, using a phrase for former inmates that is popular with advocacy groups.

At first, the pitch generated conflicting feelings.

"As much as I was anxious to be free, I was also nervous coming into a environment I wasn't aware of," said Rivera.

Pushing aside his discomfort, he attended the support group meeting in the quiet basement of a Lancaster church. He found community with a few dozen other people facing some of the struggles he was confronting in trying to start a new life from scratch.

"Over 20 years, a lot of stuff has been lost," Rivera said. "So here's the Catch-22: I need a state ID in order to get a birth certificate. I can't get a birth certificate without an ID."

Hearing of his quandary, those in the room who work with Lancaster's Re-entry Management Organization — which organized the gathering — realized that they needed to help Rivera sort this out.

Melanie Snyder, who leads the re-entry coalition in Lancaster, said these kinds of conversations, led by former inmates, help Rivera and others feel more connected with the community.

"There are so few places where people who have been caught up in the criminal justice system can feel like their voices matter," Snyder said. "So coming into that space every week, where they know they will be accepted and welcomed and respected and loved, is like this manna from heaven."

Life training for former inmates

These twice-weekly sessions are just a sliver of the services encompassed in an intensive program for ex-convicts in Lancaster that is stirring statewide conversation, and prompting criminal-justice advocates and county officials across the state to note the program's impressive results.

Cities across Pennsylvania have grappled with trying to keep those leaving prison out of trouble, with only mixed results.

More than four out of 10 inmates who are released from state custody end up reoffending or re-entering jail within a year of their release, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections' latest statistics.

The Lancaster model, called an intensive care-management program, has a recidivism rate of just 15 percent among former inmates who participate — although they number only about 1 percent of those released each year from the county prison.

It's kind of like life-training boot camp for former inmates. Those enrolled are set up with transitional housing. They have days full of job workshops on everything from personal finances to sprucing up a resumé and learning how to talk about the offense that landed them behind bars. Each person is assigned a case manager, who monitors weekly goals. And probation and parole officials in Lancaster, usually on opposite sides, are partners in the program.

"If you address the things, the need areas, that are making a client's risk to recidivate higher, you reduce that individual's risk level. You by definition make that community safer," said Mark Wilson, who leads Lancaster County Adult Probation and Parole Services.

Top probation officials usually focus on law enforcement, not human services. Wilson said he believes in a balance. So much so that Lancaster's re-entry organization is housed in the same building as the probation intake unit. That's where a former inmate makes his first stop, once released from jail.

Returning to a private bathroom, other conveniences

From there, those who enter the intensive program might meet Doug Hopwood.

He helps the formerly incarcerated find living situations. Giving a tour of a downtown Lancaster housing site in a former hotel now called TLC, Hopwood notes a detail in the college-dorm-style rooms that most people would gloss over: a private bathroom.

"You're coming out of prison, and you have your own bathroom, it's a pretty big deal," Hopwood said. "Yeah, there's definitely some things we all take for granted."

There's a fair amount of supervision when living in one of the 52 spots at TLC. For instance, those staying there, once they find jobs, are charged a modest rent that rises over time. They have to keep their quarters spic and span. And they have to be civil neighbors. Hopwood said these goals help people transition smoothly.

"Landlords care about three things," Hopwood said. "They care about paying your rent on time, keeping your place clean, and being a good neighbor, which are the three things that we monitor here. So, when it comes to talking to that landlord and advocating for that person, we can do that with a clear conscience, because we've been doing that the whole time."

But before the former inmates can start paying rent, they need to find a job. For that, they'll walk to a program called Career Link. Brooklyn, N.Y., native Rolando Ponce is a supervisor there.

He said it is more than just learning how to put together a resumé and helping connect former inmates with employers. They are sharpening their skills in those areas, but they're also learning what he calls soft skills.

"If you're currently out of prison, and you're going to an interview, don't go in anything that's ripped, stained or dirty. We want you to look presentable," Ponce said. "So we'll put you in slacks, dress shirt, or even a suit, if you want. We have all that here. We try to be a one-stop shop. And not offer every solution, but do as much as we can."

Ponce said not everybody gets it right away, yet there's a point he likes to emphasize with them: "Do you want to keep repeating the same cycle? Or do you want to break that cycle?"

Officials in Lancaster have learned that winding up back in a jail cell often is triggered by something little — like missing a court payment, which can cause a probation violation. So here's the solution they devised.

Once someone gets into the intensive program, the fines and fees former inmates usually must start paying right away are put on hold for six months. So, if someone owes $2,000 in fees once released, he doesn't have to start chipping away at it right away.

Top probation official Wilson agreed to this grace period after advocates pushed for it.

"They still owe that $2,000, whether they start paying it this month, and they struggle, and they fail, and they're back in jail in September," he said. "Or we give them six months to let them get back on their feet."

Snyder of the re-entry group agrees with having the grace period.

"When you have someone who has no income, they're struggling to find a job, they're struggling to even get food. And then you tell them, 'By the way, if you don't pay $50 a month toward fines and costs, you can be locked back up, or you can have your food stamps shut off,' that just creates enormous stress," she said.

But the program serves very few people; last year, just 52 former inmates participated. Most of them stayed out of trouble.

Still, it was expensive.

Snyder's re-entry group has an annual budget of about $175,000, but maintaining that level is now in question.

Lancaster looks for some outside help

For the first time, Lancaster County commissioners are putting out a request for proposals for some of the county's re-entry services. Florida-based GEO Group is expected to vie for the job.

"We would have to go to other avenues of funding and other partners to work with if the county commissioners end up working with a for-profit entity," Snyder said.

Snyder contends that her group is already saving taxpayers. The intensive program she oversees costs about $29 per person, per day, compared with the $71 a day that officials say it costs to keep an inmate behind bars in Lancaster.

"Just start multiplying," she said. "If they weren't in the intensive program, they could be committing new crimes and sitting in Lancaster County Prison."

Key to the intensive program's success is that it serves a select population of the formerly incarcerated. More than two-thirds of those who apply are accepted, but they have to know of the program's existence. And once they apply, usually while still serving a sentence, they are vetted.

Snyder said that when she interviews applicants, she listens to hear if the person has the right attitude to give the program a shot.

"It's someone at medium to high risk of recidivism, with lots of needs, little or nothing in the way of resources — but is wanting to make a change," she said.

Rivera, who served 20 years, has had a strong will to set his life straight for a while, but even still, he said, the programs as part of the Re-entry Management Organization (RMO) have helped him stay focused on hard days.

"Self-determination is just like a gas tank," he said. "It does run empty. So without the RMO, without career links, I would've folded a long time ago."

Could it work in Philadelphia?

Ceciley Bradford-Jones, executive director of the Mayor's Office of Re-entry program,  said Philadelphia officials should study the Lancaster model because even if it's serving a limited group, the program has brought about meaningful behavior changes. And that's no small feat.

Julie Wertheimer, who is Philadelphia's chief of staff for criminal justice, said the fact that the city has dozens of service providers can be an obstacle in trying to get them all under one umbrella, as Lancaster has managed to do.

Philadelphia does have programs — including some supported by a MacArthur Foundation grant aimed at cutting the city's prison population — that have helped former inmates stay on the right track. Sometimes, however, the number of providers offering the same services can be daunting.

"There is a lot of conversation about how we can streamline the services and have people access them in an easier fashion," she said.

Being the poorest big city in America makes re-entry work in Philadelphia a singular task, said Wertheimer. "So many of the challenges that people trying to re-enter face stem from or relate to poverty and lack of economic opportunity."