Melanie G Snyder_photo_TEDx_400-400This guests post is from our friend and regular patron, Melanie Snyder.

Late one evening last week, I sat in my car at the dark edge of a nearly-abandoned parking lot outside a strip mall. I tapped out a text message:

“Hey J – where are we meeting? In the laundromat? Or the beer store? I’m here. Are you? I have the $$.”

I never imagined having a job like this.

In my “first half of life” career, I spent 22 years working for Fortune 500 companies. None of those jobs even came close to being this . . . um . . . interesting . . .

I now serve as the Executive Director of the Lancaster County Reentry Management Organization (RMO). We work with people being released from prison to connect them with resources, mentors, and opportunities, so they can become productive, law-abiding citizens in our community and stay out of prison. The two questions I get asked most often about my involvement in this work are: “HOW do you do what you do?” and “WHY??!!”

First, how:

We teach life skills classes and conduct individual needs assessments inside Lancaster County Prison before people are released. We help people put together a transition plan and set goals for themselves, and introduce them to resources that are available in the community when they get released.

We get people connected to our Reentry Employment program at CareerLink, which offers job skills training and job placement services for people with criminal records. We connect them with GED and adult education programs offered through our partner, IU-13.

We have a mentoring support group called the Successful Returning Citizens group that meets twice a week to offer encouragement and support to people coming out of prison. The meetings are led by other people who have also been in prison, who really understand the challenges and barriers of reentry, and who have successfully made that transition. These peer facilitators offer people recently released from prison a sense of hope that they, too, can change their lives. Community mentors from another RMO partner agency, Bridge to Community, come to the Successful Returning Citizens group meetings every week to provide additional support and encouragement.

For a very small number of people released from Lancaster County Prison each year, the RMO provides transitional housing and intensive case management when they are released. This program is for people who are at high risk of winding up back in prison, who have lots of needs and no resources. The RMO case managers help clients put together a detailed plan for themselves, with goals and actions they need to take to get stabilized, change their lifestyle, take responsibility, and move toward self-sufficiency. The case managers also assist clients in getting healthcare, treatment for mental health and addiction issues, and services to address other significant needs.

We only had enough funding to provide this “RMO Intensive” program to 34 people last year, but we know that many more of the 6,000 people released from LCP each year really need this kind of intensive, structured program. (by the way, that’s NOT a typo – 6,000 people are released from LCP each year; 450-500 people per month; 15-20 people per day . . . )

We do all of this by collaborating with over 30 partner agencies that are part of the RMO. The RMO is not a single standalone agency – it’s a coalition of all the major stakeholder groups in the County, including the prison, probation and parole, the courts, law enforcement, victim/witness services, the DA’s office, public defender’s office, County Drug & Alcohol Commission and County Behavioral Health/Developmental Services, along with churches and the non-profit social services agencies in Lancaster County that have resources, programs and services that returning citizens need.

We use the term “returning citizens” to convey a positive, future-oriented vision of what they can be, instead of “ex-offenders,” which would keep the focus on past, negative behaviors.

A complex mix of factors leads to people engaging in criminal behavior and being incarcerated, including mental health issues, addiction, homelessness, unemployment, lack of education, poverty, a history of childhood abuse, neglect, and trauma, and other factors. No single agency or program can address all of the challenges faced by people coming out of prison. It takes a lot of good, strong collaboration to work effectively with returning citizens.

We’re really lucky to have incredibly dedicated partner agencies in the RMO coalition who have been working together to address these issues for 10 years now (the RMO was started in 2005).

Because many agencies work cooperatively as part of the RMO, we’re able to leverage the resources and unique strengths of each of the RMO partners. As a result, we are both efficient and effective in what these agencies do together. The cost, for example, of the RMO Intensive program that provides transitional housing, intensive case management and wrap-around services to high risk, high needs people is $30 per person per day. It costs all of us as taxpayers $71 per person per day to incarcerate someone at Lancaster County Prison.

Our goals in the RMO are pretty straightforward, though not easy to achieve: reduce recidivism, improve community safety, save taxpayers money, and improve people’s lives.

We all know that change is hard. Experts say it takes us six weeks to change a habit.

In the RMO Intensive program, in 3 months (the average length of time someone stays in that program), we provide resources, mentoring and opportunities for people coming out of prison to not only change their habits, but to start changing their LIVES and stop committing crimes.

85% of our RMO Intensive program clients succeed in remaining crime-free.

So, why do I do this kind of work, after a long career working in the corporate world?

Well, the evening I was texting outside the beer store and laundromat, I was there to meet with “J” (one of our RMO program participants), her case manager from RMO partner agency, Transitional Living Center (TLC), and a landlord. J was going to sign a lease for an apartment for herself.

It had been over 3 years since she’d had a place to call “home.” She had been in prison, then had moved around, staying temporarily in several different places. When I first met J earlier this year, she was in an abusive situation and on the verge of becoming homeless. We brought her into the RMO program, providing transitional housing and case management for her through TLC. J set a lot of goals for herself and had been working steadily toward achieving them. She got involved in the RMO’s Successful Returning Citizens Mentoring Support Group, and the Reentry Employment Program at CareerLink.

Now, she was ready to move into a place of her own, and continue her journey toward stability and self-sufficiency.

We sat at a little table under the buzzing fluorescent lights inside the beer store, reviewing the lease and making sure everything was in order. J signed the paperwork, gave the landlord the money for the security deposit and first month’s rent, and shook his hand. Then she turned toward me and reached for my hand too. Her eyes welled up and her voice cracked. “Thank you.”

That’s why I continue to do this work, work that, honestly, ten years ago, I could never have imagined myself doing…

Now, I can’t imagine doing anything else…

Postscript: About my text message re. the beer store & the laundromat: The landlord we were meeting with owns both of these small businesses and we were meeting him at one of them – I had just forgotten which one.

It was the two years Melanie  Snyder spent going in and out of state prisons around PA that launched her radical mid-life career change into prisoner reentry work (but that’s a whole ‘nuther blog post!). When she isn’t spending time with RMO program participants, she’s often out and about speaking with civic groups, churches, and other audiences about why she cares so much about criminal justice issues and urging others to care too. And when she isn’t doing THAT, she and her hubby, Bruce, are often parked on a barstool on the second floor at Tellus enjoying the daily specials, the great vibe, and the awesome company of the Tellus staff (Joe D., of course, will always be their favorite!)