Poverty Beat: Making the Grass Greener for Returning Citizens

According to Francis Lawn landscaping offers unique advantages for returning citizens. The industry tends to be forgiving of criminal records, and allows people to express their skills physically. Photo by Meaghan Pogue

As the prison population in the United States has more than quintupled since the 1970s, re-entry to society has become nearly impossible for returning citizens.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the US holds 25 percent of the world’s prison population. About 65 million Americans possess a criminal record that not only limits tangible opportunities for employment and housing, but leaves a stain on the returning citizen for years to come.

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In 2010, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society took action. Roots to Re-Entry, a transitional training program working with the Alternative Sentencing Department of the Philadelphia local prison system, began offering ex-offenders opportunities to combat the stigma they face upon re-entry.

The 14 to 16 week landscape management program available to incarcerated non-violent offenders is a comprehensive program that begins in the classroom with basic math, reading and science. The participants then see occupational therapists and doctors to evaluate their learning style and get them health screenings for conditions like diabetes and hypertension. Participants receive hands-on training regarding greenhouses and aspects of landscaping that ultimately lead to job placement.

Program director of landscape management and training Francis Lawn says the program offers a holistic approach.

“I think a program like this really gives people hope. Certainly teaching someone something, providing them with an opportunity for employment is certainly going to be a deterrent from going back to prison.”

Program graduates Jermaine Adderly and Curtis Ray were employed by PHS to maintain the grounds of Friend's Hospital in Northeast Philadelphia.
Program graduates Jermaine Adderly and Curtis Ray were employed by PHS to maintain the grounds of Friend’s Hospital in Northeast Philadelphia. Photo by Meaghan Pogue

Roots to Re-Entry serves as a work-release program, ultimately aiding participants towards parole. When a participant is paroled, they have employment opportunities with PHS itself, or some of their partnering landscape companies.

Retired teacher and Roots to Re-entry program instructor Rob Grassi, maintains the landscaping contract the program has with Friends Hospital in Northeast Philadelphia. To Grassi, the program offers a new mentality for graduates.

“I think it teaches them how to live in the world. Having a 9 to 5 job and knowing that the priority in life is family and job, helps them realize there’s more important things in life than hanging out with their friends on the corner.”

Grassi says the ability of his crew at Friend’s Hospital to maintain the priorities Roots to Re-Entry aims to instill proves the program’s success.

Dan Ramirez, a 2011 program graduate and one of Grassi’s Friends Hospital workers says that while finding a job is hard for everyone in today’s economic climate, as a returning citizen many factors make it nearly impossible.

“People forget the promises they make to themselves, and people don’t want to have to deal with the people or the interviews, and everything now is through the computer, some people are not computer-savvy like that.”

In Philadelphia Department of Corrections 2013 Recidivism Report, inmates released in 2006 experienced a 71.1 percent recidivism rate after five years, meaning less than 30 percent of released inmates left the system entirely.

Not only are released felons ineligible to live in Section 8 housing themselves regardless if they lived there prior to the offense, family members living in public housing are not allowed to take in convicted family members. Laws like these and the state of public schooling in Philadelphia leave many Philadelphians with few opportunities, creating a system where released felons remain vulnerable upon re-entry to the situations that led to them being incarcerated in the first place.

Jermaine Adderly, who has been working with PHS for about a year, his experience at Roots to Reentry helped get him on the right path. He hopes to one day own his own business.
Jermaine Adderly, who has been working with PHS for about a year, his experience at Roots to Re-Entry helped get him on the right path. He hopes to one day own his own business. Photo by Meaghan Pogue

To Lawn, successes and failures of the first cohort of Roots to Re-Entry graduates helped foster an understanding of the revolving door of incarceration. Two weeks after graduating from the program and finding employment one participant went back to prison. To Lawn, this was a valuable learning opportunity about the role Roots to Re-Entry plays in the lives of graduates.

“The real takeaway from that is it’s really not about just training and job placement. It’s an important factor but what I see that has emerged over the past few years is really looking at what are the core needs of an individual that’s going through a program like this. ”

These core needs, according to Lawn, manifests in the support Roots to Re-Entry gives participants.

“What we find our participants seeing value in throughout the entire program is the team supporting them. We always talk about the coach in the corner…and I think the guys really see that and they begin to really open a line of trust between the support staff and themselves.”

For Ramirez, who has maintained employment after graduating from the program three years ago, the support system built by Roots to Re-Entry was the factor that changed his life.

“They refuse to just let me go, they didn’t just say ‘look this is a program, take this program, when you get out of jail go to this job and that’s it.’ They stood there, they called me, they made sure they stayed in touch, every time I needed something I’d go to them, we stood together. It was a pay it forward kind of effect.”

– Text, video and images by Meaghan Pogue and Mamaye Mesfin.

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