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For many discharged from jail, the transition involves some form of post-release supervision. But in Massachusetts, two-thirds of ex-offenders are sent solo into the world after "wrapping" their sentences.
"They get nothing and owe nothing," says Robbie Frandsen MPA 1999, founder of PREP Solutions: the Post-Prison Employment Project, which works with men coming out of prisons and houses of correction in Metro Boston, without regard for their offenses. A few years ago, as a volunteer teacher at the Delancey Street Foundation, an alternative-sentencing program in Los Angeles that works with drug addicts and felons, she saw up close that "change is tough, but it's possible and can be permanent." She also saw it in herself.
"I'm a recovered crack addict. I've been clean and sober for 13 years. Luckily, I never lost my job," she says. Nor was she ever incarcerated. Still, she says of ex-offenders, "I look at them and say, 'you're me.' I'm not arrogant enough to say I know all that they're going through, but I see the link."
This bond is part of the reason that Frandsen recently launched Prep Solutions with help from an Echoing Green fellowship and advice from several faculty members at the Kennedy School.
"Reentry is difficult," she says, especially for violent non-parolees who often have no place to live, no support network, and no job. "Most middle class folks wouldn't make it...When ex-offenders get out, their expectations are incredibly high. They think, 'I'm free.' But it's also very scary. They feel lost out here. They come out thinking they can fix everything at once and that things are going to be different. But during those first few days, they realize things are harder and get discouraged before anything changes."
One of the biggest obstacles is securing employment, which is what Frandsen's project is all about.
"I provide a training course with a dual focus, which includes 'job savvy' stuff - how to hold a job and get a promotion," she says. "We look at how to deal with difficult people, because that's a reality of any job. The other piece of the training is what I call 'deep curriculum,' where we talk about change mechanisms, like how to train your mind to manage choices and behavior. Then I connect them to employers who are willing to hire them for more than just the tax-break incentives."
The goal, she says, is to produce qualified workers who value their jobs and themselves, and whom employers will value in turn. Currently, she is creating a mentor-employer network so that when the economy cools, ex-offenders won't be the first group dismissed in the job pool.
Although Frandsen admits the work is hard, especially doing it alone, surprisingly she says she doesn't get burned out or disappointed.
"I believe in redemption. It's real or it isn't," she says. "This is all worth doing because I know that I'm not putting my money in a bag without a bottom. I know what it's like to have the shadow come over you."
For more information about the project, contact Frandsen at email@example.com. For background on prison reentry in Massachusetts, including a report that Frandsen contributed to, go to www.crjustice.org