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Foundation of HOPE Helps Inmates Prepare for Life Outside the Correctional System

Foundation of HOPE, established in 2002, is an interfaith nonprofit program that provides pre- and post-release services to inmates and re-entrants. One main goal of this partnership with the Allegheny County Jail is to reduce the rate of recidivism. We spoke with the executive director, Jody Raeford, about the ways the organization helps inmates and former inmates overcome obstacles when returning to life outside the correctional system.

North Hills Monthly (NHM): Foundation of HOPE offers inmates and re-entrants the opportunity for a new life by offering three distinct elements of a continuum of care, including chaplaincy, pre-release and aftercare. How did this program come about?

Jody Raeford (Raeford): We grew out of the chaplaincy department of the Christian Association of Southwestern PA back in 2002 when we had a contract with the Allegheny County Jail for running chaplaincy services. Some of the volunteers coming in from different churches were meeting with inmates and recognized that there was a huge interest in a mentoring program inside the jail.

We asked the warden for a dedicated living space inside the jail and he agreed. That became the HOPE program. We serve both men and women in the program, and the men who participate can also live in this dedicated space.

NHM: Let’s talk about the chaplaincy component first.

Raeford: Chaplaincy offers some spiritualty services; they do counseling services, and they facilitate 27 different worship services throughout the jail. This allows people to stay connected to the God of their understanding and allows for community and fellowship, putting them in a safe space for even just a moment. Chaplaincy also meets inmates’ immediate needs; when inmates come into the jail, they have no finances and may need hygiene products, toothpaste, or stamps to write a letter.

NHM: What about the pre-release program and the aftercare program?

Raeford: We teach about 10 classes in the HOPE pod as part of the pre-release program, including anger management, parenting, life skills, release and reintegration, spiritual formation, confronting stinking thinking, and addiction and recovery. After the inmates take 10 weeks of classes, they are able to test out and graduate. Once graduated, they have the option of staying in that pod or going back to the normal population. Approximately 98 percent choose to stay in the pod.

The Aftercare Program came about back in 2010, as part of the Second Chance Act, which helped released inmates successfully reenter the community. What we noticed was that there was a mentoring component, but some practical needs weren’t being met, like helping those who had lost housing or other resources because of the time they were incarcerated, so we began providing those services. We have people come directly from jail to the office, where we have a director, peer support specialist and a volunteer coordinator. We help with needs like drivers’ licenses, PA state IDs, birth certificates, Port Authority bus cards, and food supplies. We have a clothing closet as well, and of course, offer mentoring. We also have computer stations set up there for job searches. Its purpose is to help men and women coming out of incarceration reintegrate successfully in the local area.

NHM: Is the main goal of the HOPE program to reduce the rate of recidivism?

Raeford: Yes, but to be honest, it’s also to help our participants deal with the trauma caused by incarceration. I firmly believe that no matter how long you’re incarcerated, whether innocent or guilty, it creates trauma in your life and your family’s life. When you lock people up and move them from the community, many people lose jobs, lose livelihoods, homes and vehicles; it is extremely traumatizing. And many are not guilty; they’re waiting for hearings and trials, and they usually have lower socioeconomic means because they can’t afford to pay the bail.

NHM: What is the general rate of recidivism?

Raeford: Nationally, it’s about 65 percent. If they have a mentor, it drops to 11 percent.

NHM: What are some factors that lead to recidivism?

Raeford: Lack of coping mechanisms, like learning different ways to deal with crises in life, and not having a support system. Addiction to alcohol and drugs is huge, and mental health is another big issue.

NHM: What are some common stumbling blocks with reintegration?

Raeford: Finding employment is a factor, but so is not having a support system in place. It’s important to have a specialist, counselor, mentor, family—some connection with some human being to walk alongside and acknowledge your value and worth.

NHM: What motivates someone to work with you?

Raeford: I’m going to quote what I hear most often: “I was tired of being tired.” It is not uncommon to see people incarcerated six or eight times; they recognize that they’ve burned every bridge in their lives and can’t make it without support. A lot of that is related to drug or alcohol disorders, which is why there is such a strong calling right now to redesign our prisons and make sure we’re putting people in there who should be in there. A lot of people there should be treated for mental health or substance abuse disorders.

NHM: How many people do you work with annually?

Raeford: This year alone, we’ve had 1,092 participants come through Aftercare, and our HOPE pod holds about 60 people; we’ve served somewhere around 600 people this year in the HOPE pod itself. I couldn’t give a number for chaplaincy, as it serves the whole jail; the jail’s population is somewhere around 1,200 people.

NHM: You also have a Youth Diversion Program.

Raeford: It’s one of our newest programs; it’s been around about three years now. The goal is to help low-level, 12- to 16-year-olds stay out of the juvenile justice system. These are kids that committed things that years ago, our parents would have gotten a call about—fighting in school, breaking a window, shoplifting, smoking a joint. For a while, those things were being seen as crimes, and kids were being punished. Those punishments were excessive, so we’re trying to prevent them from getting locked into the juvenile justice system in the first place. We assess them through caseworkers and get them involved in youth programming; whatever is appropriate.

NHM: Having worked with those who are incarcerated, what would you like people to know about this population? What myths would you like to address?

Raeford: One is that everyone in jail has committed a crime; that is just not true. Another is that the vast majority of people in jail are African-American; that is not true. Another is that most people in jail are dangerous; that is not true. Another is that people incarcerated don’t care, they’re losers, they’re undereducated—and that is not true. Sometimes, they are people who have just made bad decisions.

We are all one bad decision away from being incarcerated, and I don’t think anyone should ever be judged by the worst day of their life. People in jail are your cousins, your brothers, your friends. Jail isn’t ‘those people’ over there. They’re your neighbors. The people in jail are you. And there’s a better way to support them.

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