Before being released from prison, Melvin Hill Jr. was doing everything in his power to secure a sustainable job that would allow him to fulfill his lifelong goals.
Then a friend told him about the local nonprofit Concordance Academy of Leadership. Hill applied while he was still incarcerated. Last May, he was accepted into the program that supports reentry into society after prison.
Recently, the academy received $1 million to advance its mission of reducing recidivism in Missouri and Illinois with a holistic approach to reentry into society.
Beth Kerley, the academy’s senior vice president and director of marketing, communications and development, said not only is the organization hoping to heal the participants, but the community is reaping the benefits as well.
“When people are not going back and committing crimes after their release from prison, they're keeping our communities safer. They're reducing taxpayer burden, and they're stopping the generational cycle of incarceration,” Kerley said.
Hill said if he’d known about it the first time he was incarcerated, he most likely would not have returned to prison.
A 2018 Department of Justice report shows most prisoners released between 2005 and 2014 re-offended and landed back behind bars.
Kerley said that through interviews, the academy found that over 80% of the interested participants were struggling with trauma from a young age.
The academy works with three prisons in Missouri: Missouri Eastern Correctional Center, Eastern Reception Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre, and its women’s facility in Vandalia. It is also working with the Illinois Department of Corrections and looking to serve a correctional facility in Menard, Illinois, this year.
How it works
While participants are still imprisoned, the academy pitches the program to encourage them to sign up. Soon after, the interested applicants are interviewed to see if they are good candidates for the program. And once accepted, they start the in-depth training phase and the evaluation process, six months before they are released.
“And as an organization, the vision was to be an expert in understanding this population so that we can help keep people from going back into the prison system, and also assist the communities with helping reduce crime,” she said.
The leadership program typically does intakes every month, and each cohort includes about 40 participants.
After the pre-release training phase is complete, each participant gets a biological, physiological and sociological exam, which helps coordinate a life plan. When assessment is complete, the participant moves on to the behavioral, wellness, education and employment phase.
The entire program lasts for about 18 months — give or take a few months if a participant needs additional time in any program phase.
For individuals to remain in the program, they are required to take frequent drug tests at the academy and to repeat certain parts of programming related to substance use if they are struggling to maintain clean drug tests.
Hill said that, for the past month, the leadership program has helped him address some of his short-term goals: getting a job, finding housing and securing health care benefits.
Hill hopes to own his own home and start his own company one day. He is also working toward becoming a mentor for other people who come through the program.
“There are some things you can’t get back, and a wasted life is one of them. And this [program] is an opportunity for you not to waste your life,” Hill said.
Andrea Y. Henderson is part of the public-radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City and Portland, Oregon. Follow Andrea on Twitter at @drebjournalist.
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