Public safety-focused lawmaker draws resources to the Pennsylvania Prison Society

PHILADELPHIA, Nov. 19, 2012 — Only highly structured and proven programs will help address the ramifications of the city’s high rate of incarceration and subsequent re-entry for area residents – which is why state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams fought for a $50,000 grant for one such program that hits those marks.

Philly ReNew, an innovative, father-centered effort for ex-offenders pioneered by the Pennsylvania Prison Society, had been reduced to economic life support after its state funding was stripped, despite a success rate that surpasses 85 percent.

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“It doesn’t make sense we have to beg to support these programs,” Williams said. “This grant is more than symbolism. It’s a lifeline. It’s a statement for Philadelphia and the surrounding region. If we don’t pay on the front side, we’ll pay $30, $40,000 per person, per year, on the back side.”

The Pennsylvania Prison Society has worked with former offenders for its 225 years of its existence. State funding has withered, a trend this grant may yet reverse, said William DiMascio, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society. “It seemed a little bit of pennywise and pound foolish to cut a program that helped so many people get on with their lives,” he added.

Williams presented a ceremonial check to DiMascio and Ann Schwartzman of the Pennsylvania Prison Society as he spoke before a group of Philly ReNew participating employers and clients.

The grant engineered by Williams not only offers a pulse of resuscitation, but also reaffirms the legitimacy of the program and its objectives, supporters said.

“The workforce of former offenders that I have hired is the hardest-working, most driven group that I have,” said Mark Boyd, CEO of Goodwill Industries of Southern New Jersey and Philadelphia. He has hired hundreds of former prisoners over the last five years, from various programs.

“Without that paycheck,” Boyd said, “the chances of reentering society successfully go down dramatically . . . There are a lot of people without four-year degrees who need to feed their families.”

Boyd encouraged other employers to hire former offenders. Williams echoed that sentiment.

“The ability to go to a ShopRite, or PECO, or PGW, gives skills that will follow them throughout their lives,” he said. “My uncle was never the man he thought he could be. We need fathers who can set an example for their children, on how they will and conduct the rest of their lives.”

Philly ReNew, with its focus on parenting, mentoring, building relevant skills for ex-offenders, has a track record for substantively addressing these issues. More than 400 men have gone through the program in its three year history.

Isean McNeil participated in the last cohort of Philly ReNew and talked about how devastated he and the other men were when they heard the news, knowing how effective the program had been for them.

“[Prisoners] need this program as I needed it when I came here,” said McNeil, who had spent 15 years in prison and is now a case manager at Shalom, Inc. Today, he works to help young people get off the streets and away from gun violence and interested in education and employment.

Philly ReNew is particularly relevant given the reality that the city’s fatherless households increasingly are the source of young people with greater entanglements with the criminal justice system.

“We, unfortunately, now have a legacy of 18, 19, 20, and 21-year-olds, if not 15, 14, and 13-year-olds who now have records,” Williams said. “And we have a large number of people who are returning from prison. Some 30 percent of the state’s prison population comes from Philadelphia.”

More information on Sen. Anthony H. Williams may be found on his website, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.