By Cherri Gregg
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Philadelphia officials are in the process of changing the term “ex-offender” to “returning citizen” in the city’s official documents and programs. The aim is to help eliminate the stigma associated with past convictions.
But that’s just one part of the ex-offender makeover. The Mayor’s Office of Reintegration Services (known as “RISE”) today welcomed a new class of formerly incarcerated men and women for its intense, six-week reintegration program.
More than 70 people sat in a room that was standing-room-only. In the first hour, reintegration specialists set the tone.
“When you are ready to move things in a positive direction, you come down here and they help you do the work. But it takes committment,” one speaker told the group.
Wallace Custis, RISE’s manager of training, was released from prison 13 years ago. He now has a master’s degree and has his eyes on getting a Ph.D.
He says RISE sets a high bar and high expectations for attendees.
“Our executive director, Bill Hart, wants every man and woman here to be pushed to their full potential so they can reach that potential,” says Custis. “We are looking for people to be successful. It’s not a numbers games here.”
Custis says RISE helps roughly 2,500 returning citizens every year, noting that the city is home to more than 250,000 ex-offenders. The organization holds a monthly orientation which begins six weeks of life skills, job readiness, and computer training.
He says no one is recommended for additional services or jobs unless they work toward getting a GED and show they are ready to change their life.
“Everyone here is on a ten-point evaluation system,” he explains. We evaluate their participation, their attendance, we evaluate how they interact with their peers, how they interact with the facilitator, how they dress. You don’t get a recommendation without at least a 3.0.”
Chavelle Carter, 42, spent years in prison. Two years ago he was a hardened drug dealer, but he’s worked through the program and is now taking classes at community college.
“My criminal thinking has diminished and I’m no longer all about trying to get over or all about me,” Carter says. “I’m much more positive now, I smile more, I’m more open.”
He says his positive attitude is leading to positive results.
“I’m about to start my last semester in a couple of weeks,” says Carter, smiling. “Graduation– it’s actually my first success as far as achieving anything in my life.”
For more information about RISE, go to rise.phila.gov.