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Malcolm Jenkins' Criminal Justice Season: The Center for Returning Citizens and Why Not Prosper

"One in three working Pennsylvanians have a criminal record. But you may not know about the generational after effects and collateral damage that comes with incarceration. Even after someone has paid their debt to society, we continue to restrict that individual from effectively becoming a contributing member of society.

The Center for Returning Citizens helps citizens transition from incarceration back into society by providing job training, housing assistance, counseling, legal services and referrals. In September, we met the founder and executive director, J. Jhondi Harrell, who talked about some of the challenges associated with his mission. As Pennsylvania incarcerates thousands of people for minor offenses—not to mention the non-convicted individuals in custody simply because they can’t make bail—there are approximately 3,500 Pennsylvanians that re-enter society each year after being released from prison.

Even after someone has paid their debt to society, we continue to restrict that individual from effectively becoming a contributing member of society. There are a few great Philadelphia-based organizations that are doing their part in helping these people.

Harrell and his organization specialize in developing life plans to help these citizens successfully transition, counseling them through employment and education opportunities, housing and relationship issues, while providing time and money management tips. The Center for Returning Citizens also refers program participants to providers of medical and mental health care, substance abuse programs and counseling.

They have helped more than 900 returning citizens and their families in Philadelphia and our surrounding counties since 2012, and have a current caseload of more than 230 program participants. They also provide programs for the families of incarcerated individuals.

The thing that struck me in talking with Mr. Harrell was his passion to provide opportunities to the people that he is serving. He is always seeking ways to encourage more companies to be open minded in their hiring practices by considering those who have been previously incarcerated or have a record. If you are interested in lending corporate or financial support to The Center for Returning Citizens, you can contact them here.

We also met with Why Not Prosper, whose Founder and Executive Director, Rev. Michelle Anne Simmons, organized our group meeting at their Germantown headquarters, which is part office, part housing for female ex-offenders.

Simmons has a powerhouse personality that drives her organization’s mission: To help women in the PA prison system discover their own strength by providing them with the support and resources that will empower them to become responsible, economically self-sufficient and contributing members of the community.

We sat around a conference table in a room that also serves as their resource center for women and children, where they hold meetings to help women find employment, maintain sobriety, reunite with family, expunge their records, meet with mentors and serves as a computer room, classroom and collection house for clothing. We met with several women who were staying at Why Not Prosper (most stay an average of 6-12 months), who expressed their gratitude for this organization’s commitment to them and their children.

Simmons is the heart of that organization. Formerly incarcerated and a former addict, she shared stories about the realities of women leaving prison scared they can’t afford a place to live, scared they can’t provide for their children, scared of relapsing to drugs, and scared of going back to an unstable, domestically violent home.

Simmons provides hope and a safe haven by helping these women carve out an action plan. Simmons holds a master’s degree in Counseling Psychology, and she’s a Certified Allied Addictions Practitioner and a Certified Domestic Violence Counselor who is currently working towards a Ph.D. specializing in forensics. “We offer women a hand up, not a hand out,” she told us."

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