For Ruth Shefner, the Goldring Reentry Initiative (GRI) was one of the primary reasons she chose to come to The University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice (SP2) for her Master of Social Work degree. Having gone through the unique program as an MSW student herself, she has remained involved and now acts as the program’s director. “I formed strong relationships with my clients and continue to stay in touch with folks I’ve worked with during my first year,” said Shefner.
For the past eight years, GRI has been operating as an agency out of SP2 and connecting MSW students at Penn with qualifying clients in Philadelphia’s jails to provide services pre- and post-release. The program identifies and recruits clients, who have already been sentenced and are eligible for release between December and February each year. This allows each MSW student to work with five to eight clients for about three months before and after the client’s release.
Students go in every week to do one-on-one therapeutic case management with their clients, supporting them through the remainder of their incarceration, creating reentry plans, and providing therapy and other services to best meet their needs on a case-by-case basis. Once their clients have been released, MSW students and their clients work together to put their reentry plans into action or re-envision them through the end of the students’ semester or for longer if clients want ongoing services.
How does GRI choose their clients? Shefner explained that in addition to her recruitment efforts in the local jails where clients sign up voluntarily, the program works closely with the Defender Association of Philadelphia, the District Attorney’s Office, and a judge to identify people who fit the program’s release timing and hopefully find people who would get out earlier with GRI than they would otherwise. “Being able to provide a date of release is unusual in this system, so [the program] provides a sense of security and planning,” said Shefner.
Shefner says the services most requested by clients are housing and paid workforce development programs that offer pathways to employment. “Housing is definitely the biggest roadblock to reentry for our clients. We refer people to shelters whenever possible … But they’re not an attractive option for folks. Most folks feel shelters replicate the correctional environment,” she explained. There aren’t enough pathways to permanent housing in the city. Outside of housing, however, Shefner does feel that the city has been paying a lot of attention to reentering folks and hopes this momentum continues.
GRI also hosts monthly Philly Fun events that are open to MSW students and all past and current clients to go to basketball games, free programming, and generally create a sense of community and “keep clients busy in a positive way,” said Shefner. This is another way that students can continue building relationships with their clients beyond their allotted window during the school year.
Since GRI’s inception in 2011, the program has expanded significantly, and Shefner has noticed certain trends over the years. The program doubled in size in 2015 with the number of MSW students and clients they’re able to take (currently at 15 MSW students and 100 clients per school year), which has allowed them to have bigger impacts based on more formalized relationships with their partners in Philly like the DA’s office. In recent years, Shefner has also noticed the growth in the incarcerated population struggling with homelessness and serious mental illnesses, which has in turn changed the nature of the services with which the MSW students are connecting their clients. Importantly, with the recent declines in jail populations in Philly and announcement of the closure of House of Corrections by 2020, GRI has been having more difficulty recruiting clients for their program, which Shefner feels is a good problem to have.
Overall, with the wide range of services that GRI is able to connect their clients with and the relationships the MSW students and clients are able to build, Shefner is proud of the program’s work and hopes it keeps expanding in the future.