The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
Group seeks feedback on inmate re-entry program
By CATHY DYSON
Dave Coman is looking for feedback about a program designed to help former inmates stay out of jail.
He directs the Prisoner Re-Entry Council for Planning District 16, which is holding a town hall meeting—its first ever—to educate members of the community about its mission as well as to listen to their concerns.
“Anybody who has pros or cons about people coming back to the community, we want to hear that,” said Coman, who also directs the King George Department of Social Services. “There can be no negatives out of this whole thing, as far as I’m concerned.”
The council will hold its town hall from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library in Fredericksburg.
Special speakers will discuss the state’s initiative to help prisoners re-enter society, and a panel will address specifics of the local program.
Law enforcement officials are invited to attend, along with representatives from churches and civic groups, and interested individuals.
Coman has been helping former prisoners adjust to life on the outside since 2004. He’s gotten considerable help from the re-entry council, which has representatives from about 40 community groups, agencies and churches.
But inmates leaving the Haynesville Correctional Center in the Northern Neck, as well as the Rappahannock Regional Jail and federal facilities, need lots of help finding jobs, housing, clothing, food and transportation, Coman said.
“Probation and parole [officials] want people to succeed, but the resources have been so limited over the years,” Coman said. “We’re trying to get together to provide those resources.”
Coman and other social services directors work closely with Kim Bickert, a senior probation officer and re-entry specialist with the Virginia Department of Corrections.
Inmates are evaluated before they leave prison to determine what resources they need in various areas ranging from housing to mental health services. Bickert becomes the filter between the Department of Corrections, which releases the prisoners, and the re-entry council members, who work with them.
She’s been on the job for less than a year and says her department has about 2,000 former prisoners on active probation.
Her office covers Fredericksburg and Stafford, Spotsylvania and King George counties. It opens about 50 new cases a month.
She didn’t have local figures on recidivism, those who return to jail within three years of being released. In Virginia, the recidivism rate is 26 percent.
Coman has worked with 340 prisoners since 2004 and said he knows of three who ended up back in jail. “They were very stupid,” he said of the former inmates who didn’t take advantage of chances they got.
Coman tells other directors that the re-entry program doesn’t increase anyone’s caseload. He says agencies are already dealing with the people anyway. Because of the re-entry initiatives, officials are just working with them in different ways.
“They’re not getting any services above and beyond what any other citizen is getting,” Coman said about the former prisoners. “They’re just getting a little more hand-holding.”
One of the people going through the process with the former prisoners is Kyle Graham, who’s been through it himself.
Graham is a newly hired eligibility worker in the King George office. He got out of jail in February after serving a 21-month sentence for driving under the influence and larceny.
He enrolled in Virginia Cares, a re-entry initiative offered by the Department of Corrections. He came to the re-entry council meeting and met Coman, who agreed with Virginia Cares officials who recommended Graham for a job.
“I am lucky enough to have family support, and the vast majority of people coming out of prison don’t,” said Graham, who is from Stafford County.
That’s why he hopes others interested in giving former inmates a hand will attend the town hall session and possibly join the council. He knows there’s a need for people willing to drive those on probation to meetings or other appointments, or to be mentors for them.
“We could never have enough,” Graham said.