For people being released from prison, their return to society can be a difficult transition. One Athens County program aims to help by combining resources from a variety of agencies.
The Athens County Reentry Program, funded through Athens County Job and Family Services, provides people with an effective advocate who can link them with needed services, according to Reentry Program Coordinator Shawn Stover.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the reentry program, which has been helping ex-convicts find employment, education and other needed resources since 2009. The program provides returning citizens with basic needs such as clothing, counseling referrals, and help applying for needed food and medical assistance. The program also aims to help individuals find reliable transportation and employment, among other things.
“Employment and training opportunities help the returning citizen to become more self-sufficient and is the main goal of reentry,” Stover said in a statement sent Monday. “People want to work but there are so many barriers related to being in poverty and having a felony that hinder employment options.”
Stover’s office and the reentry program headquarters are located at the OhioMeansJobs center, at 70 N Plains Road (Suite C). Like all services offered at the center, the Reentry Program services are free. Individuals can gain assistance with resume building, job leads and interviewing skills. People can also work with the ASPIRE program to obtain their GED or improve literacy skills, and with the WIOA program to meet requirements to obtain a two-year degree or certifications, Stover said.
People are usually refferred to the program just before or after being released from prison.
“I often make connections with our returning citizens through video conferences arranged through the Ohio Department of (Rehabilitation and Correct) to discuss the benefits of the Reentry Program a few weeks prior to the inmate’s release, so they know how to contact me,” Stover explained in the email. “I also receive referrals from the Adult Parole Authority, Athens County Job and Family Services and many other community agencies.”
Mostly, Stover said he works with people who are receiving SNAP food-assistance benefits and have been released from prison within the last year. He provides them with information to apply for benefits or directs them to the Job and Family Services customer service and support line (1-844-640-6446).
“Often the longer that a person (is) incarcerated the less resources that they have when they are released,” Stover said. “So many things change in their communities, and sometimes key family members or friends move or pass away. They also lose touch with possible employment networks or changes in technology.”
The information age also can be a jarring adjustment for people who have been incarcerated for many years.
“Online applications and automated phone services confuse many of our returning citizens,” Stover said. “There is much anxiety for people coming out of prison, especially if they have been in for over five years because there is much unknown, and they must make new connections and learn about different services.”
Stover, who has held the role of program coordinator for more than five years, said that providing support services and connections “within the first few days or weeks upon release are most beneficial since people are often starting over fresh with everything.” Returning citizens still can have access to the program’s services “for as long as they need,” he said, but more services are available for those recently released.
Addiction recovery is another important need that many returning citizens require.
“About 80 percent of the people that I am working with in Reentry have some sort of substance abuse issue and were incarcerated due to crime related (to) drug-seeking behaviors or selling drugs to support their habits,” Stover said. “…The opioid epidemic has been a major cause of over-incarceration in the past due to limited treatment options.”
Some “positive changes in our community” have been occurring through various community efforts, according to Stover. The Athens County court systems have helped, he said, by offering inpatient substance-abuse treatment in lieu of incarceration, in many cases.
The Athens County Prosecutor’s Office’s Vivitrol Programming, Health Recovery Services and Treatment Alternatives to Street Crime (TASC) of Southeast Ohio are just a few more of the resources that Stover said have made a positive impact on addiction recovery in Athens County. These programs allow people to “address the core issue of substance abuse and work on their recovery to prevent further legal issues,” Stover said. “People in ongoing recovery programming do well putting their lives back together.”
The Reentry Task Force is another important aspect of the reentry program. Composed of scores of organizations and hundreds of individuals, Stover said, the Task Force meets six times a year and “is a wonderful way for various community organizations, faith-based organizations and concerned community members to come together and share information about what services that they have to offer and how they can help people in reentry, recovery and poverty to continue a path of success.”
Task Force meetings are very open-ended, Stover said. “We all share kind of equal power in a way,” he said, adding that he thinks the less formal structure of the meetings has played into the success of the program.
“Our Reentry Task Force is such a diverse group of dedicated people and organizations that I cannot single out just a few as we all share equal importance in the way that our services complement each other,” Stover said in the email.
In a brief phone interview Monday, Stover said he has more than 200 individuals on his email list for the Task Force, and a list of members on the Reentry Program’s web page lists 60 organizations.
“It’s a pretty large group of people,” Stover said. He did note in his email that ACEnet (the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks) has been “very influential with developing collaborations and connections to highlight many of the accomplishments of the Reentry Task Force and develop small-business development plans.”
“Another consistent organization that has been involved with Reentry for several years is the Phi Alpha Delta Pre-Law Fraternity at Ohio University,” Stover said. “They do fundraisers and donate clothing and hygiene items to the Reentry Program throughout the year that we can give to people immediately upon their release from prison. This has been a blessing.”
The Athens County Reentry Program has garnered attention from neighboring counties, and other similar programs around the state.
“We work so well together in this community cause we’re just a tight knit community,” Stover said, adding that people from other counties sometimes attend the Task Force meetings here “just to see what we’re doing.”
The Reentry Task Force and several reentry partners hosted the Ohio Ex-Offenders Reentry Coalition (OERC) event at Hocking College in December, which brought together officials from around Ohio, to highlight the work being done in Athens County, Stover said.
The statewide event occurs four times a year, with one meeting held in each region of the state. In 2017, Fairfield County hosted the event for southeast Ohio. The December event marked the first time Athens County has hosted the event, Stover said.
“People from the region or people from around the state come down to see if there’s something they can (learn) from Athens County,” he said.
“It was a big deal… Pretty much every one that was in attendance said they enjoyed it.”
Several local partners spoke at the event: Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn talked about the Vivitrol program, local recovery advocate Brian Darst spoke about the Vivitrol and Reentry programs, and representatives from ACEnet came to talk about their work.
Director of Athens County Job and Family Services Jean Demosky said Tuesday that Stover is “a great leader,” a mentor to Reentry participants, and a valuable asset. “Shawn’s leadership and mentoring ability are so valued for representing our agency to the community,” she said.
Stover didn’t take much credit for himself for the program’s success.
“I often say that reentry does not happen in an office,” he said in his email. “It happens in our communities and we all must work together to be successful.”
Stover said people can donate toiletries and clean clothing, particularly interview attire, for reentry program participants at the OhioMeansJobs center.
Anyone interested in learning more about the Reentry Program’s services can contact Stover via email at email@example.com or by calling 740-677-4264, or by contacting the OhioMeansJobs center at 740-797-1405.