Brian got involved early in his life with methamphetamine deals and paid a heavy price.
Incarcerated and sentenced to 10 years in the federal prison system, he served his time. But it was a new year and he was ripe for redemption inside the federal building on West Third Street.
Surrounded by monitors watching his progress to adjust to society outside prison walls, Brian was offered a way out of the darkness of the past at a recent session of the Court-Assisted Re-Entry Program that began about four years ago in the U.S. Middle District.
“I got a job hauling cattle at a local farm,” Brian told local court officials and a group of eager-to-help possible mentors from the Williamsport Rotary Club.
Without such guideposts, Brian and other ex-cons such as Ty, Amir, Stormy and Will are considered likely to re-offend and go back to prison.
“Recidivism rates can be as high as 66 percent within the first six months of supervised release,” said Rachel Johnson, a federal probation officer.
Joining U.S. Magistrate Judge William I. Arbuckle III were Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Simmers, U.S. Public Defender D. Toni Byrd and several probation officers.
Arbuckle handed Brian a brass coin with words inscribed on it quoted by President John F. Kennedy. The judge read the phrase: “Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction.”
As Brian and the others shared their struggles and quests to find jobs and reconnect with family, the reality of life for ex-convicts touched the Rotarians.
“What moved me is, they don’t stand much of a chance and they need all the help they can get,” said Ron Cimini, of the Williamsport Rotary Club, who wants to attend another session of the program with other Rotarians. “My recommendation is that it would be worth their time just to see the situation these people are in.”
The assisting team meets once per month. For those on supervised release and who don’t have backgrounds of violence or sexual offense, the program is one of their only gateways to clean their slates. Success can reduce their term of supervised release by a third of the time.
“If they don’t re-offend, it is also a way to reduce the federal prison population,” Arbuckle said.
The University of Scranton is evaluating the effectiveness of the behavioral therapy, the work by mentors and the monitoring by the probation office, said Eric W. Noll, deputy chief U.S. probation officer.
For Ty, who served 71 months, taking an online college course in jail to start the process of getting a degree in business administration was one of his goals.
Eager to share, Ty said the course required him to write an essay using fear as a theme.
Intrigued, a member of the Rotary asked Ty what he wanted to do once he got a degree in business.
“I want to own my own restaurant,” Ty answered.
Arbuckle handed Ty a coin with the words of Robert Collier, a self-help author. It read: “Success is the sum of small efforts succeeded day in and day out.”
“Who’s Robert Collier?” Ty asked Arbuckle.
“That’ll be your next assignment,” the judge said with a smile.
For each of the former inmates with children, part of adjusting to life outside the prison included a newfound attentiveness to their children and loved ones.
Many of those former inmates entered the prison system in their early 20s and haven’t had the chance to become true fathers or know what fathering is, according to Chief Judge Yvette Kane, who began the program.
That much was true for Amir, who served 30 months in prison and who considered freedom as another shot at one of life’s most important responsibilities – watching his two children grow into adulthood.
“I’m spending time with my 9-year-old son,” he said, describing the joy he felt watching him play in a basketball tournament at Curtin Intermediate School.
Amir also shared how promising his job prospects had become.
“I’m working on getting a food truck,” he said.
“Stay focused on the kids,” Arbuckle said, noting how family and a stable home were two pillars to successful reintegration.
Will shared his story about wanting to use his masonry skills but connecting with a career counselor had been difficult. He’d been trying to reach her over the telephone and was getting frustrated because her busy schedule was throwing him off.
Such frustration can be expected as part of the reintegration process, according to Arbuckle, who suggested to Will that he try to meet with the counselor face-to-face and added: “Be nice when you see her. Imagine what she might think if you were nice to her.”
Just as Brian had fallen into drug dealing, Stormy began selling methamphetamine at 17 years of age. Stormy also was able to get a manufacturing job but complained about frequent layoffs and uncertain hours. He’d also had trouble finding a stable home life because he reconnected with a woman whom probation officers had discouraged him from seeing.
“You can’t think your way into good actions,” Arbuckle said. “You have to act your way into good thinking.”
“We have sanctions, but we also offer opportunities for growth,” said Mark D. Kehler, a federal probation officer.
To keep them on a straight path, Arbuckle requires program participants to register to vote.
“Ex-prisoners in Pennsylvania have that right that some others in other states do not,” Arbuckle said. The judge also makes them sign up for a library card and get a driver’s license.
“We also ask them, if they haven’t, to start a checking and/or savings account,” Arbuckle said. “You’d be surprised how these simple things we take for granted, some of these people have never learned.”