In 2011, I was living in a halfway house in Philadelphia after being incarcerated for a period in my 20s and 30s. My aunt was working at the Pennsylvania Prison Society, and she encouraged me to come visit, to attend one of the Society’s evening classes. This introduction -- and my aunt’s belief that I could do better -- changed my life.
I attended the Society’s reentry programming religiously, and in 2013 I had the opportunity to go into SCI Graterford with a Society staff member to meet with incarcerated men. That was the start of our mentoring program, 10 years ago this year. We started small, with six or seven men and only a couple mentors, but the program has grown to serve over 100 men each year, and we have over 40 engaged mentors, many have even gone through the program themselves.
Today, the mentoring program bridges life behind bars and life in the community. We’re not just helping people stay out of prison; we’re also improving their wellbeing and providing support. It’s the little things that make the biggest difference: I help them with their resumes; I get them the services they need; I answer the phone when they call with a question. Anything I can help with, I do. These men just want to have someone believe in them, and I’m proud to be that person.
I’ve spent the last 10 years thinking about how I would have benefited from this program if it had been around when I was incarcerated. So many people don’t have the family connection that I had, but real connection is critical to successful reentry. We are meeting them at such an important time, and we’re really making a difference.
I’m the first member of my family to go to college. I graduated with my associate degree in behavioral health, and Human Services from the Community College of Philadelphia, and I recently received a BS in Social Work from Temple University. The men in our program say to me all the time, “Joe, you have an education. There are so many things you can do now.” But this is it. I want to be here. I want to give back.
And, I’m not the only one. At the Prison Society, I work with incredible, compassionate people who want to make things better. We have empathy for people. We are here to support everyone who has been impacted by the criminal justice system, inside and out; but, we’re only able to do this work because our community supports us.
I hope you will join me in giving back to our justice-impacted communities. Your support says, “I believe in you. I know you can do this.” It’s the little boost we all need sometimes to keep fighting for something better.