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Scranton District Parole Office launches state reentry program

State Correctional Institution Waymart, located in Wayne County, is the most northeastern state prison in Pennsylvania. The STRIVE program covers nine counties in the region: Lackawanna, Luzerne, Wyoming, Wayne, Susquehanna, Columbia, Carbon, Monroe, and Pike.
Tom Riese
State Correctional Institution Waymart in Wayne County is one of two state prisons located in the program's coverage area. The other is SCI Dallas in Luzerne County. The STRIVE pilot program covers nine counties: Lackawanna, Luzerne, Wyoming, Wayne, Susquehanna, Columbia, Carbon, Monroe, and Pike.

Scranton’s District Parole Office began a partnership program in February to support incarcerated people with reentry into society. The STRIVE program – State Transition Reentry Incentive Validating Endeavors – was modeled after the federal Court-Assisted Re-Entry program, known as CARE.

The Scranton office covers nine counties in northeast Pennsylvania, including Lackawanna and Luzerne, Monroe and Wayne. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections counts more than 36,000 people in state prisons, and nearly 31,000 people on state supervision, also known as parole.

Mary Brotzman, a community reentry parole agent with the Scranton office, worked to create this state-level partnership to serve those who have recently left prison. Because STRIVE is a pilot, there are only a few participants so far.

“We currently have three, but we just started basically last month. And we’re looking at enrolling new reentrants as they meet the criteria and as we feel they’re deemed appropriate,” Brotzman said.

In 2018, a state comparison report found that 46% of those released in Pennsylvania were back in prison within three years. Brotzman and the Scranton district office identified three main resources that reentrants could use to avoid reoffending: housing, employment and mental health services. STRIVE partnered with the same institutions as the federal CARE program – ESSA Bank & Trust, Northampton Community College, and Pyramid Healthcare – to provide those resources.

Potential employers and landlords can ask people who return from prison to check a box on an application that says they’ve been incarcerated before. And many times, a ‘yes’ answer to that question stops the application process dead in its tracks. Few laws in the state prevent reentry discrimination policies.

Serg Hyland is in a unique position to weigh in on reentry services. He left State Correctional Institution Chester on Feb. 8 of this year. He said reentry courses during incarceration seem helpful, but the reality of reentry is much different.

“A lot of men and women who are leaving prison, some of them had mental health issues before prison,” Hyland said. “Some got them while they were there, but either way prison made them worse.”

Hyland was incarcerated in 2001, and kept active in prison. He wrote for newsletters and eventually became the editor-in-chief of The Movement, a magazine started by the Human Rights Coalition. Now that he’s back in his hometown of Philadelphia, he’s continued his advocacy work. He sees public and private partnerships as integral to the success of reentrants.

“I think that the community has to be involved in reentry, and when I say community, I don’t just mean neighbors who live in the houses. I mean businesses including banks,” he said.

Scott Kersetter, Chief Probation Officer for Union County, has worked in the probation industry since 1995. Over the years, he has seen changes in the way reentry is being handled in the commonwealth. He referenced the Justice Reinvestment Initiatives that Pennsylvania has implemented over the last decade that seek to reduce the number of people in prisons while growing the number of people on parole and probation.

“I think over time you’ll see the long term benefits of looking at the real drivers behind criminal behavior and working to change that versus just always sanctioning,” Kerstetter said.

Kerstetter agrees that reentry partnerships like STRIVE’s sound promising, but he warned against a one-size-fits-all approach to combat recidivism. He said reentrants in rural counties will likely have different needs than reentrants in more urban areas. Program developer Brotzman said STRIVE would determine needs for each individual despite the range of its coverage area.

Nicole Miller, executive director of Transitional Living Centers Inc. (TLC) in Williamsport, specializes in reentry and housing services for women. Her organization was founded in 1987, and recently expanded operations to accommodate men last year. Long term supervision strategies are outdated and end up doing more harm than good, Miller said.

“I have a past resident who actually was leaving when I came on to TLC in 2011, and she’s still on paper,” Miller said.

“On paper” means “on supervision,” either probation or parole. The former resident is still on supervision because she still owes court costs and fees, not because she reoffended, Miller said.

“So many people are on parole for 10-plus years and after year 15 if they violate, they could either come back to a center like mine, or they could go to jail after being on good behavior for so long,” she said. “The employer still sees that you’re still on parole or you’re still on probation.”

As the Scranton District rolls out the STRIVE pilot, other parts of the state might have to wait for more widespread policy change. However, if STRIVE goes well, it could expand to counties outside of northeast Pennsylvania.

Serg Hyland believes that more robust reentry services will pay dividends.

“A lot of people come home, work hard and stay out of trouble, because they want to show the people that they did the right thing by investing in them while they were inside,” he said.

For more details about the federal Court-Assisted Re-Entry program on which the STRIVE program is based, you can watch the 2021 WVIA Documentary, A Call to CARE.

Tom Riese is a multimedia reporter and the local host for NPR's All Things Considered. He comes to NEPA by way of Philadelphia. He is a York County native who studied journalism at Temple University.

You can email Tom at tomriese@wvia.org