'That One More Chance' Might Help Ex-Prisoners Stay Out Of Jail

Sep 12, 2018

In Massachusetts, two-thirds of offenders who are incarcerated have been in prison or jail before. One program in Worcester has been serving ex-prisoners who are coming back home, in an effort to bring the rate down.

Mike Earielo is proud of the work he does helping people in addiction recovery in Worcester.

“I’m a counselor. I’m a program director. I’m a community activist. I’m a mentor,” he said.

But for most of Earielo’s life, he had a very different list of titles.

“Gang member, drug dealer, sold drugs, used drugs. My life was really spiraling out of control from a very early age,” he said. “I went to state penitentiary at the age of 17, and that cycle continued until I was 40.”

That cycle became so vicious for Earielo that when it came time for him to be released from a prison stint 6 1/2 years ago, he told his lawyer that he’d rather stay behind bars.

“At this point in my life, I was -- some might say -- institutionalized, ’cause I knew if I was released on my own, there was no future,” he said. “There was only death or back to prison. So I didn’t want that. I had no place to go to. [I] was homeless prior to going to prison, and I would have been back being homeless.”

Instead, his lawyer connected him with Dismas House, a residential re-entry program in Worcester that helps former inmates transition back to society.

“We try to build an infrastructure of support for people coming out of incarceration,” said Dave McMahon, co-director of Dismas House.

“The structure we provide at Dismas House first and foremost is around recovery from drug and alcohol addiction,” McMahon said. “Case managers then can help support residents on their longer-term goals: unemployment or vocation, or getting a driver’s license back or having child visitation. And we have an attorney on our staff who also helps guys with other legal baggage they might have.”

There are some basic rules for living there, like: no drugs or alcohol, no violence or threats of violence, and no sexual activity in the house.

Every weeknight, house residents eat dinner together with volunteers who come to cook.

“Everybody has a chore, and people have to follow the curfew, and be respectful towards one another,” McMahon said.

Dismas has been operating in Worcester for 30 years. It’s expanded to include two other sites: a farm where former prisoners live and work, and a set of apartments they rent to program graduates.

A scene from a Dismas House farm.
Credit Courtesy Dismas House

Mike Earielo is now living in one of those apartments after spending three years at Dismas House.

“My first couple months here, I wasn’t sure I was going to last,” Earielo said. “It was my first time ever having sobriety. So I’m glad they had the structure here, because that actually gave me the opportunity to work on myself.”

While living at Dismas, Earielo attended Narcotics Anonymous meetings at the recovery center that he now directs. He went back to school and got a degree in counseling.

He said the impact of the program isn’t just what it allowed him to do. It’s also about what it prevented him from doing.

“I’m 100 percent sure, if I had been released from that prison cell without the opportunity to come into Dismas House, I would have walked right back into a life of crime,” Earielo said. “Guaranteed, someone’s child would have been affected by drugs because of me. Somebody would have been robbed at gunpoint because of me.”

Mike Earielo stands in front of an apartment in Worcester, Massachusetts, that he rents from an organization called Dismas House.
Credit Saskia de Melker / NEPR

McMahon said it cost Dismas about $700,000 a year to house and help 70 to 80 people. That’s equivalent to the annual cost of incarcerating about a dozen people in a Massachusetts state prison.

“It might look like you’re only moving the needle a little bit. But it’s having a great effect on the cost that the inmate would incur if they went back to incarceration,” McMahon said.

Looking at a five-year period, McMahon said about a third of Dismas participants went back to jail or prison.

It’s hard to make a true comparison with the Massachusetts average because the way the state tracks recidivism is different from how Dismas does it. But McMahon insisted the services are critical for many ex-prisoners.

“Some of them will invariably go back to prison, that’s just the reality of it,” he said. “But there is a cohort in the middle -- given the right supports and services, they will stay free of incarceration.”

There’s research that backs him up.

John Larivee, executive director of the non-profit Community Resources for Justice, pointed to studies from other states showing that recidivism can be reduced by up to 25 percent with good programs.

But Larivee said there hasn’t been enough stable funding dedicated to such programs in Massachusetts.

“Providers were at risk of losing that funding simply because they got crowded out by some other need,” Larivee said. “And over the last two years, we’ve seen a decline – indeed, several programs closing and going out of business.”

This year, Larivee led a coalition of law enforcement, district attorneys, elected officials and community organizations in pushing the Massachusetts legislature for more funding.

It worked. In the new state budget, there’s $5 million allocated for community residential re-entry programs.

Larivee said that’s a good start.

“Community organizations across the state will be able to apply for those funds,” he said. “Hopefully, this is the beginning of Massachusetts really embracing community-based re-entry services.”

Earielo hopes that means more ex-prisoners will get access to the services that he did.

“Folks coming from prison want a change,” Earielo said. “They just don’t know how to change. So it all starts with that one more chance.”