The United States Attorney's Office Commitment to Reentry
Every year over 700,000 individuals are released from our nation’s jails and prisons. These men and women are returning daily to our towns and communities, and the number of them who return to a life of crime and additional prison time continues to rise. As part of a nationwide effort by the Justice Department to achieve and preserve public safety by reducing recidivism rates, as well as promote the successful reintegration of returning prisoners into their families and our communities, the United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of West Virginia is engaged in efforts both inside and outside prison walls to promote public safety by assisting these men and women in managing a successful reentry into society.
Current Reentry Initiatives
"Always Think Before You Move" - Eugene Brown and the Strategic Paradigm
Former federal inmate Eugene Brown is the nationally recognized founder of the Big Chair Chess Club. The club empowers inner-city youth to escape the streets and learn that the most important lesson in life, as in chess, is to “Always Think Before You Move.” During National Reentry Week, Brown will launch chess initiatives at several federal correctional facilities in Northern West Virginia.
Brown’s story inspired the movie “Life of a King,” starring Cuba Gooding, Jr. His book, “From Pawns to Kings,” is forthcoming in 2016. His upcoming visit furthers an ongoing joint effort to utilize chess to enhance self-respect and strategic thinking among incarcerated individuals.
Brown was an inmate for nearly one-third of his life. While serving eighteen years for bank robbery, and with the help of a fellow inmate serving a life sentence, Brown began to understand the parallels between chess and life. For over three decades, he has inspired others do the same.
In September 2015, Brown visited several federal correctional facilities in Northern West Virginia to discuss his experiences, the challenges of reentry, and the importance of learning to “always make your next move your best move.” Brown is committed to ending the cycle of intergenerational incarceration. His most recent initiative is a Reentry/Character Development curriculum, entitled Strategic Paradigm, which uses the game of chess and the “Think Before You Move” model to teach problem solving, self-awareness, personal responsibility, conflict resolution, goal-setting, critical thinking, and other character-building exercises aimed at promoting success through positive decision-making.
The overwhelming response to Brown’s 2015 visit inspired federal correctional facilities throughout Northern West Virginia to develop chess initiatives using Brown’s concepts and format. During National Reentry Week, Brown will return to launch these initiatives, meet with volunteer inmate-mentors and workshop participants, play chess, and address larger groups of inmates and staff. He will also deliver keynote addresses at two community forums in Wheeling and Clarksburg. Further, he will introduce the Strategic Paradigm in at least one afterschool program, Laughlin Memorial Chapel, and possibly in one or more of the West Virginia Youth Services System (YSS) facilities.
Dress for Success & Clothing Closet Program
Re-entering mainstream society after serving time in prison holds many challenges and is a continuing “uphill struggle” for many women. They may be foreclosed from public housing, educational opportunities and assistance with child care issues, to say nothing of the difficulties they face in trying to find employment. Many leave prison without any clothing, other than the custodial “uniform” of their prison-issue khaki pants, a t-shirt, socks and a pair of shoes, and often they are unable to access even the most basic resources.
Thanks to a cooperative effort on the part of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Wheeling YWCA, and the staff and population at the Secure Female Facility at Hazelton, upon their release, many of these women now receive a bag of clothing and other essential items to help them navigate through life on the outside, with a particular emphasis on women seeking to enter the workforce.
The idea was initially proposed by the Hazelton SFF population, and the women there have been instrumental in its success. They established eligibility criteria and designed a comprehensive information form to assess the needs (and sizes) of reentrants. They coordinate release dates with submission of the forms, and create hand-made thank-you cards for clothing donors. Clothing comes in from USAO staff and their families, courthouse personnel, the YWCA Women’s Boutique, and college class projects.
Having a few items of clothing that may help them find a job, attend a school function for their children, participate in group activities, or dress for work has done much to ease the transition process for many reentrants served by the Clothes Closet.
Clothing has also been provided for men when requested, and the project is now also expanding to include women releasing from FPC Alderson.
Chef Jeff Henderson Serves Recipes and Insight at FCI Gilmer | October 2015
In 1997, Jeff Henderson was released from federal prison after serving nearly ten years for drug trafficking. Within a few short years of his release, Mr. Henderson became the first African-American Executive Chef at the Café Bellagio in Las Vegas and a New York Times best-selling author. His journey truly reflects the power of hard work and determination.
Growing up in California, Mr. Henderson was exposed to, and became involved in, illicit drug trafficking. Before long, he was earning upward of $35,000 per week selling crack cocaine. The profits and lifestyle abruptly ended when he was sentenced to federal prison in 1989.
In prison, Mr. Henderson discovered his passion for cooking. He studied business and worked in the kitchens of several federal correctional facilities, first as a dishwasher and eventually as a cook. Despite this education and experience, it was nonetheless difficult for him to find work. After numerous rejections, he was hired at Ceasars Palace. His talent and perseverance quickly elevated his culinary career. Today, “Chef Jeff” is a popular Food Network personality with a passion for helping at-risk youth and other vulnerable populations.
In October, 2015, Chef Jeff visited FCI Gilmer. He spoke to the population at large about his experiences, including the challenges and setbacks he faced upon reentry, how he managed to overcome them, and the importance of setting tangible goals and working to achieve them. He then toured the kitchen, interacting with the cooks and kitchen workers. After lunch, he met with the entire kitchen staff and talked about many of the opportunities available for them to translate the specialized skills they are learning in prison kitchens to jobs in the outside world, and passed along helpful suggestions for pursuing, obtaining, and succeeding in such careers.
Pull of Gravity Documentary Screening | November 2015
Criminal justice students at Wheeling Jesuit University gained new insight into the challenges that face former inmates as they return to society when the United States Attorney’s Office, the United States Probation Office for the Northern District of West Virginia, and Wheeling Jesuit University hosted a dynamic event designed to highlight the reality of reentry.
The event featured a screening of the film “Pull of Gravity,” a documentary produced by former offender El Sawyer, filmmaker Jonathan Kaufman, and the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The film is an honest, intimate portrait of three men transitioning from prison to society and the challenges that they, and so many others, have faced.
The film screening was followed by an interactive panel discussion featuring three former inmates and a regional employer. Students asked poignant and probing questions which prompted the former inmates to share information about their personal reentry experiences, including the difficulty of finding housing and employment. Perhaps most strikingly, the inmates discussed the persistence required to overcome the powerful and perpetual influence of acquaintances, locations, and situations that might entice a former offender to return to a criminal lifestyle.
Mr. Sawyer also travelled to Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities throughout the Northern District of West Virginia, where staff members from the Hazelton Complex, FCI Morgantown, FCI Gilmer and FPC Alderson viewed the film and dialogued with Mr. Sawyer in an effort to obtain a better understanding about the realities of reentry faced by prison populations once they leave their respective correctional facilities.
The film left all who viewed it with a broader understanding of reentry and the challenges that former inmates face to resist the “pull of gravity” and position themselves to be productive members of society. Mr. Sawyer is scheduled to return to the region in September 2016 for presentations in further community forums.
Thank you, Dr. Jeffrey Ian Ross!
As a result of the combined efforts of the Reentry Coordinators and staff at FCI Gilmer, FCI Morgantown, and the Hazelton FCC, Dr. Jeffrey Ian Ross, noted criminologist and co-author of numerous scholarly articles and books, including the well know book Beyond Bars, visited the Northern District of West Virginia and talked about various reentry issues with the populations at each of these facilities.
Dr. Ross is a professor in the School of Criminal Justice, College of Public Affairs, and a Research Fellow of the Center for International and Comparative Law and the Schaefer Center for Public Policy at the University of Baltimore. He has researched, written, and lectured on corrections, policing, and crime and justice in American communities for over two decades. His work has appeared in many academic journals and books, and he is a well- known and nationally respected subject matter expert for local, regional, national and international news media.
Dr. Ross spent two days in the Northern District of West Virginia, meeting with several hundred inmates, addressing their reentry concerns and questions, as well as discussing the founding and current progress of the “convict criminology” association, which he co-founded, and which is comprised of scholars, advocates and ex-offenders working to provide a more complete understanding of the policies and practices of the criminal justice system from a perspective that includes new ideas and perspectives, including the circumstances of those who have experienced imprisonment and the unique challenges that many of these individuals and their families face as they deal with the incarceration, reentry and reintegration.
Dr. Ross was able to tour the facilities here and to also talk with correctional officers, and administrators. Based on the written evaluations and surveys, the response to his visit was overwhelmingly positive, with the only real “complaint” being that there “wasn’t enough time” to hear everything Dr. Ross had to offer.
We are hopeful that Dr. Ross will be able to return in the near future to conduct workshops and continue the dialogue he has begun with the significant numbers of prisoners here, who have demonstrated the desire to turn their lives around and make meaningful plans for their reentry. In this way, the United States Attorney’s Office and the Bureau of Prisons can continue to work toward accomplishing the goals of public safety through the reduction of recidivism and the successful reintegration of these men and women as productive members of their communities.