Philly's new reentry czar has a bold plan to end recidivism. Can she get it done?

Ceciley Bradford-Jones, who is the new head of RISE, poses at her office in Philadelphia, PA on November 16, 2016.

The website for RISE - the city Office of Reintegration Services, tasked with supporting the 34,000 people released from prisons to Philadelphia each year - isn't exactly a trove of resources.

In fact, nearly a year after Mayor Kenney took office, emphasizing reentry as a focus, its website bears only this terse message, against a crisp field of white: "Welcome Kenney Administration. The RISE website is under administrative revision and will be online in the near future."

Ceciley Bradford-Jones, RISE's newly appointed director, is keenly aware that for RISE, the future can't come soon enough.

"We unfortunately have to rebrand. It's not like we have the best reputation right now," she said. "We have to spend a lot of time getting people to look at us now and not compare us to who we were."

Beyond rebranding, Bradford-Jones aims to overhaul RISE at a time when Philadelphia is seeking to turn its fragmented reentry safety net into a cohesive support system.

Philadelphia last year adopted a citywide reentry plan and launched a public-private collaboration, the Philadelphia Reentry Coalition, to cut recidivism by 25 percent in five years.

Now, Bradford-Jones intends to accelerate that progress by transforming RISE into a data-driven agency that will begin working with people while they're still in city jails, then connecting them seamlessly to needed services after they're released.

"I want us to become a triage door for reentry," she said.

That's a major evolution for the office, which was established under the Street administration and which has tried varied approaches over the years, including contracting with outside agencies and providing direct services. Currently, it mostly serves ex-offenders directly, with GED preparation, job readiness, parenting, and forklift-certification programs. It had been without a permanent leader for at least eight months.

Bradford-Jones' interim predecessor, Terrell Bagby, estimated 1,500 people come through RISE's front door each year.

But the agency must leverage its resources to reach thousands more if it is to make a dent in Philadelphia's recidivism problem. About 60 percent of people coming out of state prison will be arrested again within three years, according to the Department of Corrections.

Right now, Bradford-Jones said, "People come to RISE when they're in crisis."

She wants to shift out of crisis-management mode and believes starting intake much earlier is one key to that.

Her vision: RISE intake managers will begin their work inside prisons, assessing each individual's needs and risk level and developing a customized reentry plan. Post-release, ex-offenders will be referred to appropriate programs - whether run by RISE or by outside agencies - and RISE will continue tracking their outcomes.

"We need to start building that relationship and proving to them that we can be a resource before they're out here and being pulled in so many different directions," she said.

That will require hiring more case managers to undertake assessments.

It will also require mutual trust and coordination between RISE and the dozens of scrappy nonprofits that work on reentry, some of which are skeptical.

Bradford-Jones believes her great advantage is that she was, herself, one of those nonprofit workers until a few months ago.

She started as a counselor and case manager after graduating from Millersville University in 1999. Early on, she worked in Philadelphia with children who have behavioral and mental-health challenges.

"I found that 80 percent to 95 percent of the time there was an absent parent. And the more I began to dig, I found they were incarcerated, or they were home but they just got home," she said.

It was a particular challenge, unlike a parent's death or a divorce: "It was this situation where they're angry with mom or dad when they're not there, then totally elated when they are there. And it was this revolving door."

That began her focus on reentry. It took her to the Pennsylvania Prison Society for nearly nine years, where she worked on programs for kids and parents, buses for families to visit prisons, and many other initiatives. Last year, she left to launch the Philadelphia office of the Center for Employment Opportunities, a work-readiness and employment agency for ex-offenders.

"I touched every aspect of reentry from the perspective of: How can I keep children and parents connected?" she said. "It still boils down to families and kids for me. I'm looking for permanent reentry - coming home and staying home."

Now, she intends to run RISE like a nonprofit, not a city office.

"People look at government as the wheels are always turning but you don't have to produce anything. That's not a space I'm comfortable in," she said. "I plan on turning RISE into a very data-driven machine."

Former colleagues noted Bradford-Jones' smarts, interpersonal skills, and collaborative approach. They were not all convinced it would be enough to make the impact she's seeking.

"I don't think we in the reentry community are collectively hopeful that the appointment of a new executive director at RISE is going to usher in some fundamental desired changes," said Bill Cobb, who runs a reentry support and advocacy organization called Redeemed.

He said efforts to expand the reach of RISE had been stymied by bureaucracy, politics, and insufficient funding.

Cobb thinks Bradford-Jones is a fine leader, but he worries she will face the same possibly insurmountable obstacles.

"My experiences with RISE have not been favorable. It just hasn't been a place I'm confident in sending people to."

Its services were often too remedial for people who already knew, for instance, how to write a resumé but who had more complex reentry challenges.

In fact, he thinks RISE should focus on supporting outside providers and stop offering direct services altogether - especially now that the Kenney administration has moved RISE into the Philadelphia Department of Prisons.

"When people leave prison, they want to be liberated. They don't want to go into an environment that's still affiliated with their prison experience."

Bradford-Jones is aware of those challenges but thinks being part of the prison system will be vital to starting intake inside the prisons.

Part of the challenge is that there's no model for a successful citywide reentry office of this scale, said Aviva Tevah, coordinator for the Reentry Coalition. (Places like New Orleans and Lancaster have offices serving smaller populations, and New York's City Council voted in August to establish an office.)

"It's an important reflection of the city's commitment to reentry," she said, "but it's something we have to figure out how to do effectively."

One model, said Matt Joyce, director of strategic operations at the Center for Employment Opportunities, was an early project Bradford-Jones took on there: She worked with Philadelphia's Parks and Recreation Department to bring people coming out of state prison onto landscaping work crews.

He's optimistic she can find other unexpected pathways to support her permanent-reentry vision.

"It's incumbent on cities to find creative ways to fund this work."

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