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Program Helps Former Inmates Start Fresh in the Community

Alfred Mills, the reentry specialist with the Montpelier Community Justice Center’s program to assist people who are released from prison readjust to live in the community, stands in front of Montpelier City Hall. Mills said that while the first goal of the program is to help the formerly incarcerated individuals, the net effect is that it helps our communities as a whole. Photo by Tom McKone.
Going to prison is hard, but so is getting out. Former inmates must start from scratch: Where to live? How to find a job? How to honestly but tactfully explain where you’ve been for the last couple of years? And, very importantly, how do you change the patterns — and perhaps the friends — you got into trouble with? In short, how do you start fresh and turn your life around?

“It’s like teaching a person to fish, rather than giving them a fish,” said Pat Hoffman of Middlesex, a longtime volunteer with the Montpelier Community Justice Center’s Circles of Support and Accountability, a team which those connected with them call a “COSA.” The inmate needs to apply for the program while they are still incarcerated, and if accepted, they must make a commitment to meet weekly for a year and to follow through on conditions and goals. 

“They face a greater set of difficulties than most people do,” Hoffman said of people getting out of prison, adding that COSAs do not do therapy or social work, and the “core member,” as the newly released person is called, does not always successfully adjust to life outside of prison. She said the center gives volunteers training in substance abuse, incarceration challenges, how to mediate problems, and how to understand trauma — all of which help them to work more effectively.

“Accountability Is a Form of Support”

“We’re not supporting anybody in going back to doing the same old thing,” said Alfred Mills, the Community Justice Center’s reentry specialist for the last 12 years. “Accountability is a form of support.”

Mills said the support system has three parts: navigating back into the outside world, participating in a COSA, and transitional housing. There are occasional exceptions, but most core members need an apartment. They may stay in one of the center’s two temporary apartments for a few months, or Mills may find them an apartment that sometimes becomes long-term.

The name — Circle of Support and Accountability (COSA) — captures the goals of the volunteer group: supporting the person who is leaving incarceration, while at the same time holding them accountable.

“The COSA is about having people who aren’t judging you, who are willing to hang out with you, show up for you, and walk with you as you walk on your new path,” Mills said. A COSA is about positive relationship building, he said, adding that volunteers join the COSA they want to be part of. As time goes on, volunteers may go to the movies, take a walk, or have lunch in town with a core member. 

Both Mills and Hoffman noted that there are clear boundaries set by the Department of Corrections that limit involvement between the volunteers and core members. While the core member’s probation officer is not part of the COSA, Mills and the team work with them. 

A COSA volunteer for 11 years, Hoffman was also the center’s part-time victim services specialist for several years. “I’m kind of a true believer,” she says of the justice center’s work.

Contributing to a Safer Community

“The focus of the COSA team is in building trust with the core member and supporting them in doing the right thing and staying on track,” Carol Plante, the center’s director, said, adding that the relationship building, holding people accountable, and helping them feel part of the community reduces the risk that the person will commit a new offense.

Mills said core members tell him that their fear of disappointing their COSA sometimes motivates them to do the right thing. 

“My experience with COSA was awesome,” said a forty-something man who got out of prison eight years ago and successfully transitioned back into the community. “The most important part for me was having other people to talk to. … The group was genuinely interested in my safety and my growth and development.”

Although core members usually stay in a COSA for one year, this man asked to stay for two, and he still gets together with his COSA once a year. He has a different job, but he still works for the same company where Mills helped him get work after he was released. After six years in the apartment Mills got for him, two years ago he fulfilled his dream of buying his own house.

“They were essential for me,” the man said. “What they’ve done and what they do is very important for people who are coming out of incarceration, as much as for the people in society.”

Mills echoes that point, noting that when people get out of prison, they are going to be living in our communities, so don’t we want them to be as successful as possible? In addition to the satisfaction of helping individuals, Hoffman makes that point, too: “I want to live in a safe community.”

One of 17 community justice centers statewide, Montpelier’s center is a part of city government. In addition to serving the capital, it serves 10 other communities: Berlin, Calais, East Montpelier, Middlesex, Northfield, Roxbury, Waitsfield, Warren, Waterbury, and Worcester.