Volunteer of America Delaware Valley's PROMISE Program is designed to reduce the chances of recidivism for adult male ex-offenders with mental illnesses.

Eric Echevarria admits that he made some silly mistakes when he was young. He grew up in Camden, where he hung out with the wrong crowd. The drug dealers, he said, controlled everything and were idolized.

Echevarria followed their lead and eventually was arrested in the ‘90s for a weapons and drug charge that earned him a 10-year prison sentence.

He was released into Hope Hall in 2002, a 175-bed residential correctional treatment program in Camden for adult male offenders. Offenders can be placed there within two years of their parole eligibility date. The type of crime doesn’t matter.

Echevarria left Hope Hall in 2004.

Halfway houses and evidence-based interventions

Hope Hall is one of three halfway houses run by Volunteers of America Delaware Valley. VOADV is an established Christian Church founded in Philadelphia in 1896 that currently operates 44 separate programs serving people who are experiencing homelessness, addictive behavior, and are returning to society from the criminal justice system. Its programs are largely supported by government offices like the Department of Corrections, state parole boards and the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development. More than 90 percent of the $30 million operating budget comes from grants and government funding.

VOADV founders called their halfway houses “hope halls.” and the name stuck, according to Chief of Staff Steve Shultz. That was 15 years ago.

“Since that time though, the halfway house, at least the ones that we have, have evolved into what we have today which is a refined, proven evidence-based structure.”

VOADV reentry programs have a proven record of helping ex-offenders reintegrate back to the community after incarceration. The organization provides evidence-based treatment interventions to clients in an effort to reduce their risk of reoffending and to promote public safety.

Last year, ex-offenders participating in VOADV’s programs had only a 19 percent re-incarceration rate three years post-release. New Jersey’s recidivism rate during the same period was 32 percent.

“There are tools that our staff uses to work with clients to address their specific issues,” Shultz said. “Our staff will use proven methods that are proven elsewhere. In this community, we share resources, we share things that work.”

Among those methods are the Thinking for a Change and The Reasoning and Rehabilitation programs.

T4C, under a cooperative agreement with the National Institute of Corrections, uses a series of lessons that build on each other to address clients’ cognitive behavioral needs.

The R and R program was developed and evaluated in Canada, and evidence of success stems from different independent controlled evaluations, including one in Texas in 1995. Offenders were randomly assigned to either R and R or a control group, and were examined for six months post-intervention. Those in the R and R Program demonstrated less need for probation revocation.

The path to rehabilitation

Potential clients who are two years away from their parole eligibility dates are referred to Hope Hall and VOADV’s programs by the New Jersey Department of Corrections to set up accommodations once they leave prison.

As soon as offenders arrive at Hope Hall, VOADV staff begins working with them on the underlying issues that may have landed them in prison in the first place, such as anger management or behavioral issues.

VOADV typically serves 13,000 people per year. Clients get help with career counseling, restitution, addiction treatment and special needs services.

The company has a handful of programs in Philadelphia, as well. The organization has affordable housing throughout the city, including on Roosevelt Boulevard, but also works with people with mental illnesses who are coming out of Norristown State Hospital.

Life (and work) after prison

Echevarria is now the director of VOADV’s PROMISE Program (Program For Returning Offenders With Mental Illness Safely and Effectively), designed to reduce the chances of recidivism for adult male ex-offenders with mental illnesses.

At Hope Hall, where Echevarria arrived after prison, clients work with VOADV staff to improve basic reading, writing and math skills, while also addressing any underlying behavioral or addiction issues. Staffers also help connect clients with employment, vocational and college opportunities.

Echevarria attended Hope Hall’s addiction treatment program as a client, where he met many individuals from VOADV that have had a lasting impact on his life post-release.

“When I finally got the time to sit down and be taken out of [the triggering] environment, I had a lot of time to think and knew that it wasn’t for me,” Echevarria said.

Echevarria thought about his future and his actions that landed him in prison. It was his own doing, he knew that, but he also knew that this was not the end for him and this was not the direction he wanted his life to go in.

“You see the fast money and the jewelry and it’s all glamorous from the outside looking in, but then when you’re in it, they don’t tell you about going to prison and getting shot and some of your friends getting murdered and those type of things,” Echevarria said. “You have to find out those things on your own and I’ve had my fair share of those things.”

The staff at Hope Hall gave Echevarria the courage he needed to pursue an education, and he enrolled in Camden County College. He ultimately earned his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Rowan University in 2010 and a Master’s in social work from Rutgers University soon after.

“When I came home I got a CDL license and I drove trucks for about a year and a half. I still keep my license active, actually,” Echevarria said. “It was an honest decent living but it still wasn’t what I wanted. I’m a thinker, I like to be around people.”

And then he got a job with VOADV.

Programs for offenders who’ve lost their support systems

A common theme that Echevarria notices when accepting clients into the program is that either mental illness or drugs and alcohol played a big role in their crimes. This is why, he added, the treatment aspect of PROMISE is very important. He’s been accepting a lot of high-risk clients, clients who may have been involved in armed robberies or murders.

“A lot of these guys are written off by their families and just everyone in general, and they have very little to no support, so we step in and we are that support system for them,” Echevarria said. “My staff and I, we put them through substance abuse treatment if they need it, mental health treatment. Many of them are sex offenders so we get them sex offender counseling.”

There’s a work component to the Promise Program as well, for those who are physically and mentally capable. Echevarria and his team find services for these clients, like Supplemental Security Income for people with disabilities.

“I have blinders on when working with these guys, these are my guys,” Echevarria said. “I’m a living testimony to that. I believe in second and third chances. Regardless of what a person has done in the past we should not hold that against them from having a future.”

Once a client is admitted into the PROMISE program, they are assessed to see what their needs are. Everyone gets an individualized treatment plan based on their specific needs, following meetings with psychologists and mental health managers. The first 60 days, Echevarria said, are all treatment.

Beyond that, clients go through a week-long job readiness program to help Echevarria and his staff determine which ones are capable of working. The readiness program includes interview skills, job and resume assistance.

The PROMISE Program also offers transitional and supportive housing components for clients who have nowhere to go after completing the program, allowing them to live in VOADV housing for up to a year. For those who can’t find housing beyond that, the PROMISE Program will allow them to stay in supportive housing forever, as long as the client can pay the rent (30 percent of their income).

VOADV is largely government supported from the Department of Corrections, the State Parole Board, and the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs on the reentry side. For other programs, the organization has support from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Camden County Board of Social Services, among others.

Some of these agencies fund individual programs, often on a per diem, which means an allowance of sorts to cover daily expenses.

“You have these guys and you don’t want to give them any services and leave them in prison until they’re maxed out and then they come home from prison with no support, what are they going to do? Commit another crime,”  Echevarria said. “So by us giving them housing, allowing stability and putting them on their meds, there’s a less likely chance that they’ll go out there and commit to those same behaviors.”

The Reentry Project is a collaborative news initiative about the challenges of—and solutions to—prisoner reentry in Philadelphia. See our work at https://thereentryproject.org.