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Filling the gaps for formerly incarcerated Bostonians

Office of Returning Citizens director working to solidify partnerships, offer wraparound services

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
Filling the gaps for formerly incarcerated Bostonians
Director Kevin Sibley speaks at the Oct. 26 launch event for the new Office of Returning Citizens, located at 22 Drydock Ave. in South Boston. (Photo: Don Harney, Mayor’s office)

Kevin Sibley is director of the city of Boston’s Office of Returning Citizens, a newly launched initiative within the Office of Public Safety to support individuals returning to Boston after release from state, federal and county correctional facilities, as well as others who were previously incarcerated.
Sibley holds an MBA from Cambridge College and a bachelor’s degree in Africana studies from UMass Boston. He has two decades of experience in community-serving nonprofits and grant-funded initiatives, including The Home for Little Wanderers, The Boston Foundation’s StreetSafe Boston initiative, the John P. Holland Community Council, Greater Boston Kappa Charities and the GEAR UP program.
Sibley serves as area director with the Kappa League, a national youth development program that teaches career readiness techniques and life skills with a collegiate focus to young men in grades 8–12, and is also an entrepreneur with his own travel agency. He lives in Dorchester.
A few weeks into his new role, Sibley spoke with the Banner about the opportunities, challenges and goals he sees ahead.

What is the problem or challenge now – why is the Office of Returning Citizens needed?

The challenge is that we have over 3,000 citizens a year coming back from incarceration, and not having a solid plan or partnership with all the agencies in the commonwealth. We have some great agencies, but we want to create a partnership and collaboration with all of them to make sure our citizens are not overwhelmed, and can get the information and help they need.

The city’s announcement said the new office will help fill gaps that exist within local, state, federal and county efforts. What are some of those gaps?

What I’ve been doing [in my first weeks] is meeting with various partners in housing, employment, education, and health. From health partners, we’ve discovered that if someone is incarcerated for over 30 days, and was homeless, they’ll lose their chronic homelessness certification. Once they’re released, they don’t have that certification and have to start again. So that’s one of the nuances we deal with. Another is lack of access to identification. [And] we’re working with Lifeline cell phone providers, because having a cell phone is crucial. For employment and education, we are aligning ourselves with organizations that can help with job readiness.

What have been your first tasks on the job?

The key number one item we’re completing is putting together an advisory team of partners. As of right now, we have approximately seven partners we’re in discussion with. And that will grow. We have meetings all this week and next week to look at the partners, learn what their best practices have been and how effectively they’ve run their models.

What’s exciting so far?

I’ve had an amazing reception from all our partners. They believe the office is a great idea and look forward to working with the city in this capacity.

How will you reach the people who need your services?

Directly, and through partners. We’re having a website created now. Also, we’ll be going into different prisons and jails throughout the commonwealth to talk about our program and what we can provide.

And what exactly can you do for them?

They’ll receive wraparound services. As an example: We realize that many of our community residents may need housing. We are taking an approach where we’re not looking at naming a shelter, but at rapid housing. As we look at the rapid housing concept, we may also be looking at some type of health or mental health check, and then at education or employment. So we’re able to wrap up all these services for our ‘customer,’ or citizen, and help them see beyond what they’ve seen before. We help create a path.

How will you measure success?

Our immediate goal is to offer services to people in any way we can. There are so many factors in measuring recidivism, so we can’t necessarily say we’ve affected that. What we can do is provide excellent services. Our success will be measured by the partnerships we create and by the success of those individuals who we put into those various pipelines. We’re changing the paradigm. We all deserve second, third, maybe fourth chances. Success is being able to get up after falling down.

What portion of those 3,000-plus returning citizens will your office touch?

That is something we will follow up on next year and assess. If we can just serve a portion of that number, maybe 10 or 20 percent in our first year, that will be positive. Since it is voluntary, we can’t say. Also, it requires time for people to feel comfortable, to feel safe, to feel they can trust us. Accessing our office is totally voluntary — 100 percent voluntary. We want to make that clear so [formerly incarcerated individuals and their families] understand we are not under the watchful eye of wherever they’re being released from.

The challenge is immense. It could be seen as an overwhelming task. However, this is a task for entire communities to embrace. Families, organizations, churches — everyone who has been touched by this issue. Statistically, one in three men of color born after 2001 will have been affected by incarceration. It affects a lot of people and we want to make sure our office is assisting our residents of Boston.

Are you a Boston native?

I am. I grew up here in Boston, on Waumbeck Street during the New Edition days, and Shawmut Avenue, Dudley, Mattapan… I was educated here, at Jamaica Plain High School. But in the summers, my mother sent me to Troy, Alabama. My grandparents had a little land there, and a mini-farm with chickens and pigs. We fed them, planted, harvested. That’s where I learned about hard work, from sunup to sundown.

How will you bring your prior experience into this role?

This job is very special, and a unique fit with what I’ve done in the past. My education, professional experience and connections allow me to really build the initial pieces for the office.

I’ve worked with people outside prison walls all my life. I have family members who have been in and out of the system and have needed assistance. I have friends in that situation. Those personal experiences help fuel my desire to help. And my education helps me understand the business aspects of the office, that we are not successful unless we involve the community and create public private partnerships. My experience working with different agencies will come into play. I know there are individuals and organizations that want to help and need to be shown how to help.

Will you continue to do some of your other mentoring activities?

Absolutely. Mentoring never stops. It happens in the grocery store, outside the gas station, on your walk to the train station. So I’ve been mentoring for well over 18 years, and many of those fruits have come to bear in young men and women being successful in their organizations.

Is there anything else you want to mention?

One of the things we’re looking to do next year is to have a program for children of incarcerated parents, some type of toy drive for them. And we’re looking at internship pipelines for employment. There are a lot of things in the works.