Ex-offenders need help coming home

The debt many prison inmates pay to society isn’t the end of the price tab for their crimes.

They return to the community bearing the stigma of conviction, which makes it difficult to secure gainful employment and even housing. And a good many have deficits in job and life skills that make those challenges more imposing.

Some are saddled with other baggage, as evident in the work of the Erie County Re-Entry Services and Support Alliance. ECRSSA is an arm of the Unified Erie anti-violence initiative that focuses on connecting ex-offenders with services and support that can help them navigate the transition.

About a third of the alliance’s clients have been connected with mental health services, and just over 40 percent with drug and alcohol services. About half of ECRSSA clients have received help in finding jobs.

The support needed depends on the individual, but just gaining access to such services can be prohibitive for ex-offenders. Left on their own, many ex-offenders have difficulty finding their way, even if they’re determined to change, which can push them back down a bad path.

“When the individual is looking to make changes, it’s very helpful to have someone there who knows the system,” Sheila Silman, ECRSSA’s program manager, said in July. “When people struggle, they get overwhelmed and they quit or they go back to what they know.”

As reporter Madeleine O’Neill detailed last week, ECRSSA doesn’t just offer the guidance of case managers and the support of service providers. It helps also to connect clients with the counsel and experience of someone who’s been where they’ve been and faced what they face.

Since earlier this year, that someone has been Tyshun Taylor. Taylor works as a client advocate, a job that calls on years of his own experiences.

Taylor, 43, was released from state prison in 2012 after serving 11 years on drug-related charges. He tries to guide ex-offenders through the same struggles he went through, including wary employers and landlords.

Taylor describes his position as somewhere between a job and a calling. He offers clients encouragement, gives them a lift to work or appointments, meets with potential employers to try to smooth the way.

One of those clients, Josh McCloud, 29, who did more than 10 years for assault, said Taylor’s firsthand perspective has helped shape his as he works to reorient to society.

“Some people have only been on one side of the fence,” McCloud said of Taylor. “He and I have been on both sides of the fence.”

It’s been a year since ECRSSA started helping clients stay on this side of that fence. Its services will be vital for many years to come.