KET Legislative Coverage

Out of Prison and Into Jobs: Louisville Agency Focuses on Skills for Re-entry

by John Gregory | 06/04/14 11:10 AM

Helping convicts return to a productive life in society may depend as much on what happens in the days and weeks after they're released from jail, as on what happened while they were imprisoned. One agency achieving success helping ex-cons with re-entry is COPES, the Louisville-based Council on Prevention and Education: Substances, Inc.

Connections host Renee Shaw recently talked with Ted Strader, the group's executive director, about the services COPES provides to former inmates. The discussion is part of Shaw’s ongoing exploration of criminal justice reform in Kentucky.

A Network of Support Services
"We want to move people out of prisons, out of addiction, and into jobs," Strader says of his programs. "I can't talk about corrections and I can't talk about addiction without talking about jobs and the economy. The economy drives the prison to let folks out, and the economy drives folks to need jobs, and the economy drives folks to criminal behavior. These issues are all deeply enmeshed."

Strader explains that COPES works with departments of corrections along with social service organizations like the Healing Place and Dismas Charities to provide a network of services to former inmates upon their release. COPES targets men and fathers coming out of jail who need additional substance abuse recovery support. The goal is to reach clients within a few days of release from prison and keep them in the COPES program for at least 20 weeks.

"Getting someone clean is one thing. Helping someone remain clean [and] sober in recovery is another," explains Strader. He says COPES emphasizes building relationship skills as part of the re-entry process: "The relationship skills to get a job, the relationship skills to be a daddy, the relationship skills to negotiate with your baby's momma."

Strader says the COPES program has helped reduce recidivism by 60 percent in the first 12 to 15 months after a client's release from jail.

Programs That Foster Positive Change
COPES started 35 years ago with substance abuse prevention programs for children and youth. Since then the scope of the organization's work has expanded to offer a variety of services to support parents, strengthen families and marriages, help men develop fatherhood skills, and reduce drug use and incidence of HIV-AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Strader says the organization's prevention programs are used in all 50 states and six countries. Those efforts, according to Strader, are particularly successful with people he describes as having the "minority experience."

"I don't think God makes minorities," Strader explains. "I think people create that in their minds and that creates trauma and pain. People who've had a minority experience look at life and look at things a little differently. They often don't feel a long-term sense of connectedness and hope and success. … They're more focused on surviving."

Regardless of a client's background or circumstance, Strader says COPES treats individuals with dignity, respect, and an unconditional positive regard so that they can bring about positive changes in their lives.

Watch the full Connections interview.