Retired probation officer helping to get SVdP reentry program off the ground

By Becky Aubut
Anchor Staff
beckyaubut@anchornews.org

ATTLEBORO, Mass. — The St. Vincent de Paul Society’s re-entry program’s main objective is to foster ex-offenders’ Spiritual lives and assist them in his or her efforts to make a successful transition back into the community. Many ex-offenders are without the support of family or positive mentors who can help them guide them through the difficult parole process.

Paul Hodge knows that process all too well. He spent 29 years working as a probation officer in the Fall River District Court. When he retired in April 2012, his parents moved in with his family until they both passed, leaving Hodge to wonder “where God was calling me, and what should I be doing with the rest of my life?” he said.

A member of the St. Vincent de Paul Society for more than 20 years through his parish, Our Lady Queen of Martyrs in Seekonk, Hodge attended a presentation by Tom Dwyer, the chairman of the Voice of the Poor Committee, the advocacy arm of the St. Vincent de Paul Society whose members help identify issues that are critical to those living in poverty and need, and help bring attention to them so communities can help create strategies to provide support.

“He mentioned about formulating a reentry project,” recalled Hodge. “The reentry project is a partnership between the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and National St. Vincent de Paul Society. When I heard the presentation and talked with Tom, my interest was piqued.”

There are 15,000 inmates released each year in Massachusetts, and the statistics show that without the ability to find employment and housing, 40 percent of them over a three-year period return to incarceration, said Hodge. Realizing that God had blessed him with the unique combination of work experience as a probation officer and being a member of St. Vincent de Paul, Hodge knew that God had been leading him to this project all along.

“It almost seemed like a culmination of volunteer experience combined with working experience, kind of the perfect storm, if you will,” he said. “As I was discerning my involvement in the reentry project, I thought of Pope Francis and this year being the Year of Mercy, and I thought specifically of the Corporal Works of Mercy, and my own examination of self and how I was doing with that.”

A few months ago, Hodge and a couple of members of the Voice of the Poor Committee met with the director of classification programs and director of the reintegration program at the Bristol County House of Corrections in Dartmouth with the goal of creating a solid partnership to help released inmates reintegrate back into society once he or she is released from the House of Corrections. During that meeting, the group came up with a tentative blueprint of the reentry program, and honed in on a list of support services each ex-offender will need upon his or her reentry. 

“Some of the real needs that the men and women are faced with centered around housing; that’s a big issue,” said Hodge. “We’re in the process of trying to set up a meeting with Catholic Social Services to try and work out the logistics. 

“There were also some very specific ideas that the folks at the House of Corrections had like transportation, just getting them from jail to their homes. That’s a real issue. We’re looking at ways to be able to assist them with transportation through purchasing bus passes for the men and women coming out.

“Personal care items are also an issue. They come out with what they went in with, and many times that’s nothing, just the clothes on their back and a couple of bucks. We’re thinking of making packs that would contain some personal care items.”

But the biggest hurdle each ex-offender faces is employment. 

“The job market in this area, and other areas, isn’t doing that well and jobs are not as plentiful,” said Hodge. “As a result, if an employer has an opportunity to hire a person who does not have a criminal background versus one who does, typically the employer opts to choose the one who does not have a criminal background.”

There are some national corporations, said Hodge, who have made it a focus to try and hire men and women who are returning from being incarcerated, and his group is trying to identify those corporations, see which have a local store in the area, and work out a partnership with those corporations. The reentry program is also working with state agencies to help coordinate employment efforts.

Transportation again becomes an issue for employment because “some don’t have a license for a variety of reasons” and even if that issue gets resolved, “they don’t have a vehicle to drive,” said Hodge, adding his overall vision for the reentry program is that “at some point we have enough Vincentians and partner with returning citizens, and hopefully set up some type of mentoring of the men and women so that they don’t return to an incarcerated institution.”

After spending almost 30 years as a probation officer, Hodge is in a unique position. He knows that many of those who are incarcerated simply made a wrong decision that cost them in a big way.

“When I started work, my children were young and I often thought about how you hear about young men and women getting into trouble, and I would often say to myself that my kids would never be trouble,” said Hodge. “Once I started really looking at the individuals who were in front of me, and their backgrounds, I found that the people I was working with were coming from good families or from families, that for whatever reason, weren’t able to help their son or daughter make the right choices. I quickly dropped the phrase, ‘My kid will never be in trouble’ from my vocabulary.”

Though a lot of the ideas are still in the planning stages, Hodge knows that parishes in the Attleboro deanery and beyond are ready to step up. Even if someone cannot mentor, they could organize their parish to do personal care drives and deliver those to the House of Corrections to be distributed to the men and women as they are leaving.

The true vision is to lower that 40 percent recidivism rate, said Hodge, by having communities rally around their brothers and sisters.

“On a human level that’s very troubling, and on an economic level,” said Hodge. “The people of the Commonwealth are paying their taxes and seeing a good chunk of it going towards incarcerating men and women. It’s a revolving door when you see 40 percent going back. We need to see systemic change [for the ex-offenders] as a society overall, and as members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, be able to help implement so that number gets reduced.”

For those interested in helping or have any questions, you can go to the Greater Attleboro District St. Vincent de Paul Society’s website: www.svdpattleboro.org.


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