McGrath provides services for women leaving prison

Goal is to keep participants from ending up in jail again

A LITTLE OVER A YEAR after it closed, a new and improved McGrath House is up and running as the only exclusively female residential reentry program in Massachusetts.

McGrath serves women who are completing their sentences at state or county facilities, and women who are on probation or parole. Corrections officials say there is a need for exclusively female residential programs because woman often face different hurdles than men. Nationally, more than half of all women in state and federal prisons have children younger than 18, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Most incarcerated women have been victims of domestic violence, including 79 percent having reported a history of physical abuse.

While the population of women in prison is much smaller than men, the numbers are still significant. Over 1,400 women were released into communities across Massachusetts from 2016 to 2018, according to data from the Massachusetts Department of Correction.

“I can tell you that this type of programming fills an important need for women returning to the community,” said Ed Dolan, commissioner of the Massachusetts Probation Service.

Community Resources for Justice, the nonprofit that runs McGrath House, shuttered the South End facility in 2018 after tight budgets and a complicated referral system dried up referrals from state, federal, and county agencies. It was a time when many reentry programs were shutting down due to tightening budgets. Span Inc., a nonprofit that provided services for men and women previously incarcerated, closed in 2017. Overcoming the Odds, a reentry project funded by the Department of Correction, community groups, and the Boston Police Department, ended after a three-year stint.

When McGrath House closed in April 2018, Massachusetts was spending less than $100,000 on male and female community-based residential reentry programs ($90,000 for a co-ed program in Worcester), a far cry from the $66 million in Ohio and $13 million in Michigan spent on male and female reentry services. The state appropriated $5 million in fiscal 2019, which ended June 30, and the pending budget for fiscal 2020 includes another $4.5 million. The program has strong support from House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Sen. Cynthia Creem of Newton.

Opened in 1975, McGrath first received referrals from the state and federal Departments of Correction and the state parole board. Now one master contract – covering parole, probation, and the state Department of Correction – means there are no designated beds for specific populations, making referrals a lot easier. Federal referrals now go to a co-ed reentry program run separately by Community Resources for Justice.

 The 33-bed McGrath accepts women from county and state prisons all over the Commonwealth. Most come from Norfolk, Suffolk, or Essex counties. “We rarely say no to people – only if there’s a significant safety issue,” said Lisa Chute, the program director.

Participants reside at the program for three to six months, and receive individualized assistance securing housing, finding jobs, accessing mental health and substance abuse counseling, and getting help reconnecting with families.

The goal is to keep participants from ending up behind bars again. For some people incarcerated for long periods, basic everyday things such as using Google for a job search and learning to use public transportation can be obstacles to overcome. Receiving help in overcoming those hurdles has been shown to reduce recidivism by up to 25 percent.

On the job front, McGrath connects women to nonprofits such as Project Place to help them take skills classes, land internships, and find job opportunities.  A 2015 study by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Department of Corrections found that 25 percent of women inmates were working six months after their release compared to 57 percent of men.

One woman who benefited significantly from the program is Rosa Baez Colon, who participated in the program in 2017 after serving a four-year sentence in federal prison for tax fraud.

Colon says an abusive and controlling husband forced her to leave her real estate job and pushed her into the world of white-collar crime to pay the bills. Treated for ovarian cancer months before she was to serve her term in Massachusetts, she was sent to the nation’s only female medical prison in Texas, cut off entirely from her three children. Waiting for release in 2017 and unable to acquire her identification documents from the ex-husband, McGrath House stepped in and found a way to fly her to Boston.

The first week at McGrath, Colon said she was despondent. That’s when Shute helped her to find her children, now in their late teens and early twenties, on Facebook. Once she met her children her perspective changed dramatically. “It was huge. Her whole mindset changed after that meeting,” Chute said.

Participants have to abide by many rules. They create itineraries, complete with travel times and addresses, for wherever they go. Smart phones aren’t allowed, so they have to look up routes on computers in advance. They have to open a savings account, learn bus routes, and check in regularly using pay phones. Colon got clothes for interviews at a program called Dress for Success and she received therapy treatment at the South End Community Health Center for domestic abuse trauma.

Colon said she would be out the door at 6:30 a.m. for classes at Project Place, a social services agency that helped with job training. She ended up with a paid internship working for a local fudge shop, while also working in the kitchen of Project Place cooking for a homeless population of 50 to 70 people once a day.

“I’d get back here [McGrath] at around 10 at night, study, take a shower, sleep, and go back out again. I was determined. I didn’t want to let anyone down,” Colon said.

She eventually acquired transitional housing through a nonprofit and later got her own one-bedroom apartment. After completing two years of coursework in one year at Quincy College, Colon is excited to continue her pursuit of a bachelors degree at Suffolk University. Her hope is to work at a nonprofit to help women reentering society post-incarceration.

“I’d like to help give other women an opportunity. They just need a push and to understand life won’t be easy. If I can help just one person, I’ll be satisfied. But I want to help many,”   she said.

It made sense for Colon, who lived in the Greater Boston area, to go to McGrath. But the location is less convenient for women outside the Greater Boston area.

“Women are going back to 351 cities and towns in other areas of the Commonwealth,” said Dolan. “How do we deliver that kind of service like McGrath House in Pittsfield or Falmouth?”

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Dolan said the need is apparent, with over 70,000 people in Massachusetts – 20 percent of them women – connected to his office under different forms of supervision. He said residential reentry programs are essential for people who leave prison without any prospect of housing. “Prison to nothing has the highest recidivism rate,” he said.

Creem said it makes sense to provide services for people leaving jail in the communities they are coming from and to which they are returning. “There should be McGrath Houses all over the state,” she said.