People attending a training session for re-entry coaches who have been incarcerated raise their hands. The program will connect re-entry coaches with inmates being released from prison or jail who can act as mentors and help former prisoner re-enter society and not commit new crimes. Credit: Courtesy of Samuel Thomas

Sam Thomas had been out of prison for about six months when he moved back to Bangor in October 2018. He wanted to rebuild his relationship with his children, who are 10 and 7, and further his education.

Thomas, 33, knew he would need help finding a place to live, getting a job, enrolling in school and reconnecting with his children while maintaining relationships with his parents and other family members in Baldwin, in southwestern Maine. So he turned to the Rev. Stan Moody, founder of the Columbia Street Project, whose mission includes helping former inmates re-enter the community. The pastor at Columbia Street Baptist Church in downtown Bangor, Moody also was a chaplain at the Maine State Prison from 2008 to 2010.

“I’d left my parents’ support, but I knew I still needed support,” Thomas said. “I realized that I couldn’t do it on my own. We had a cup of coffee. Stan listened to me. He didn’t judge me, and that’s all I wanted — for someone to give me a chance.”

Now a trained prison re-entry coach, Thomas is helping recently released inmates make the same transition back to life outside prison walls that he had to make. Thomas is one of several dozen re-entry coaches who have received training as part of a program Moody has been trying to get off the ground for more than a decade. The initiative is seeing some interest now from corrections officials in Augusta and at prisons around the state, who see the potential for coaches to help inmates stick to their release plans and stay out of legal trouble.

“The reason I decided to do it is I know what it’s like being incarcerated,” Thomas said. “I know the struggles they face when they get out and also know the rejections they will get. I know that people who are released sometimes don’t have a plan, they don’t have a family, and that sometimes can be overwhelming.”

Thomas was sentenced to five years in prison with all but 13 months — the time he had already served — suspended after he pleaded guilty to one count of sexual abuse of a minor in an incident on Jan. 18, 2014.

While he was released after the sentencing to serve two years of probation, he landed back in prison in November 2015 after he admitted to violating his probation. He was released in April 2018 after serving the remainder of his sentence. Due to his conviction, Thomas is required to register as a sex offender for 25 years.

When Thomas met Moody, the American Baptist minister had been working for more than a decade on the program, which he now calls Ready 4 Re-entry, that would train mentors to help former prisoners return to society.

Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

In 2007, Moody received a grant from the American Baptist Home Mission Society and trained more than 100 volunteers as re-entry coaches. But the Maine Department of Corrections could not deal with that number of volunteers coming into its facilities, Moody said, so the program did not take hold.

Last year, Moody received a second grant of $38,000 from the same group and partnered with the Maine Prisoner Re-entry Network, whose founder, Bruce Noddin, had built a relationship with the Department of Corrections. So far, about 35 re-entry coaches, including Thomas, have been trained to act as mentors and resources for newly released inmates. More trainings are scheduled for later this year.

Re-entry coaches meet with inmates and their case managers before their release to make plans about what they need to do their first day, first week and first month out of prison. Inmates who do not have relatives or friends with whom they can live often are bused to one of Maine’s larger cities such as Portland, Lewiston, Augusta or Bangor, where they can most easily access services.

“The re-entry coach would meet someone coming off the bus and transport them to probation if that is a part of their sentence,” Noddin said. “If they are on the [sex offender] registry, the coach would take them to the police station [to register], then to General Assistance and to the Department of Health and Human Services to make sure their MaineCare is activated. The coach also could show them where the soup kitchens, food pantries and shelter are.”

One of the biggest challenges inmates face in transitioning back into society is relearning how to make decisions. In prison, inmates don’t decide what they wear, where they sleep, when they exercise and what they eat.

“Inside, they may just make 10 or 12 decisions a day,” Noddin said. “On the outside, people make hundreds, sometimes thousands, of decisions a day. That can be overwhelming at first.”

The best re-entry coaches are people who have been incarcerated themselves, Noddin and Moody said. Of the 35 or so people who attended the Bangor training in March, 19 raised their hands when asked if they had ever been incarcerated.

Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty, a former Maine State Prison warden and Kennebec County sheriff, attended the Bangor training.

Credit: Courtesy of Sam Thomas

About 1,300 men and women are released from Maine prisons each year, Liberty has said. The recidivism rate in the state is 70 percent, according to the Department of Corrections.

Moody and Noddin believe that re-entry coaches can reduce that number. So far, there are no data in Maine to support that idea, but re-entry coaches working with the Department of Corrections may be able to gather it once more coaches are trained and a program is formalized.

About half of all inmates return home to a family residence initially as Thomas did, according to Ryan Thornell, deputy commissioner for the Maine Department of Corrections.

The role of re-entry coaches for inmates without family to return to is expanding within the corrections department, he said.

“The role of the re-entry coach lacks clear definition, which may be the primary strength of the role,” Thornell said. “Lived experience provides most re-entry coaches immediate credibility with the releasing individuals thus increasing the likelihood of ongoing engagement and follow-through with the release plan.”

While Moody’s focus is on training coaches, the goal of Noddin’s group is to act as a resource for the coaches. He also wants to help service center communities such as Bangor become more hospitable to former inmates.

Moody, 79, said he decided after working at Maine State Prison that it would be easier to change the criminal justice system from the outside rather than from within. So he’s pressed on with Ready 4 Re-entry and hopes to see a trained re-entry coach available for every released prisoner who wants mentoring and help readjusting to life in a community. For its part, the Department of Corrections is considering potential federal funding sources to scale up a re-entry coach program but has not made any decisions yet.

Credit: Gabor Degre

Since moving to Bangor in April, Thomas has gone from living at one of the city’s homeless shelters to living in an efficiency apartment in town. He sees his children once a month and expects the number of visits to increase.

Thomas has enrolled at Eastern Maine Community College for the upcoming fall semester to study computer programming. And instead of wondering where he can find help, he’s offering it to men and women like him who want to put their pasts behind them and contribute to society.

Moody believes that once former inmates have successfully re-entered society, they will point to their re-entry coaches and say: “I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for these guys.”