Local Nonprofit Lands Major Grants for Prisoner Re-Entry

Here’s how hard work by Span founder Lyn Levy has paid off tenfold.

Since 1978, Span, Inc., a small Boston nonprofit has helped more than 8,000 prisoners rebuild their lives. Now, after earning nearly $2 million in grants this summer, Span will be able to offer 500 to 1,000 released prisoners a path to education, job training, and substance abuse issues during the next three years.

What makes this most unusual is that, because of winning a competitive grant from the U.S. Department of Labor Employment and Training Administration, Span will not only be aiding prisoners after they are released but will actually be able to work with them behind bars for six months prior to their release. “This is major,” said Span founder and executive director Lyn Levy in an interview. “It rounds out big gaps by allowing us to walk a person through a critical transitional period.” This means that many prisoners who come from “high-crime, high-poverty urban neighborhoods” such as Dorchester, Roxbury, Southie, and parts of the South End will be eligible to create a long-term plan for returning to their communities.

Additionally, a second federal grant funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration will allow Span to pilot another first for the organization, and one sorely needed by prisoners: The organization can now pay for substance abuse treatment programs for eligible men and women after they wrap up their sentences.

The grants will enable individualized release plans as well as provide more depth to Span’s current services, which include Pathways to Employment, a job development program; life skills and living with HIV/AIDS classes; peer support groups; and The Adolph Grant Center, a drop-in facility which supports prisoners’ living with HIV as they adjust to the community.

“We’ll be able to direct clients to many more GED and adult basic education programs and provide them with actual training certificates in programs that will help them get jobs,” Levy said.

Span got its name from the concept of “standing between prison and community,” and that’s exactly what the organization does. Whereas it costs $45,500 a year to finance a prison stay, it has cost on average $4,500 for Span to service a returning prisoner for one year.

Levy, who credits her mother’s activism in the 1930s as a motivation for her work, pioneered prisoner re-entry when she founded Span in 1978 with a two-person staff. The organization has grown to 30 full-time staffers and 30 volunteers. But they don’t just talk the talk: Span’s philosophy is to provide support for prisoners for two years after they exit prison doors. The nonprofit also includes former prisoners who have at least two years of successful reintegration in the community among its ranks. Levy said they will need to hire more staff as they expand services into such facilities as Boston Pre-Release Center in Roslindale, Brooke and Coolidge Houses in Boston, McGrath House for women, and South Bay House of Correction to work with men and women, and county, state, and federal returning prisoners.

“With a reasonable education, substance abuse treatment and a marketable skill,” said Levy, echoing the findings of major think tanks like The National Institute of Justice, “prisoners have a better chance of staying out of prison.” And for people who come out of prison with little but the shirt on their back, it’s people like Levy who make the difference.