The Turning Leaf Project Aims to Break Cycle (Sisters of Charity SC)

Communities often address crime through a cycle of prison time and release. This cycle leads them back to old habits, separated from their families and a drain on tax payer dollars. That is why The Turning Leaf Project (TLP) exists—to work with individuals who cycle in and out of the criminal justice system in order to provide the structure needed after release from jail.

The TLP was founded by Amy Barch, 36, founder and director, who has had a passion for working with incarcerated folk since her 20s.

“I became very interested in why people commit crimes and how we can effectively respond to that behavior as a community,” Barch said.

When Barch moved to Charleston in 2010 she was unable to find any meaningful volunteer opportunities in the field of reentry and rehabilitation for the incarcerated population. This led to her approaching the jail to teach classes in the evenings a few times a week.

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Our vision in 2020

Our vision in 2020

You know when something just feels right?

That’s how I feel about our vision for replicating small Turning Leaf centers across South Carolina.

But it wasn’t a clear-cut decision. In fact, I soul searched for much of last year to land here. See, going into 2019 we had another plan to scale. That strategy involved growing our Charleston site into a large reentry center, enrolling 150 men a year. I’d always had a vision of running a large reentry center. A two-story building, multiple classrooms, a state-of-the-art training and conference room. The hustle and bustle of the day. That’s a vision I’d been working towards for years.                                

Nearing the end of 2018, we started making moves to make that dream a reality. I hired two new staff. Adam came on board to handle job placement and screen-printing sales. Blue joined us as a recruiter to get more men in the door. We were right on track heading into 2019. The only thing left to do was ramp up enrollment. Blue recruited and we waited. He recruited some more and we waited some more. But the spike in phone calls and assessments and first days in the classroom never came. Sure, we saw new faces, but it became pretty clear pretty fast that we weren’t going to come anywhere close to hitting enrollment numbers needed to grow into a large reentry organization without compromising our program model. Damn.

My dream of that large reentry center started fading away.

I took the spring and summer of 2019 to re-evaluate the future of Turning Leaf. It was a critical decision, and I didn’t know which way to go. Lack of clarity is not a good look for me. My brain operates best in execution mode, with a clear vision and an actionable plan. Instead, I drifted through part of last year, trying to reconcile my vision of the large reentry center with the reality that Charleston doesn’t have a dense enough population of men returning home from prison to make it a reality. It was a difficult time for me.

Conversations and meditation, dream boards and letters to myself, back of the napkin diagrams and pen to paper goal setting ultimately led me to two choices. The first option was that we grow our Charleston location into a training center for other organizations doing reentry work around the state and country. We would still work with a small group of men coming home from prison, but organizational growth would be focused on training in our cognitive behavioral curriculum and best practices in how to deliver effective reentry services. I liked the idea. It spoke to my interests and my strengths. I love to create and to train.  I love to test new content and share it with others. I love the idea of elevating the quality of reentry services across the country. It fit with my vision of running a large center. I was leaning hard in this direction. It sounded fun and rewarding and…well…easy.

Or…we could replicate small Turning Leaf reentry centers around South Carolina. We could create a statewide network of reentry. Men coming home from prison all over the state would have the option to get help after their release. And because we’d be enrolling a lot more men, we could evaluate the program. Really evaluate it. And then, we could take the model nationally. We’d have a chance to become the first McDonald’s of prison reentry. People coming home from prison in every state across the country could benefit from what we’re doing here in Charleston. We could leave a legacy. We could be a game changer. But it would be a lot more work, and a lot less fun. Just straight up grinding and raising money and selling the program the hard way. It didn’t speak to my interests or my strengths. Operations, fundraising, managing people and money. Grant reporting and board meetings and budgets. Ugh. And an evaluation means truly knowing if the program works. Most social service agencies spend their entire lifetime only believing that they’re making an impact, but never really knowing. Knowing is a scary and vulnerable place to be. This was the riskier and harder option.

One of the things we teach our Turning Leaf students is to make life decisions not based on what feels good today, but on where you want to go in the future. We help our men understand that reaching long-term goals always requires the sacrifice of immediate gratification. Creating. Training. Fun. Easy. Operations. Fundraising. Risky. Difficult. Where do I want to end up? What do I want to leave behind? Which choice leaves me with no regrets? This was my soul searching of last year. Nobody would have judged me for going with option #1. Nobody would have seen this as my easy way out. But I would have known.

Instead I took my desire to create and train and put it on a shelf. I took my desire to work with other reentry groups across the country and stored it away. Not forever, just for now. I made the decision to replicate across the state. I doubled down on Turning Leaf. I doubled down on what I know is already the best reentry organization in the country. We’re small, but we’re the best. That means we’re the best chance this country has right now to reform our approach to prison reentry programming. That’s a privilege and a responsibility I take very, very seriously.

The coolest thing happened after I fully committed to option #2. The vision of my large reentry center reconciled. Our Charleston site will be a large center one day. But it won’t be large because we’re going to enroll a lot of men coming home from prison. And it won’t be large because we’re going to be training other groups across the country in our curriculum and best practices. It’s going to be large because it will be our home base and training center for all the other Turning Leaf sites around the state and country. The puzzle piece in my mind finally locked into place.

When I first started working on Turning Leaf in 2012, I remember thinking all the time, “I just want the opportunity.” I wanted the opportunity to see if I could start the project. To see if I could make it successful. To prove that we could do better to help people coming out of prison. I didn’t even care if I failed. I just wanted to be given the chance to make the vision in my head a reality. After a few years of funding and support, the thought eventually faded away. I had been given the opportunity and I made the most of it. There is literally not a single day I walk into Turning Leaf that I don’t feel incredibly lucky and grateful. 

But that thought has now come back top of mind. I find myself driving down the road, or looking out the window or cooking dinner, and thinking, “I just want the opportunity.” I want the opportunity to prove that we can replicate this project in a new city with the same outcomes. That I can find another staff who is as good as this one. That we can create the first McDonald’s of reentry. I don’t even care if I fail. I just want the opportunity.

Having the opportunity requires that I raise money. I’m making calls to our state legislators and driving to Columbia and sending emails to our political leaders pleading the case for funding a Turning Leaf statewide replication. I’m arguing for state fiscal responsibility. For choosing Turning Leaf as the bargain option over the cost of prison and the cost of crime. It’s hard for me to cold call and cold email and directly ask our political leaders for state money and support. But it’s not about me. It may work and it may not, but it won’t be because I didn’t ask.

As the first month of the new year ends, I remind myself, “the days are long, but the years are short.” So true. I’m making the most of my days over here at Turning Leaf and I hope you are too. I’ll stay in touch as we make progress, face new challenges, find partners, change plans, and dig deep.

Our vision in 2020

Most nonprofits think they’re special, but we really are

To an untrained eye, it’s easy to think that Turning Leaf is just like any other reentry organization. But we’re not. Okay, you might be thinking, “Sure, every nonprofit thinks they’re special.” That’s probably true, but seriously, we really are. I can prove it.  

I officially started out my career in reentry as a case manager for a nonprofit in the DC area. People came in when they were released from the county jail and my job was to help them. First step was always an assessment. Across from a desk, I asked questions and jotted notes to determine the person’s current needs. Did they have a place to live? A job? A way to get around? Friends or family who could help? At the end, I had a checklist of things I could offer the person. Mental health referral, check. List of homeless shelters, check. A bus voucher, check. $10 gift card to McDonalds, check. A backpack full of clothes, check. A list of “felon-friendly” employers, check. My job was done. That’s what success looked like to the average reentry organization back in 2006, and for the most part, still does today. 

“Good luck,” I’d call out, and they’d be gone, sometimes to resurface looking for additional help during a crisis, but mostly when they were next released from jail. And so it went. I did that job for three years. Watching people cycling in and out was exhausting. There had to be a better way, didn’t there?

That was fourteen years ago and, as a country, we’re still looking for the better way. Don’t get me wrong. We’ve made a ton of progress in understanding what works to reduce recidivism. We’ve just done a terrible job in applying it. Old habits die hard, I guess.

See, most organizations still approach prison reentry through a charity lens. That’s our nonprofit roots, so it make sense. People leaving prison lack basic needs, so we assume if we can fill these needs, then they’ll be all set. We check off the boxes of the needs they have that we understand and can fill. “Good luck” we still call out the door as they leave with an arm full of referrals and bus tokens and clothes.

Okay I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t having transportation, and clothes to wear and a job important? Of course they’re important, but they’re not nearly enough. They’re just the beginning if we really want to help someone who’s in and out of prison stay out for good.

Hear me out here. If a job was going to be the pivotal factor for a person after prison, why didn’t it keep them out before they went in? Most people worked before they were arrested or were working when they were arrested. And while we have a hopscotch of research out there that’s confusing as hell to sift through, the bulk of it supports my position that jobs programs don’t work, basic needs programs don’t work, and housing programs don’t work to reduce recidivism. Yes, they’re important services, but they by themselves haven’t proven to impact long-term behavior. (Yes, Turning Leaf is a jobs program, but we’ll get to that in a minute.) 

So, what does work then? Here’s where your eyes might start to glaze over a little. But stay with me because this is the heart of the matter.

The concept of evidence-based practice in the field of reentry describes the practices that have been proven by the most rigorous research to significantly reduce recidivism. Several basic principles make up the key components of reentry programs that are associated with recidivism reduction. Basically, if programs incorporate these key components into their program design, and execute well, they are likely reducing recidivism, if they don’t – then the program is likely making no impact, or worse, doing harm (it’s actually pretty easy to increase recidivism. I know from personal experience.) There’s a lot of similarity here to the medical field. Health care professionals use the best available medical research to guide patient care decisions. If they don’t base their decisions on what the research says works to best diagnose and keep people healthy, then they could make a person sick.

The model that encompasses the evidence-based principles in reentry is known as Risk-Need-Responsivity (RNR). Today the RNR model is the only scientifically proven framework to help people change criminal behavior.[1] Specifically, the three key principles answer the questions of “who” to target, “what” to target, and “how” to target in reentry programming if reducing recidivism is the goal.

Okay, I know that was a lot to digest so let me wrap it up.

In a nutshell, Turning Leaf is special because we incorporate and execute on all the key principles that have been proven in research to reduce recidivism. This is no easy task. In fact, I don’t know of another reentry organization who can say the same thing. We’ve cracked the code on how to apply these principles in a real-world setting at a consistently high quality. On our face we might look like any other reentry program, but underneath, there’s nothing like us.

Here’s what being an evidence-based reentry program looks like.

We use a risk assessment to ensure we’re only working with people who are likely to be re-arrested. We use the results of that assessment to drive our interventions, focusing on the factors that science proves are related to re-offending. These factors are things like criminal thinking patterns, lack of problem solving skills, and difficulty in managing difficult feelings, like anger and frustration. And we do a ton of work highly targeted on these factors in our group therapy classes and individual counseling sessions. 150 hours of group therapy in four months is a lot of therapy. My guess is that it’s more hours than any other organization in the country has figured out how to pull off.

We help with stability issues like identification and transportation, accessing medical care and finding housing and employment. But those stability services are not the thing that impacts long-term behavior change. Instead, we wrap that kind of help around our intense therapy classes, so that a person has (probably for the first time ever) the space, time and opportunity to learn how to think and act differently. And someone can’t learn how to think and act differently unless they’re taught how, in highly specific ways (our group therapy classes), shown how (staff models the new behavior for them) and over a long enough period of time for it to stick (four months, M-F, 9am-5pm).

All our students are hired on day one to work in our screen-printing business. But it’s not really about a job. It’s about stability. It’s about giving someone the time and space to learn how to change.

People go to social services agencies looking for help and are ping-ponged around in the name of “referrals” and “collaboration.” Go here for this and here for that. At Turning Leaf, we take the opposite approach. I always joke that we should put a mat outside our front door that says, “Welcome Home.” (The guys said this would be weird, so I haven’t done it – yet.)

So now you know how we’re special.

When people ask what I do for a living, a common response is, “Oh cool, yeah, I have a friend who does kind of the same thing.” Nope. They don’t. And now you know why.

[1] Polaschek, Devon (2012). An appraisal of the risk-need-responsivity (RNR) model of offender rehabilitation and its application in correctional treatment. Legal and Criminological Psychology, 17, 1-17.

Turning Leaf is raising the stakes, and its profile, in recidivism (Post & Courier)

An audience at the Mount Pleasant library listens silently as three men calmly talk about violence, the crimes they’ve committed, the drugs they’ve sold — and the reason they quit.

She’s sitting in the front row.

The men are students of Amy Barch’s Turning Leaf Project, a local nonprofit working to quell the epidemic of recidivism. And the program appears to be a rousing success.

That is not hyperbole, just math. Nationally, 67 percent of people released from prison will be re-arrested for another crime within three years.

In the past two years, the rate for Turning Leaf graduates is 19 percent.

That’s an amazing statistic and, as a result, Barch has a growing national reputation in the field of cognitive behavioral therapy. Other cities and states send emissaries to study her work and hire Turning Leaf to consult on their own recidivism projects.

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Starting Anew (Charleston Mag)

Getting out of prison isn’t easy. There’s parole and probation to navigate, child custody issues, securing housing, finding a job, and avoiding the temptation to fall back into criminal habits. That’s what drew Turning Leaf Project founder Amy Barch to reentry work—despite her middle-class upbringing, she understood why the less privileged would take whatever they could get in a world stacked against them. “They haven’t been given much, so I kind of got why they broke rules and made bad decisions,” she explains.

Since earning her degree in law, societies, and justice from the University of Washington (Seattle), Barch intended to help people. After moving to Charleston in 2010, she struggled to find a reentry volunteer opportunity that she fully believed in. So she took a leap of faith, quit her job, and started Turning Leaf in 2011, with the support of then-police chief Greg Mullen and then-mayor Joe Riley.

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