“Renewed hearts.” “Renewed lives.” “A future filled with hope.” These are the bywords of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe (PGST) Reentry Program, now known as the Welcome Home Program. Begun in 2015 with a federal Second Chance Act grant, the PGST Reentry Program focused on tribal members coming out of the Kitsap County Jail in western Washington State. Continued in 2018 with a second federal Second Chance Act grant, the Welcome Home Program now serves both Native and non-Native individuals in the Kitsap County Jail through a program of in-reach and extensive community support. Native programs and principles are woven throughout the program.

The PGST’s 1,700-acre reservation is located in the northern part of Kitsap County, Washington, with its headquarters in Kingston. There are more than 1,200 enrolled members of the PGST, with over half of tribal members residing on the reservation and many others living nearby. Due in large part to years of historical trauma, American Indian and Alaska Native populations disproportionately experience high rates of substance use, suicide, violence, domestic abuse, and incarceration.

“We are a human dignity reentry model,” says Janel McFeat, reentry program manager for the Welcome Home Program. “What this means is that we do a lot of restorative practices. The whole idea is to move as far away as possible from a punitive kind of institutional model.”

The program begins with a criminogenic risk and needs assessment of people incarcerated in the Kitsap County Jail. The assessment is conducted by the Welcome Home Program’s success coaches or by jail reentry staff, explains Christina Barone, PGST’s director of court services. The term “success coach” is intentional, replacing “case manager” to “change the vision in terms of what’s possible,” Barone says. Those who are deemed to be at medium to high risk of reoffending are offered entry into the program. Because people are being held in jail for shorter periods of time due to COVID-19, it’s been more challenging to do assessments, Barone notes.

The success coaches then begin developing an individualized service plan that includes the Wheel of Wellness, looking at an individual’s physical, spiritual, emotional, and mental needs. They set goals with program participants, which might be something as simple as obtaining an identification card. “Those 72 hours when you’re released from incarceration are about the most crucial,” Barone says. “That is the time when most people reoffend and end up reincarcerated because they don’t have a system in place to help them get through those first few days.”

When Welcome Home Program members are released from jail, there is a warm hand-off to a success coach on the outside who begins working with them on their individualized service plan. The success coach works hand-in-hand with the individual, connecting them to needed services, including mental health and substance use treatment, housing, transportation, etc.

The Welcome Home Program differs from a more traditional Western model of reentry services through its use of Native American circles. “When a client is released from incarceration, we hold a restorative justice circle,” says McFeat. “We partnered with the Dispute Resolution Center of Kitsap County, which does this type of circle work.”

The restorative justice circle is an opportunity for the person who has committed a crime to make amends to the people they have harmed. Participants may include the victim of the crime, the person’s family members, law enforcement, a mental health counselor, a success coach, or community members. “The idea behind restorative work is that we heal with compassion and support instead of the traditional punishment and put-downs. They usually have heard that all before,” McFeat explains.

The Welcome Home Program also facilitates listening circles to tackle difficult conversations about race, equity, and the role of law enforcement in the community. And they host traditional Native American talking circles—also known as a spirit circle, sacred circle, or healing circle— where each participant is given time to express themselves honestly and ask for support in their recovery process.

Barone explains that the work they do is deeply rooted in trauma-informed care. “We really try to understand what those adverse childhood experiences might have been for somebody and how we can best work with people in addressing those traumas that maybe they’ve stuffed away for so long,” she says. “Maybe that’s what has taken them down the path of substance use disorder.”

The program is showing results. “In our first grant, the PGST Reentry Program, we reduced our recidivism rate by 81 percent,” McFeat notes. Similar figures are not yet available for the Welcome Home Program. And non-Native participants are relating well to the different cultural aspects of the program, according to Barone. “All tribes are not the same, and we have a lot of different traditions and practices,” she explains.  “I think that’s a learning opportunity for many non-Native folks and is something they continue to embrace and do in their lives.”

Barone notes there are fewer Native people in the Kitsap County Jail than in the past and believes that’s because of a robust diversion program among the PGST, including a drug court. “We’re really trying to address the underlying issues for those folks that are court involved and trying to use problem-solving justice initiatives,” Barone says. This may include having the individual go before a panel of elders.

One of the key aspects of the Welcome Home Program is to create a cultural shift within corrections, McFeat reports. She acknowledges that’s been difficult within the current political climate, with issues of racial injustice and the higher rates of incarceration of Native Americans compared to their white counterparts, but she feels the restorative justice circles have gone a long way in helping folks get on the same page.

Barone has recommendations for groups looking to start a similar program. She notes that it’s important to have a comprehensive assessment to understand an individual’s particular risks for reincarceration and to be able to tailor a service plan to their needs.

“The other thing is, there’s a lot of conversation in the work that’s done,” Barone says. “Just sitting down and having a conversation with somebody can be so enlightening and, for the individual, it’s an opportunity to be heard.”

Collaboration with community partners is also a critical element. Their reentry task force has morphed into the Community Partnership for Transition Solutions (CPTS). CPTS groups are now active in 13 counties within Washington State.

Ultimately, it’s the human element that has led to the program’s success, according to McFeat. “We are successful because we have this relationship-first policy, and everything else is secondary,” she says. “We see a lot of dehumanizing in the corrections system, and we wanted to start something that was completely different than that. We want to understand that person and who they are, their story, and their family, treating them as human beings and filling them with hope,” she concludes.

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