Katie Mulvaney Providence Journal | USA TODAY NETWORK
CRANSTON — Julio spoke of pleasure and pain on a recent afternoon at the Adult Correctional Institutions, surrounded by men who, like him, had endured hardship and abuse and inflicted a share of their own.
He told of cocaine and alcohol, vices that stood by him during hard times and lured in gorgeous women and fancy cars. Negative coping skills were there when no one else seemed to care. Even prison, a bad place he’s known since age 7, served as home and likely kept him alive.
TOP: Former inmate Victor Lambert, a graduate of the Phoenix Reentry Project, stands outside the Hope Recovery Center in Newport. After years struggling with drug addiction, he is now a peer recovery specialist for the Parent Support Network of Rhode Island. DAVID DELPOIO/THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL
LEFT: Kathleen A. Carty, founder of the Phoenix Project, talks with inmates in the ACI’s medium-security unit. BOB BREIDENBACH/THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL
Julio’s hand trembled as he read his “Dear John” letter in a classroom at the medium-security facility from a yellow notepad during the closing weeks of the Phoenix Reentry Project, a 25-week program aimed at preparing the men for life on the outside, some after decades behind bars.
Now, Julio said, it’s time to let that world go.
“That’s good,” listeners murmured as Julio’s reading came to an end. Like Julio, each of the men was tasked with writing a letter breaking up with their old selves as they forge ahead.
“This is not a place to live,” said Kathleen A. Carty, founder of the program. The key is to be ready to progress in a different way.
And what will be your obstacles? Carty asked. Trauma, Julio said.
“It’s part of who you are but it doesn’t have to dictate who you are going to be,” Carty said.
Step one: A cold assessment of what led them to prison
Now in its fourth year, the Phoenix Project challenges people in prison to take a cold, hard look at what got them there — both in their lifetime and in the generations before — and to provide them with crucial life skills to help them reenter society, hopefully, for keeps.
“Now is the time to lay the foundation for when you go home,” Carty tells the 15 men sitting in a circle in the stark classroom. “You have an opportunity to do something wildly different.”
Going straight and changing your ways will enable you to be there to raise your children, to start your own companies, and to no longer have to look over your shoulders, she told them. But, it’s up to you.
Carty had been working in the prisons for two decades, doing domestic violence counseling through her company, Vantage Point, when she and her staff became struck by how many offenders kept returning. Jennifer Rocha, a community outreach coordinator with Vantage Point, urged Carty to put in a proposal for the prison’s reentry program. At the time, the existing program ran for six weeks and taught people how to get state IDs and other steps, but in Carty and Rocha’s minds, it failed to provide them with essential life skills.
“We were seeing that they were not prepared,” said Carty, an intense woman whose soft voice belies a blunt, direct temperament that commands respect.
Carty designed a program to address a hierarchy of the men’s and women’s needs, from teaching them to devise a healthy meal plan, to tracing their behavioral roots, to balancing a checkbook, setting goals, practicing mindfulness, and building up stamina so they can get through a workday. They must learn how to speak during a job interview and explain the gaps on their résumés.
They are asked to journal every day, complete homework assignments and abide by the group’s principles of honesty, respect, regular attendance and remaining judgment free. “When we are able to challenge them and motivate them to challenge their own lifestyles, self-perceptions, and futures, they begin to envision a different life,” Carty said.
The hurdles are often not just external but internal. When participants succeed, everyone benefits, she says.
Uncovering harmful patterns in behavior and family history
The state Department of Corrections in 2018 awarded Vantage Point a threeyear contract of $196,625 annually, with an option to renew for two years, according to spokesman J.R. Ventura.
Today, Carty conducts the program in all facilities at the ACI, ideally within a year to 18 months before the participants’ release dates. All have been assessed as a medium to high risk to reoffend, with 70 people on the waiting list.
“The closer they are [to release], the more likely they will succeed,” Carty said.
Some of the most illuminating work the groups do is tracing their own backgrounds — a process Carty calls gene gramming. They examine family relationships, criminal histories, mental health issues, and other characteristics to uncover patterns and better understand themselves. Most have experienced at least five adverse childhood experiences, or ACES, that often leave them struggling with PTSD. ACES include suffering abuse in any form, neglect, mental illness, substance abuse, violence against his or her mother, and having a family member in prison.
“It doesn’t matter — male or female — there’s a ton of trauma,” Carty said.
On a recent morning in her Jefferson Boulevard office, she held up one man’s chart tracing a family history of hostile relationships, past incarcerations, mental health issues and broken marriages.
“A lot of folks don’t know where they come from. For many, their dads weren’t around and now they’re not around,” she said. “When they take a look at this, it’s a real eye-opener.”
Such revelations were clear in the medium-security group. Justin observed in the letter he read aloud that he has now spent half his life in jail, as the “life” had always brought him back. He was raised without a dad and now is subjecting his own son to the same.
“I spent 17 years selling drugs. What did it get me? Nothing,” Justin said. He doesn’t want his son to follow the same path.
“I have to fix my life once and for all,” he said.
Carty implored him to look at the barriers he might face.
“I’d rather be living in a cardboard box” than go back to the streets, he said. “I’m going to work a real job for once.”
The Journal is identifying the current Phoenix Project students by their first name only at the request of the state Department of Corrections, out of respect for possible victims.
One former inmate’s success story
Carty interviews people before accepting them into the project, questioning them about what they will bring to the table.
“She told us you’re not going to use this class to get you back on the streets quicker,’” said JT West, a 44-year-old married father of three who had been in and out of prison for years.
That vetting by the Vantage Point team instills participants with the understanding that they were selected above others, and the belief that Carty had seen something in them.
West said he had decided to make a change before entering the Phoenix Project due to the trauma his last arrest on drug charges caused his young son. The 8-year-old was there when police raided West’s business and found cocaine, packaging and cash.
“I’ve been selling drugs since I was 12 years old,” West said. Through the years, he ran businesses, including a barbershop, but he always had one foot in the game.
“I could never really pull myself out of the streets,” West said.
He realized he needed to change the people around him, and his own thinking.
“I loved that particular program more than others. A lot of classes you get nothing out of,” West said. “It’s kind of like therapy, but more about life skills. I’ve been gainfully employed ever since.”
Upon his release, in February 2021, West got his commercial driver’s license and a job at Aero Global Logistics, a freight company in Foxboro.
“They gave me a shot,” West said. He heads out the door every morning and even bought his own 18-wheeler to launch his own trucking company: Rely on West Logistics.
“It’s like a teachable moment every day for your children. You’re going to set an example for your kids one way or another with the decisions you’re making,” West said.
A spiritual man, he feels blessed to hear “daddy, daddy, daddy” every afternoon when he returns.
His son is seeing, too, that people can come back from a mistake, he said.
“To have the turnaround I’ve had is amazing,” he said. He hopes to inspire others to think: “If he can do it, I can.”
Is he tempted to go back to his old ways? “You couldn’t give me a dollar sign that would change it,” West said.
Having the endurance — physical and mental — to make it through
Carty and her staff watch participants closely, gauging their team work, engagement, promptness, and attitude. Not everyone makes it through.
One man, Ray, complained bitterly about being returned to prison on a parole violation for taking his brother to a strip club.
“If you violate parole, they bring it all back,” Carty said. “You dug your holes.”
Ray continued with his grievances. “You’re making me worry you’re going to be back here,” Carty said.
Stacie Venagro, a personal trainer with a business in Cranston, reviewed with the men what exercises best strengthen specific muscles. Together, the group designed a rigorous workout to help them raise their stamina so they can work a full day when they get out.
They pushed their chairs aside and Venagro led them through four rounds of pushups, squats and high planks — a grueling sequence meant to confuse the body by alternating quickly from one muscle group to the next.
“Out through the nose, in through the mouth,” she yelled. “If you have writing on your shirt, I want to read it …. You want to hit that fatigue point. Nothing happens in that comfort zone.”
Most of the men gave it their all, even through exhaustion, but not Ray. It did not go unnoticed.
“We look at it like who’s still trying and who gave up,” Carty said.
If a person can’t abide by the group’s principles, they must leave.
Some disappear at the point when they are asked to reveal the truth about their often tragic pasts.
“They need to talk about it so they can learn to deal with it and have it not deal them,” Carty said.
Turning point: Writing a letter to his 12-year-old self
For Victor Lambert, writing a letter to his 12-year-old self during the program proved pivotal.
A bright 48-year-old with a strong work ethic, Lambert slid into a life consumed by cocaine and heroin as a freshman at the University of Rhode Island.