City expands at-risk re-entry programs

Nathaniel Awan, a 26 year-old Fields Corner native, was one of three young men who spoke about their experiences with Operation Exit. “This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” Awan said. Photo by Isabel Leon/Mayor’s Office

Operation Exit, Boston’s reentry program, was established on the notion that young people’s poor decisions do not need to permanently damage their futures, and the technical skills and knowledge to successfully enter a trade are promising tools for refocusing youths with criminal histories.

One year in, those behind the program gathered for a roundtable discussion in a long classroom at College Bound Dorchester’s headquarters in the St. Mark’s area last Friday evening. They would assess its successes and examine areas for improvement and expansion.

Mayor Martin Walsh established the program in 2014, building on his history of union organization and in place of a previous trade training program. It targets youths who have headed down violent paths by “giving them an opportunity for a second chance.”

The mayor cited as one example of neighborhood violence the fatal shooting of 16-year-old Jonathan Dos Santos in July. The teen had been gunned down by a 16- and 14-year-old in Dorchester.

“At 16 and 14, no one should have access to a gun and thinking about taking someone’s life,” Walsh said.

Crime in the city has declined, Commissioner William Evans said Friday, with fewer homicides as well as overall arrests. But it still imperils young people in neighborhoods like Dorchester, further underlining the need for intervention.

“We’re not into putting kids into the criminal justice system,” Evans said.

Operation Exit targets youths with past gang affiliations, offering them an alternative out by means of building trades, culinary training, and now an expansion into computer coding. Resilient Coders will teach historically disadvantaged youths to use HTML coding to design, build, and market websites through an eight-week program. It will launch in January 2016.

At Friday night’s roundtable discussion, staff and program recipients offered feedback to Delegated Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education John King, along with the mayor, police commissioner, and Boston Public School Superintendent Tommy Chang.

Entwined with the Operation Exit discussion is the national My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, which is also geared at expanding opportunities for disadvantaged youths. Part of a $175 million grant from the Department of Labor is being directed toward similar apprenticeship programs.

Nathaniel Awan, 26, one of three young men who spoke on their experiences with Operation Exit, said it was an excellent tool, but the decision to change had to be made by the participants themselves.
“Operation Exit, through everything I’ve been through… this is like lottery ticket for us,” said Awan, who has a 4-year-old son.

Awan was 18 when he tried to shoot a rival gang member, and spent the next three years behind bars. He left prison with a new determination, started working at Roxbury’s Haley House, where he saw a familiar face — David Mulhern, a former prosecutor and now head of Operation Exit.

Last fall, Awan enrolled in Operation Exit, studying carpentry and metal work, along with other building trade skills. Graduates who go into the trades have the opportunity for substantial salaries, and health care and retirement benefits.

“This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” Awan said.
To date, 26 residents have so far been placed in careers, according to the Mayor’s office.

Secretary King reviewed the long slog toward better serving those trying to reenter society after prison, one of the biggest hurdles for which has been the lack of access to education. He said this kind of conversation was “exactly what the president had in mind.”

The redemptive theme of the evening was echoed by almost every speaker, including Mark Culliton, CEO of College Bound Dorchester.

“No matter how many mistakes you’ve made, that doesn’t change who you are,” he said.