Ramon Rivera had been in and out of prison for most of his adult life. In 1995, he was sentenced to New York’s Sullivan Correctional Facility for dealing drugs and served five years, eight months. Two of Ramon’s brothers died of AIDS while he was behind bars and his wife gave up on him, having a child with another man. Upon his release on parole in 2000, Ramon knew he didn’t want to return to prison, but without ever holding down a steady job in his life, his chances of staying a free man seemed slim.
Ramon’s situation may sound bleak, but it is not uncommon. Roughly 600,000 men and women are released annually from prisons in the United States. Within three years, over half of them are locked up again, either con¬victed of a new crime or in violation of their parole.
The hundreds of thousands of stories like Ramon’s have become painfully familiar to Carol Shapiro, whose career in government corrections has spanned four decades and two continents, including two years as assistant commis¬sioner of the New York City Department of Correction in the mid-1990s. It was there that she ran boot camps on Rik¬ers Island for incarcerated men and women—military-style programs meant to prepare them for life after their release.
Watching inmates go through this pro¬gram crystallized an opinion Shapiro had been forming over her entire career in the criminal justice system: for people who have spent time behind bars, the real motivation for change was not going to come from the government, but from more natural sources of support. And the best natural source of support, she thought, is the family.
“I got to talk to a lot of families about their loved ones who were struggling with addic¬tion, who were cycling in and out of jail and prison, who were themselves victimizing their own families,” said Shapiro. Even after all they’d been through, she found, “families would still say, ‘But I love my son, my daughter.’ And nobody really paid attention to them and their needs.” These conversa¬tions, on top of her years of experience, led Shapiro to a simple but important revela-tion: in order to help offenders—especially drug offenders—readjust to society and stay out of prison, you’ve got to help their fami¬lies.
Shapiro left her job with the department of correction in 1995 to create a program based on this insight. The result is La Bodega de la Familia.
La Bodega de la Familia, or “The Family Grocery,” is a 24-hour support center, located in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, for drug users on parole or probation, and their fami¬lies. Working in partnership with the New York City Department of Probation, La Bodega pairs a family case manager with a drug offender, the offender’s family, and his parole or probation officer. (Three New York parole officers have been assigned to work exclusively with La Bodega.) Together they navigate the economic, legal, and emotional hurdles that can obstruct an offender’s road to recovery.
Families are typically engaged in the most intensive phases of La Bodega for six months to a year. Within the first month, everyone involved in a case helps draft a “family action plan,” which outlines the family’s goals—like preventing the offender from relapsing, and building stronger relation¬ships among relatives—and identifies strate¬gies for helping it meet these goals. La Bodega offers families a variety of services from its storefront office, including counsel¬ing, referrals to social service agencies, and a range of educational programs, such as com¬puter classes for children. Staff members routinely make home visits and are available 24 hours a day for drug-related emergencies.
Once families reach a point where they can reduce their dependence on La Bodega, staff still encourage them to attend support groups and share their experiences with families new to the program.
In developing a concrete plan for the fam¬ily, case managers use genograms—a diagram of the participant’s personal network, high¬lighting the strengths and challenges posed by their web of family relationships (not limited to blood relatives). They also use ecomaps, which chart the government and community-based resources available to the family, includ¬ing everything from grocery stores to health clinics. But La Bodega’s most important asset to families might simply be offering them a safe place to talk, together or individually. “The best treatment providers in the world aren’t going to know when some¬one’s relapsing until they show up and test positive for drug use,” said Shapiro. “But a mother will know when her son’s back on the streets. And if they feel safe, if they feel there’s a place they can go and say ‘I’m worried about my son,’ you can intervene earlier before it escalates into a new crime.
“My suggestion is not to turn family members into more law enforcement,” she added. “It’s to turn family members into part of a web of support. They are not it alone, parole and probation aren’t it alone, the treatment provider isn’t it alone. But together, it’s a very powerful web.”
Shapiro said the Bodega model is “so intu¬itive that you wonder why this wasn’t done before,” but the actual effects of the organi¬zation are somewhat counter-intuitive. Fam¬ilies like Ramon Rivera’s are often fragmented and unstable, due in large part to a member’s history of drug use and impris¬onment. But in helping a family confront these problems together, La Bodega uses adversity as a way to unite the family, turn¬ing a point of division into a source of strength. It is this “strengths-based” approach of the program—recognizing a family’s assets rather than dwelling on its flaws—that sets La Bodega apart.
“Most people have a great capacity to pro¬vide strong relationships to their spouses and their kids,” said Philip Cowan, a psy¬chology professor at the University of California, Berkeley who studies marriage and families, and has observed La Bodega. Cowan said La Bodega works because it helps people recognize this capacity within themselves. “La Bodega is not telling people what to do,” he said. “It’s convincing them that they can do something.”
Although Cowan said he was originally impressed with Shapiro’s ideas for La Bodega, he stressed that her enthusiasm is what made those ideas work. “She has a vision that she conveys, and she does it enthusiastically,” he said. “She doesn’t sound like a dreamer. She’s an activist. She gets things done. You don’t say no to her.”
A recent evaluation of La Bodega by the Vera Institute of Justice also testified to the program’s success. In comparing substance abusers and their families participating in the program to a control group not in the pro¬gram, the Vera study found that illegal drug use among the Bodega participants decreased from 80 to 42 percent, whereas the decline within the comparison group was more mod¬est, falling from 61 to 48 percent. What’s more, La Bodega participants became less likely to report being depressed, but depres¬sion among the control group members increased by 11 percentage points. The study found that their reduced drug use did not stem from La Bodega participants’ receiving more drug treatment services, such as self-help groups or a methadone regimen; instead, it seemed to be a direct result of the social and emotional support they received from family members and La Bodega case managers.
The Vera Institute study uncovered some¬thing else: Family members of La Bodega par¬ticipants were far more likely to have their own medical or social service needs met. Shapiro puts particular emphasis on this “rip¬ple effect” of the Bodega model, and wants government officials and social scientists to appreciate its significance as well. Rather than evaluating a program’s success by an “individ¬ual standard,” which only considers the fate of the individual under criminal justice supervi¬sion, she said she hopes future research efforts adopt the holistic perspective taken by La Bodega. That means recognizing that a pro¬gram’s impact can extend to “keeping kids in school or getting a 76-year-old to a doctor to get his cancer diagnosed.” These are the broader effects of treating clients as members of a family, not just as troubled individuals.
By reducing the odds of a relapse, she said, the program also provides a more stable environment for children, lowering their chances of getting into legal trouble.
“Across America, there are neighborhoods and families that have multi-generations of justice involvement,” she said. “How do you break that cycle? Well, if you’re not just focus¬ing on adults, but you’re looking at the next generation, you can weave in prevention.” For this reason, said Shapiro, the Bodega model actually saves the government money in the long run, reducing long-term prison costs even if it boosts the short-term cost of pro¬grams related to parole and probation.
La Bodega has been gaining recognition for its work. Its partnership with the New York State Division of Parole earned it last year’s Innovations in Government Award— a national award, sponsored by Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, which honors exemplary achieve¬ments in government problem solving.
But perhaps the greatest endorsements of La Bodega come from its families. What fol¬lows is a brief chronicle of the two years that Ramon Rivera spent in La Bodega after his release on parole. Ramon, who is 42 years old, recounted his experiences in an inter¬view with Greater Good. Also interviewed were his wife, Janet Hernandez, 33, with whom he has an eleven-year-old son; his mother Carmen, 68; his parole officer, Rosa Nuñez; and his family case manager at La Bodega, Tina Santiago.
Ramon Rivera: Before La Bodega, my atti¬tude was different. I was on drugs, I was sell¬ing drugs. I didn’t want to hear nothing.
Carmen Rivera: I always was there for him, but he chose to give me his back, he chose not to listen to my questions and deal drugs. Good or bad, I was there with him.
Janet Hernandez: We met about 12 years ago. I took a chance with him. He’d get arrested, he’d come out, he’d get arrested, he’d come out. And I was like, “Oh, he’s going to mess up again and I’m not going to get involved in that.”
Ramon Rivera: When I came home, they told me I had to go to this program, La Bodega. I was like, “What’s La Bodega? I don’t know what that is.” They said, ‘no, you’ve gotta go there, they’ll give you coun¬seling.’ They introduced me to Tina. So we sat down, we talked.
Tina Santiago: When Ramon came in to see me for the first time and mentioned his wife and son, I encouraged him to bring them here.
Janet Hernandez: I expected him to go back to jail, I’m not going to lie. But when I saw him going to La Bodega, when I saw him looking for work, I said, “You know what? I think he’s going to change.” Because in life, you’ve got to give a person that benefit of the doubt.
Ramon Rivera: The biggest challenge was hanging out and not selling drugs like I always did, because I’m still in the same neighborhood. You see some of your so-called friends out there, and a lot of them are selling drugs and this and that, and they’re like, ‘Yo, you don’t want to get with this?’
Tina Santiago: With Ramon, in the begin¬ning there was denial. When he first came home, it was, ‘I want to get a job, I want to work, I want to do my thing with my kid, I’m not touching drugs, I haven’t been using drugs since I’ve been incarcerated.’ Yeah, but it’s different when you’re back in the com¬munity.
Ramon Rivera: One time I had a problem. I told Tina that I relapsed.
Tina Santiago: He got arrested. Although he maintains he had nothing to do with any¬thing, the cops threw him off his bike, rattled him, arrested him. But they do that a lot here on the Lower East Side. If they know you’re on parole, they mess with you. But at the time, he was using, so somebody knew that he was either using or selling or doing something.
Ramon Rivera: Tina sat me down and said, ‘Look, you know where you’ve been, right? You know if you keep on doing that, it ain’t going to work. If you want to get high, it’s not going to work.’
Tina Santiago: After that, things were able to change. He enrolled in a methadone treatment program, and he’s never picked up since. And I’m proud of him. But I would say the turning point of him opening up and being honest and trusting me more occurred during that time he was arrested. I helped assist him, legally, on what he should do. I backed him up all the way. And I guess seeing that must have sparked something and he said, ‘Hey, she’s true to her word.’
Ramon Rivera: I could go with any problem to them, and they’re going to find a way to help. It’s a family thing. That’s what they’re there for. Before I used to be shy to talk, but not no more.
Tina Santiago: As time goes on, you become part of the family. My families here, I’m not their counselor, I’m not their friend—I’m part of the family.
Janet Hernandez: Tina’s a wonderful person. She helped him with his atti¬tude—how to open up, how to speak to me and tell me things are going wrong. And I could talk to him about the things he’s doing wrong.
Tina Santiago: Just by having Janet come here and sit and hear his side of the story and hear how the drugs really controlled him during that time, and how he’s now at a better state of mind and he can actually look back and see his flaws—and apologize to her. You know, mainly, it was, ‘I’m sorry about what I put you through.’
Janet Hernandez: We started dating again. We wanted to see how everything would work out.
Ramon Rivera: They have parties for Christmas, and I’d take my kids over there, and we’d eat there—and the parole officers were there. I was like, “What are the parole officers doing here? These are the people that locked me up.” But after a while, I was like, “They’re not the ones that locked me up. I’m the one that locked myself up.” So we used to eat together, the parole and me, and I was like, “Damn, this program is working.”
Rosa Nuñez: I think they really feel happy about seeing a parole officer and a family case manager. You know, some of these peo¬ple have gone through a life where they never had somebody that showed they really cared about them. In La Bodega, they feel special, like they have a lot of people working with them, caring about them. And I think that’s important to all human beings.
Ramon Rivera: I’m working now. Once I get out of work, I’m straight home. I be with my wife. And Fridays and Saturdays that I’m off, I do a little shopping.
Janet Hernandez: In the summer we go to the beach, we go fishing, we go to Coney Island, we go to family parties—he’s always there now with me. And I trust him. We go out, we do a lot of things together. And we never had that in life. So he changed a lot.
Ramon Rivera: It’s a life, man. This is what they call life.
Janet Hernandez: We’re back together two years. He lives with me now.
Ramon Rivera: Saturdays, I take my son out, we go to the movies, we do a lot of things. When I was selling drugs and all that, those were things I never did before. Now every Saturday I’m up early, ready to go. Wherever he’s got to go—if he’s got a game, anywhere— we go.
Janet Hernandez: My son loved La Bodega. And they’ve got a program now for kids. They told me if I want to, I could put my son in it to learn about computers. See, that’s what I like about this program. They come visit you at your house if you can’t make it over there. They invite you to places. You don’t find places like that, that will welcome the family.
Carmen Rivera: Last year, they all got together and made a surprise party for me. I never had a party before. Just seeing that my son can arrange this for me, that’s all I pray for, that’s all I hope for. We both cried together. But it was tears of happiness.
Tina Santiago: Ramon lights up when he speaks about his family. Being family-ori¬ented, now that’s where he’s at. I mean, he knew how hard it was to struggle, and he knew how hard it was to be incarcerated. And he doesn’t want his son to have to ever follow in his footsteps, so he’s doing all he can to show him a different person.
Ramon Rivera: My son is 11 years old now. He knows a lot about why I was in jail. And I let him know: don’t get into the things that I got into because all you’re going to do is end up in jail—either jail or you’re going to end up dead. He listens.
Carmen Rivera: I have another son coming out of prison in July. I hope for him the same. I hope George will get the same as Ramon, that he’ll be part of La Bodega.