Released From Prison into a World of Poverty: How our Rikers Island Single Stop is easing the transition.

Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers are not taking advantage of available benefits that can help them feed their families, find child care, and pay for medical expenses.  Because different city and state agencies oversee these programs, navigating the sometimes perplexing bureaucracy can cause some people to throw up their hands in despair and forego meaningful benefits that could have a profound impact on their life.

Robin Hood saw this problem and in 2003 launched Single Stop as a solution. The program aims to reduce poverty by giving people the right advice about public benefits, tax credits, legal counsel and other assistance, and here’s the key part - all in one location.  In just the past five years alone, we’ve helped over 500,000 low-income New Yorkers receive over $850 million in benefits.   And incredibly, in 2011 alone, Single Stop helped more than 120,000 low-income New Yorkers receive roughly $230 million in benefits to help them stabilize their financial, educational, vocational and health prospects in the hopes of eventually leaving poverty behind.  See “Total Single Stop Benefits: 2006-2011” below.  Put another way, about one in four low-income New Yorkers served by Robin Hood (400,000 overall) were done so at a Single Stop location.

In January 2012, 15 Robin Hood supporters and staff members had the opportunity to visit one of the most unique Single Stop sites that we fund: Rikers Island.

Rikers Island is home to 10 different jails and houses approximately 13,000 prisoners on any given day, nearly 90,000 per year.  And discharge services from Rikers are perfunctory at best.  After serving time for their convictions, individuals are dropped off at a bus stop at 2 a.m. with little more than bus fare and instructions to call 3-1-1 for help. It is no surprise that many find themselves without housing, unable to secure a job or unsure where their next meal will come from. Sadly, as a result, nearly half of inmates who are released are back at Rikers in less than a year and more than 70%  are destined to return within three years.

In response, Robin Hood began funding a Single Stop site at Rikers in 2007.  The goal is to help eligible inmates access public benefits such as food stamps, Medicaid, and cash assistance upon their release, so that they will be less likely to end up back in prison.

But just two years into the Rikers initiative (2009), the value of the program was called into question.  After several years of operation, we had the opportunity to conduct a random sample evaluation. After comparing our sample cohorts - (1) those inmates who received Single Stop assistance; versus (2) those who sought it out but did not receive help due to space and staff constraints - we were shocked to find out that our initial premise may have been off base.   Here’s why:

Single Stop’s original model was predicated on an “open door” policy. Any inmate interested in receiving services was welcome. Our evaluation, though, showed that the individuals being served would have likely received these services anyway, even without the assistance of the Single Stop program.  The study found that inmates who had been previously connected to benefits were motivated enough to apply for and receive such benefits after release even without the help of Rikers Single Stop staff.  Our goal was not to serve these individuals, but instead the 65% of inmates who were eligible, yet had never received public benefits before.

And here’s the important point:  with challenges come opportunities.  As part of our commitment to measuring and reporting accurate outcomes, Rikers’ program staff took a step back to re-think its strategy.  Then, in partnership with the city’s Human Resources Administration (H.R.A.), staff quickly and successfully devised an alternate service delivery model to capture a different inmate population.  .

By cross-referencing the daily prisoner intake log against data lists provided by H.R.A., Rikers Island’s Single Stop staff was able to successfully identify and enroll inmates who had never received benefits like food stamps and Medicaid before.  By proactively seeking out these individuals, we are confident that an increased number of inmates are accessing benefits upon their discharge from Rikers that would otherwise not do so, giving them a better chance of succeeding in society upon their release.

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