Second Chance Act Spotlight: Jamel Bonilla, Lowell, Massachusetts

December 14, 2017

When Jamel Bonilla was released from the Middleton House of Correction, he knew what he needed most to stay out of prison.

“I needed work,” Bonilla said. “I needed money.”

Bonilla was sentenced to 18 months in the Essex County, Massachusetts, correctional facility with four years of probation for an armed robbery charge that he received in 2010, when he was 17 years old. He said that he first heard about an agency called UTEC when staff from UTEC’s Streetworker program visited the facility.

UTEC serves youth ages 17–25, specifically those who have had serious criminal and gang involvement. The agency connects eligible youth to paid on-site employment and workshops on different topics—from job-readiness skills to social justice and civic engagement.

With the support of a 2014 Second Chance Act grant award, UTEC expanded its pre-release outreach to young adults in correctional facilities and piloted a program to offer mentors for youth as they navigate reentry.

“I didn’t join [UTEC] at first,” Bonilla recalled. It took close to a year beyond his release—after he had returned to his community and briefly engaged with old habits and influences—for Bonilla to come around to joining UTEC.

To date, Bonilla has used the skills he learned in the program to hold two part-time jobs, with a combined 30 hours per week. Bonilla said he noticed that UTEC wasn’t just connecting him to work opportunities, but also helping him build relationships.

“I have a transitional coach,” he said. “We talk about goals, next moves.”

When Bonilla started thinking about applying to higher education programs, his coach was one of the first people to know, and helped him think through how to pay for school.

Alongside UTEC’s workshops and employment programming, transitional coaches work with participants to keep them on track to meet behavioral health treatment, job, and education objectives, with the ultimate goal of helping them avoid recidivism.

As Bonilla began to develop a career path, he received even more guidance through UTEC’s mentoring program.

“I have a mentor now, an engineer,” Bonilla said. “He’s practical. And he’s real with me.”

Among youth who engaged in UTEC’s workforce during the 2016 program year, 98 percent were not convicted of a new crime, and 89 percent were not arrested during the year. Eighty-two percent of youth in UTEC’s 2014 program year were reportedly employed at the end of that year, and 83 percent of youth in that cohort were not arrested in the two years after leaving UTEC.

Youth-led advocacy is also an important part of UTEC’s program model. At UTEC, Bonilla attended classes that delved into social issues. He said that the program’s civic engagement component helped him discover his own ambition and skills. When Bonilla felt ready, he began meeting with the organization’s stakeholders, as well as legislators and other policymakers, to explain his experience and how UTEC had affected his day-to-day life.

“I know what it’s like to be denied [a job] because of [my record],” Bonilla said. “People might not give you a chance.”

Bonilla, who has not reoffended in nearly three years, continues to work closely on UTEC’s civic engagement efforts.

“That’s what I do now,” he said. “I fight for that chance.”

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