25 Investigates: Inside look at MA program pairing people getting out of jail with unique mentors

From behind bars to back into society. 25 Investigates has a firsthand look at a new state program reshaping how people return to their communities after serving their time.

Proponents says it’s improving public safety by keeping formerly incarcerated people from repeating the patterns that landed them in prison in the first place. It’s centered around forming relationships with mentors who have been in their shoes.

“I lost absolutely everything. I knew I was going out, into society, with nothing. I was homeless at 59,” said Wendy Filkins of Cape Cod.

The mother and grandmother said she has been in and out of jail while battling substance abuse. She most recently served time at MCI Framingham for a robbery she says she committed during a blackout in 2018.

“I committed a crime in a blackout. And I didn’t get caught. However, my past cut up with me clearly,” she said.

“I left that 17. I came home at 39. Two months shy of 40,” said Elbert Johnson of Dorchester. “I know I didn’t want to fail. And I didn’t want to go back to that revolving door.”

Johnson served more than 22 years for second degree murder.

“I was selling drugs at an early age …drug deal gone wrong. And, I took a life,” Johnson told anchor and investigative reporter Kerry Kavanaugh.

25 Investigates ensured the family of the victim in Johnson’s case was notified prior to publishing this story.

As they Johnson and Filkins were poised for release, the state of Massachusetts was launching a new program aimed at helping some people nearing the end of their sentences get set up for success on the outside.

“I had to do something different. I had to allow people to come into my life,” Filkins said. “There was a flyer posted in our unit about ‘come and meet us’ ‘come and see us’. And it was from ‘Credible Messenger’.”

“Credible Messenger” is a mentorship program offered to people that are expected to be released within 90-120 days from a Department of Correction facility.

It’s entirely voluntary. What makes the program unique is who serves as the mentors. They’ve either been incarcerated themselves or have had a family member or loved one involved in the criminal justice system.

“I can relate to him, he can relate to me, because I’ve been in that situation,” said credible messenger, Robert Grenier. “I have the experience of getting released and being out for 18 years and being able to turn my life around.”

Grenier has been working with Elbert Johnson since his release in November, 2021.

There are five credible messengers right now working 159 active cases through the Executive Office of Public Safety.

It’s currently rolled out at MCI-Framingham, MCI-Concord, MCI-Shirley and Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center.

Credible messengers meet with clients while they’re still inside. Once out, they can assist with housing, court appearances, jobs and interviews, mental health services, even relationships with family members.

“On the inside, a lot of people don’t have the supports. You don’t have family networks or anything of that nature. So having us to be able to be by their side, I think is a wonderful thing,” said credible messenger, La’Keya Wifgall.

Wigfall says she’s had several family members incarcerated throughout her life. She says she understands the impact on families as well. She’s been working with Wendy Filkins since her release in March.

“We’re getting letters every single day, from the incarcerated people saying, I’ve heard about this, I want to work with you guys,” said Andrew Peck, Massachusetts Undersecretary for Criminal Justice.

Peck says the focus is on people and building relationships.

“Changing behavior is long term, public safety,” Peck said. “They’re going to fail. But you know, the courage and the strength and the transformation comes in, continuing to move forward. And the credible messengers help them do that”

“What would you say to a member of the community that is concerned about any more taxpayer money being invested in someone that they’ve already paid for to incarcerate,” Kavanaugh asked Peck.

“How much do we spend to incarcerate them? How much do we spend reincarcerating them? What about the social costs,” Peck asked in response.

Massachusetts allocated $516,040 in Fy22 to the Credible Messenger program. There’s an estimated $764,201 earmarked for Fy23 as the state works to grow the program and bring on an additional messenger.

“There’s a lot of work to be done. And I think with the support of people like us, we can make a difference,” Wigfall said.

“When you have somebody that’s by your side, and just gives you that encouragement, it makes me want to do even better,” said Filkins. “That phone weighs so much when you’re in desperation. And you just have so much fear, it just paralyzes you. So, for me to reach out and accept this help, that made all the difference.”

“The credible messengers sat where I sat,” said Elton Johnson.

“What are some of the things that you struggle with or continue to,” Kavanaugh asked him.

“Anxiety,” he said. “Communicating with people. Communicating with inmates is a different communication.”

Johnson says he’s now thriving, has a job, a safe place to stay and a renewed sense of pride.

“If you want change, you can get it. But this support right here works because it’s endless,” Johnson said.

Wendy Filkins has graduated from a sober home and is rebuilding relationships with her family.

“Never, ever give up. There’s hope for everybody,” she says.

The Massachusetts pilot program is about a year old now. It was modeled after similar ones in other states, including California, Connecticut, Florida, New Jersey, and cities such as Chicago and New York.

Peck pointed to a study on success rates of some established programs, citing felony reconvictions decreased by over two-thirds for program participants and two-year felony reconvictions reduced by half.

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