Melanie Snyder

Melanie Snyder

Melanie Snyder is a woman on a mission.

As executive director of the Lancaster County Re-entry Management Organization, she spends most of her time bringing together more than 30 partnering agencies to work with “returning citizens.”

The rest of the time, she is busy explaining what that means.

“The RMO runs a number of programs that provide coordinated, collaborative services to returning citizens who have been in prison,” explains Snyder. “We work very closely with Lancaster County Prison, probation and parole and the courts, as well as our many partner agencies and churches that provide a whole range of human services.”

Snyder works so tirelessly that she is being recognized by the Center for Community Peacemaking for its Restorative Justice Award on Thursday.

“Melanie has been making a huge difference in restorative justice in the past 10 years,” says Chris Fitz, executive director of the Center for Community Peacemaking. “If anyone deserves this award, it’s Melanie.”

Much of her dedicated work has been as a volunteer. Now, that’s commitment.

“Ten years ago, I really didn’t know anything about restorative justice or our criminal justice system,” admits Snyder.

Like most people, she had no idea who was in our prisons, or why, or what happened to them while they were there. Like most people, she didn’t pay much attention to the criminal justice system.

“It was out of sight, out of mind,” she says, adding that she assumed the system did what it was supposed to do and that all of the people in prison were “bad people” who needed to be there.

That changed when Snyder began Center for Community Peacemaking’s restorative justice training in 2005 and volunteered as mediator for the organization.

The true turning point came when Snyder was introduced to Marie Hamilton in 2007. Hamilton had spent more than 30 years developing restorative justice and re-entry programs for people in Pennsylvania’s state prisons. Hamilton was looking for someone to write a book about her life and work inside the prisons, in order to share her message on restorative justice.

That book authored by Snyder was “Grace Goes to Prison:An Inspiring Story of Hope and Humanity.” It was the culmination of more than two years of research, as Snyder traveled across Pennsylvania, visiting state prisons. It was the first time she met and talked with incarcerated men and women. She talked with judges, attorneys, prison wardens and guards. What she discovered was that her preconceived notions about prison and prisoners were not accurate.

“I realized that there were some very serious issues in the system that needed to be addressed,” says Snyder. “I found it shocking to learn how much it costs to lock up so many people, and the many ways that our system of mass incarceration is actually failing on multiple levels.”

“Grace Goes to Prison” was published in 2009, and it marked Snyder’s own dedication in carrying on the work of Hamilton. A year later, Snyder bought a small camper and journeyed 9,000 miles — to 16 states and 30 cities — to speak about restorative justice, prisoner re-entry and criminal justice reform.

She brought that knowledge back to Lancaster. Just shy of her 50th birthday, Snyder made a career switch from the corporate world to restorative justice. She volunteered for the peacemaking organization and was named as executive director of the Lancaster County Re-entry Management Organization.

The re-entry organization runs a number of programs that provide coordinated, collaborative services to returning citizens to society. The programs address people’s immediate basic needs — clothing, food and toiletries — after release from prison. They also provide more in-depth re-entry services, such as intensive case management, transitional housing, re-entry employment training, job placement, General Educational Development and adult education programs, services to address addiction, mental health and physical health needs and legal advocacy.

“The programs we run in the RMO are important, because they teach people skills and help prepare them for release before they leave the prison, and provide them with collaborative, coordinated services and programs after their release,” says Snyder. “This helps them become productive, law-abiding returning citizens who are contributors to our community rather than drains on our community.”

She has the numbers to back her up.

On any given day, 950 to 1,000 people are incarcerated at Lancaster County Prison. They stay for an average of 110 days, at a cost of $72.04 per person per day. While incarcerated at the prison, most people sit in cells, doing nothing productive.

Only about 24 percent of those at Lancaster County Prison on any given day actually have been sentenced, says Snyder. The other 76 percent are detained while awaiting court action. Each day 15 to 20 people are released from the prison, amounting to 450 to 500 people per month.

“Most people are released from Lancaster County Prison ... at either 6 a.m. or 6 p.m., with nothing but the clothes on their back, whatever they were wearing when they went into the prison,” says Snyder. “When they are released, many come out with no stable place to live, no money, no job, no way to get access to treatment for addictions, mental health issues and other serious needs, not to mention the stigma and of having been in prison.”

It’s no wonder that so many former prisoners wind up back in jail.

Through the re-entry organization, people learn skills that help prepare them for release before they leave the prison, which enhances community safety, saves taxpayer dollars and improves peoples’ lives.

Although the re-entry organization has received recognition from numerous state agencies, including the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, state Board of Probation & Parole, the state Commission on Crime and Delinquency and the US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, she feels like the “RMO is one of Lancaster County’s best kept secrets.”

She hopes the upcoming honor will help shed light on program.