Mayor Michelle Wu appointed David Mayo Friday as the new director for the Office of Returning Citizens, touting his combination of professional and lived experience as a perfect fit for the department, which focuses on helping incarcerated people re-enter society after leaving prison.
Raised in Charleston, S.C., Mayo encountered the harsh reality of the criminal justice system firsthand at age 15, when he was faced with 20 years in prison after breaking into roughly a dozen homes with his best friend one summer in the 1980s.
“I was originally a knucklehead,” said Mayo, 55. But by “a move of God,” Mayo became among the first to enroll in South Carolina’s nascent juvenile offender program, guided by an officer who “literally changed my life and turned me around.”
“I became this kid going to school and trying to do my best,” he said. “I owe my life to this, and it’s been my mission ever since: seeing people actually change. Seeing them have that hope and inspiration again, after they failed? Nothing greater.”
After working as a South Carolina Department of Corrections parole officer for more than five years, Mayo was recruited by the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department in 2019 to design a program for fathers and later went on to serve as the department’s director of reintegration.
Last week, Mayo began leading the city’s Office of Returning Citizens, which supports more than 3,000 people who return to homes in Boston each year from federal, state, and county prisons and jails.
“David has shown an extensive commitment to advocating for residents and their families through his work with reintegration, workforce development, and reentry, and we are excited to welcome him to this new role,” Wu said in a statement.
The appointment of Mayo, who succeeds longtime community outreach worker Kevin Sibley, is Wu’s latest step in bolstering the office, which was created in 2017 under former Mayor Martin J. Walsh. In April, Wu announced plans to boost the office’s previous $500,000 budget by $1.38 million. Her proposal was further expanded by Boston City Council during budget season, bringing the office’s total operating budget to $2.67 million for FY23, which began July 1.
“The vision is to create a system that meets all the needs of our returning citizens, while empowering them to be independent and creating a stability for their lives,” Mayo said in a Zoom interview this week. And “my process is to develop relationships and rapport between the returning citizens center, our community, and our returning citizens.”
Drawing on his experiences working in South Carolina and here at the sheriff’s department, Mayo plans to employ a “wraparound case management” approach, which focuses on meeting four basic needs that often cause people leaving prison to struggle: housing, employment, education, and wellness.
With an increased budget, Mayo said he intends to expand staffing and prioritize reaching incarcerated people and their families sooner, connecting them with resources before they are discharged when possible, and ensuring that basics are covered within days of their release.
He also plans to move the office, which is located on Drydock Avenue in Seaport, into a neighborhood where residents are more directly affected by incarceration, and develop specialized programming for young adults and women.
“We want to give them a backpack... with all the things they’ll need for their first two weeks: clothing, hygiene products, a map, MBTA cards,” he said. “That gives them that initial feeling of, ‘Hey, I can do a couple of weeks until I get my job.’”
Mayo’s vision is echoed by community members, who see an expansion of the office as an opportunity to bridge the gap between the ideals of city officials and the real and urgent needs of incarcerated people and their families.
“That office has the ability to reach different communities... and play a large role in building restorative practices within this city and state,” said Eric Anderson, one of the directors at the Transformational Prison Project, an organization of formerly incarcerated individuals who support and mentor younger returning citizens.
Growing up in a family where “crime was just a part of life,” Anderson said he spent more than a decade in prison before he discovered restorative justice and broke a multi-generational cycle of recidivism.
After his release when he was in his early 30s, Anderson remembers struggling with aspects of daily life that most people take for granted, and called on the office to consider the needs of returning citizens on both macro and micro scales.
“I didn’t have a MySpace account, I never used technology. I only drove a car two times before I got arrested,” he said, recalling that he also could have used help getting proper identification prior to his release.
Anderson said he hopes the office, which is planning to hire five additional staff members, will prioritize applicants who have previously been incarcerated and bring “the lived experience and knowledge of what it takes to be a returning community member.”